The Oratorio

THE oratorio in its modern form is a musical setting of a sacred story or text in a style more or less dramatic. Its various parts are assigned to the four solo voices and to single or double chorus, with accompaniment of full orchestra, sometimes amplified by the Organ. Like the opera, it has its recitative, linking together and leading tip to the various numbers.

The origin of the word is to be found in the ” oratory,” or place of prayer, where these compositions were first performed. Crescimbeni, one of the earliest musical writers, says: “The oratorio had its origin from San Filippo Neri, who, in his chapel, after sermons and other devotions, in order to allure young people to pious offices, and to detain exhibitions, Balaam, superbly habited and wearing an enormous pair of spurs, rode a wooden ass, in which the speaker was concealed. The ass and the devil were favorite characters. The former sometimes appeared in monkish garb and brayed responses to the intonations of the priests, while the latter, arrayed in fantastic costumes, seems to have been the prototype of clown in the pantomime. As late as 1783 the buffoonery of this kind of exhibition continued. An English traveller, describing a mystery called the “Creation” which he saw at Bamberg in that year, says: —

” Young priests had the wings of geese tied on their shoulders to personate angels. Adam appeared on the scene in a big curled wig and brocaded morning-gown. Among the animals that passed before him to receive their names were a well-shod horse, pigs with rings in their noses, and a mastiff with a brass collar. A cow’s ribbone had been provided for the formation of Eve but the mastiff spied it out, grabbed it, and carried it off. The angels tried to whistle him back; but not succeeding, they chased him, gave him a licking, and recovered the bone, which they placed under a trap-door by the side of the sleeping Adam, whence there I soon emerged a lanky priest in a loose robe, to per-sonate Eve.”

The buffoonery and profanity of the early exhibitions, however, gradually wore away when the Church assumed the monopoly of them and fo-bade secular performances. Among the earlier works Burney cites the following : —

” The `Conversion of St. Paul,’ performed at Rome, 1440, as described by Sulpicius, has been erroneously called the first opera, or musical drama. ‘ Abram et Isaac suo Figliuolo,’ a sacred drama (azione sacra), ‘showing how Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac on the mountain,’ was per-formed in the Church of St. Mary Magdalen in Florence, 1449. Another on the same subject, called Abraham and Sarah,”containing the good life of their son Isaac, and the bad conduct of Ishmael, the son of his handmaid,, and how they were turned out of the house,’ was printed in 1556;, ‘Abel e Caino,’ and ‘ Samson, .1554 ; ‘ The Prodigal Son,’ 1565 ; and ‘ La Commedia Spirituale dell’ Anima’ (‘The Spiritual Comedy of the Soul ‘), printed at Siena, without date, in which there are near thirty personifications, besides Saint Paul, Saint John Chrysostom, two little boys who repeat a kind of prelude, and the announcing angel, who always speaks the prologue in these old mysteries. He is called l’ angelo the nunzia, and his figure is almost always given in a wooden cut on the title-page of printed copies. Here, among the interlocutors, we have God the Father, Michael the archangel, a chorus of angels, the Human Soul with her guardian angel memory, intellect, free-will, faith, hope, charity, reason, prudence, temperance, fortitude; justice, mercy, poverty, patience, and humility; with hatred, infidelity, despair, sensuality, a chorus of demons, and the devil. None of these mysteries are totally without music, as there are choruses and laudi, or hymns, that are sung in them all, and sometimes there was playing on instruments between the acts. In a play written by Damiano and printed at Siena, 1519, ac-cording to Crescimbeni, at the beginning of every act there was an octave stanza, which was sung to the sound of the lyra viol by a personage called Orpheus, who was solely retained for that purpose ; at other times a madrigal was sung between the acts, after the manner of a chorus.”

It was not until the time when San Filippo Neri began his dramatization and performance of Biblical stories, such as “The Good Samaritan,” “The Prodigal Son,” and “Tobias and the Angels,” accompanied with music written by his friend Gioanni Animuccia, that the term “Oratorio ” came to be accepted as the distinctive title of these sacred musical dramas. His productions were very crudely and hastily arranged, his only purpose having been to render his service attractive. After his death, however, in 1595, his work was continued by Emilio del Cavaliere, a Roman composer, who produced the first real oratorio which had as yet appeared. It was entitled “La Rappresentazione dell’ Anima e del Corpo (” The Soul and the Body “), and was first performed in February, i600, in the oratory of the Church of Santa Maria della Vallicella at Rome. Burney assigns to it the credit of being ” the first sacred drama or oratorio in which recitative was used.” The characters were Time, Human Life, the World, Pleasure, the Intellect, the Soul, the Body, and two youths who were to recite the prologue. The orchestra was composed of a double lyre, a harpsichord, a large or double guitar, and two flutes. The composer has left some curious instructions for the performance of his work ; among them the following :

” Pleasure, an imaginary character, with tao companions, are to have instruments in their hands, on which they are ‘to play while they sing and perform the ritornels;

“ll Corpa, the Body, when these words are uttered, ‘ Si the hormai alma mia,’ etc., may throw away some of his ornaments, as his gold collar, feather from his hat, etc.

” The World, and Human Life in particular, are to be gayly and richly dressed ; and when they are divested of their trappings, to appear very poor and wretched, and at length dead carcases.”

The ballet played a prominent part in all the early oratorios, and the composer has also left detailed instructions for its guidance. During the ritornels the four principal dancers accompanied them in a ballet enlivened with capers,” and at the close of the performance stanzas were sung, alternating with dances to be executed ” sedately and reverentially.”

Emilio del Cavalier was followed by a long line of Italian oratorio composers who contributed to amplify and enrich this form of composition. Among the earliest of these writers were Carissimi, Stradella, Scarlatti, Mazzocchi, Federici, Pistocchi, Caldara, and Colonna. Carissimi perfected the recitative and invested the music with more importance, giving it something like equal rank with the dramatic character of the composition. It was during his time that the personage known as “Historicus ” was introduced, who continued the action with explanatory passages between the numbers, — a modern illustration of which may be found in the ” Narrator,” as used by Gounod in his ” Redemption.” Carissimi employed this expedient, and made it very effective. It is also claimed that he was the first to introduce the cantata as a form of church music, and the accompaniment of violins in motet performances. His most famous oratorios are” Jephte,” ” Abraham et Isaac,” ” Le Jugement Dernier,” and ” Judicium Salomonis.” Of the first named, Hawkins says : ” It consists of recitative, airs, and chorus ; and for sweetness of melody, artful modulation, and original harmony, is justly esteemed one of the finest efforts of musical skill and genius that the world knows of.” Stradella, whose romantic history is familiar to every one, is chiefly remembered by his attachment for_ Hortensia, the vengeance of the Venetian lover which followed them so long, and the song which saved the composer’s life from the assassins. This song was from his own oratorio, ” St. John the Baptist,” first performed in the Church of St. John Lateran at Rome. Burney, who examined the score, says : “The recitative is in general excellent, and there is scarce a movement among the airs in which genius, skill, and study do not appear.” He also observes that this oratorio is the first work in which the proper sharps and flats are generally placed at the clef. Scarlatti, born in 1659, was a composer of great originality, as well as versatility. He has left, in addition to his numerous operas and cantatas, several oratorios, the most famous of which are ” I Dolori di Maria sempre Vergine,” ” Il Sagrifizio d’ Abramo,” ” II Martino di Santa Teodosia,” and “La Concezzione della beata Vergine. He gave to the oratorio more breadth, boldness, and dignity of style, improved the form of the aria, made the accompanied recitative More dramatic, and developed the treatment of several instruments, among them the trumpet, whose real beauty and effect he was the first to bring out. Mazzocchi is chiefly known by his oratorio, ” Querimonia,” produced in Rome in 1631, which is said to have drawn tears from all who heard it. Federici wrote two oratorios, Santa Cristina,” and “Santa Caterina de Sienna” in both of which ” interstitial ” accompaniment is used for the first time; that is, the violins, instead of accompanying the voice, repeat portions of the melody in short symphonies. Pistocchi was one of the most prominent stage-singers of his time, and established a school of singing at Bologna. His most famous oratorio is entitled ” Maria Vergine addolerata,” and is without overture or chorus. Burney notes that in the close of this work degrees of diminution of sound, such as ” piano,” ‘` più piano,” and “pianissimo,” are used for the first time. Caldara wrote a large number of oratorios, mostly adapted to the poetry of Zeno and Metastasio, which are said to have been delightful productions. Colonna, who was a contemporary of Stradella, but not so famous, has left one oratorio, “St. Basil,” which is highly praised. Bononcini also, who afterwards became a rival of Handel in England, wrote several oratorios before he went to that country, the best of which is entitled ” San Girolamo della Carità.”

The conclusion of this period brings us to the second stage in the evolution of the oratorio; namely, the passion-music, which may be regarded. as the connecting link between the earlier form as developed by the Italian composers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the oratorio as it appeared after it had felt the mighty influence of. Handel. The passion-music was the direct out-growth of the passion-play. It portrayed the passion of Christ. Its earliest forms are found in the “Passio secundum Matthœum ” by Stephani, a Nuremberg composer who flourished in the sixteenth century ; in a hymn-book published in 1573 by Keuchental ; andin Selenica’s hymn-book, which appeared in 1587. Heinrich Schutz, however, was the first to establish the passion-music in genuine oratorio form. He was born in 1585, and died in 1672. The pupil of an Italian master, the famous Gabrielli of Venice, he retained the Italian forms, but added to them his native German force and solidity. His most prominent work, ” Die Auferstehung Christi,” first performed at Dresden in 1623, where he was chapel-master to the Elector George L, is regarded asthe foundation of the German oratorio. The passion-music was usually assigned to three priests, one of whom recited or intoned the part of Jesus, the second that of the evangelist, and the third the other parts, while the chorus served for the ” tubae” or people. In Schutz’s music, however, the narrative is given to a chorus of evangelists, the accompaniment being performed by four viole di gamba and organ. There is also a wide departure from all his predecessors in the entire absence of dramatic action. His- first rk: was followed by another, entitled ” Die sieben Worte Christi (” The Seven Words of Christ”), – a subject which Haydn subsequently treated with powerful effect,– and four different compositions on the passion of our Lord. In these works are to be found the real germs of the modern oratorio ; they were preparing the way for Handel and Bach, Johann Sebastiani succeeded Schatz, and in 1672 published a passion-music, in which the narrative appears in recitative form and solidly harmonized chorales are used, — with this peculiarity, that only the treble was sung, the other voices being taken by the strings. In 1673 still another passion, written by Theile,. was produced at Lübeck. From this time until 17o4 there appears to be a gap in the sequence of works of this kind.

In the latter year, however, two more were produced, which, made a sensation all over Germany, “The Bleeding and Dying Jesus,” by Reinhard Keiser, and the ” Passion nach Cap. 19 S. Johannis ” by Handel. In the former, cantatas were substituted for the narrative and chorales, one of the numbers being in the nature of. a love-song,—an innovation upon the established farms which brought down upon the composer the indignation of the critics both in the pulpit and out of it. The passion-music of Handel was but a weak prelude to the colossal works which were to follow from but the prelude to his masterpiece, ” Die letzten Dinge ” (” The Last Things “), which is now commonly known as “The Last judgment,” and was first performed at Cassel in 1826. Nine years later he brought out “Des Heiland’s letzte Stunden ” (” The Saviour’s Last Hours,” now known as ” Calvary “), and still later, ” The Fall of Babylon,” which he produced for the first time in England in 1843 ; but neither of these are constructed upon the grand proportions which characterize ” Die letzten binge,” or so well illustrate the profound musical knowledge of the great violinist. Contemporary with Spohr was Schneider, an unusually prolific writer, who produced no less than sixteen oratorios in a period of twenty-eight years, in addition to a large number of operas. Though his oratorios were very popular at the time, but one of them has survived, the ” Weltgericht,” written in r819. Among other contemporaries were Lindpaintner, whose ” Abraham ” was very successful, — though this composer is now remembered only by hisorchestral pieces, — and Klein, who brought out two oratorios, ” Jephthah ” (1828) and “David” (1830), which were greatly admired, though they are now almost unknown.

Spohr had easily held his place in the first rank of the oratorio composers of his time, but was eclipsed when Mendelssohn appeared, as were all his contemporaries. This gifted composer had studied Handel and Bach very closely. In 1829 he brought out the latter’s “St. Matthew ” passion-music after it had lain concealed for an entire century. He aroused enthusiasm for the two old masters both in Germany and England. His ” St. Paul,” first produced at Dusseldorf in 1836, was greeted with acclamations of enthusiasm, and still holds its place in the popular regard. Ten years later his greatest work, ” Elijah,” was performed in England. Though widely different in form and treatment from ” The Messiah,” it shares equally with that work in the enjoyment of popular favor. Its numbers are almost as familiar as household words, through constant repetition not only upon the oratorio stage, but in the concert-room and choir-loft. In the presentation of the personalities concerned in the progress of the work, in descriptive power, in the portrayal of emotion and passion, and in genuine lyrical force, “Elijah ” has many of the attributes of opera, and some critics have not hesitated to call it a sacred opera. Indeed, there can be no question that with costume, scenery, and the aids of general stage-setting, its effect would be greatly enhanced. Mendelssohn began still a third oratorio, ” Christus,” but did not live to complete it. His Lobgesang ” (“Hymn of Praise “), a symphony-cantata, is usually given as an oratorio, though it is not in the genuine oratorio form. Contemporary with him and since his death numerous oratorios have been written, more or less inspired by his work ; but ” Elijah ” and St. Paul ” still remain unsurpassed. Robert Schumann gave the world a delightful oratorio with a secular subject, “Paradise and the Peri.” Numerous- English composers have produced meritorious works, among them: Sterndale Bennett, whose “Woman of Samaria” is thoroughly devotional. In Germany, Hiller, Rheinthaler, and, others have made successful essays in this form of musical art. In France, Massenet and Saint-Saëns have written short one-part oratorios, and Gounod has constructed two, “.The Redemption ” and “Mors et Vita, upon the old classical form, so far as division is concerned, and_ is. now at work upon a third, of which Joan of Arc is. the theme. In “The Tower of Babel” and “Paradise Lost,” Rubinstein has given us works which are certainly larger in design than the cantata, and are entitled to be called oratorios. In our own country, Professor Paine, of Harvard University, has written one oratorio, “St, Peter,” which commands attention for its scholarly work and musical treatment. Mendelssohn and Spohr, however, represent the. nineteenth century of oratorio as Haydn, Handel, and Bach did the eighteenth. Who will take the next step forward in the twentieth, and give to this noblest form of musical art still higher expression?

Before closing this sketch, it will not be out of place to refer briefly-to the Requiem, Te Deum,, Stabat Mater, and Magnificat,since illustrations of these musical forms appear in the body of the work. ” Requiem ” is the name given to the ” missa pro Defunctis ” (” Mass for the Dead “), and comes from the first word of the Introit, “°Requiem æternam dona cis, Domine.” Its -musical divisions are as follows : (r) Introit; (2) the Kyrie ; (g) the Gradual and Tract, “Requiem aeternam ” and “Absolve Domine ;” (4) the Sequence or Prose,—” Dies Iræ ;” (5) Offertorium; (6) Sanctus; (7) Benedictus; (8) Agnus Dei ; (9) Communio,- ” Lux æterna ” The most famous requiems are Palestrina’s, written for five voices, but left incomplete (1595) ; Vittoria’s, for six voices, written for the funeral of the Empress Marie, widow of Maximilian II. (16o5 ) ; Colonna’s, for eight voices (1684) ; Mozart’s great masterpiece (1791); Cherubini’s in C minor, written for the anniversary of the death of Louis XVI., I793, and a second for three male voices (1836) ; Berlioz’s “Messe des Morts ; ” Verdi’s ” Manzoni Requiem,” and Brahms’ “German Requiem.” Though an integral part of the Roman service, appointed for a special day in commemoration of the dead, the Requiem is also employed for the anniversaries of distinguished persons who have passed away, as well as , for funeral occasions.

The Stabat Mater, or Lamentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the well-known Latin hymn on the Crucifixion, is one of the most familiar numbers in the Roman Missal. It is appointed to be sung at High Mass on the Friday in Passion Week, and also on the third Sunday in September. On Thursday in Holy Week it is also sung in the Sistine Chapel as an Offertorium. The poem was written by the monk Jacobus de Benedictis in the thirteenth century, and is regarded as one of the finest of medieval chorus, organ, and orchestra, are those 6f Sarti, to commemorate Prince Potemkin’s victory at Otchakous ; of Gratin, to celebrate the battle of Prague ; of Berlioz, for two choirs ; of Purcell, for St. Cecilia’s Day; of Dr. Blow and Dr. Croft, with accompaniments of two violins, two trumpets, and bass ; and the Magnificent Utrecht and Dettingen Te Damns of Handel. Among those by con-temporary writers are Macfarren’s, `written in 1884, and Sullivan’s, commemorating the recovery of the Prince of Wales.

The Magnificat, or Song of the Virgin, is part of the vesper service of the Church, and has been treated by all the old Church composers of prominence both in plain. chant and in polyphonic form. In the English cathedral service: it is often richly harmonized, and Bach, Mozart, Handel, Mendelssohn and others have set it in oratorio style with complete orchestral accompaniment.