In its simplest explanation, an oratorio is an opera without action, costume and scenery.
Closer inspection reveals a work of some duration for choir, soloists and orchestra, usually on a religious theme but not from a liturgical text. There is usually more emphasis on the chorus than in opera where there can be little or no choral participation at all.
The word comes from the “oratory”, or prayer hall, in Rome in the mid 16th century in which there were musical evenings so as to attract people to the prayer meetings. The idea spread to other centres in Catholic Italy, and over the next century, north into other parts of Europe. By 1700 it was an accepted form of sacred music and in 1708 the protestant Saxon, G. F. Handel, “studying” in Rome, wrote three oratorios there. The Catholic court in Vienna found it to be an acceptable substitute for opera during Lent
The oratorio became an accepted part of German musical life, and of Lutheran services, in the early 18th century; however its need generally became satisfied by the Cantata and Passion as exemplified by the many still popular works in those genres by J.S.Bach. (Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is actually a collection of cantatas.) At about the same time Handel introduced the oratorio to England and it is there that it has had its greatest popularity. (Handel’s “Messiah” is perhaps the most enduringly popular major piece of classical music in the English speaking world.) He wrote over twenty for his English audiences, some still regularly performed and many with well known (e.g."See the conqu'ring hero comes" from "Judas Maccabaeus".)
Since that time, the form has continued, with major contributions from major composers into the present era; some of which are listed:
- Joseph Haydn “The Creation” (1798) “The Seasons” (1801)
- Felix Mendelssohn “Elijah” (1846)
- Hector Berlioz “The Childhood of Christ” (1854)
- Franz Liszt “Christus” (1862-7)
- Edward Elgar “Dream of Gerontius” (1900)
- Arnold Schoenberg “'Die Jakobsleiter” (1917-22)
- Arthur Honegger "Le roi David'” (1923)
- William Walton “Belshazzar’s Feast” (1931)
- Michael Tippett “A Child of Our Time” (1941)