Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

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An extended musical setting of a sacred text made up of dramatic, narrative and contemplative elements. Except for a greater emphasis on the chorus throughout much of its history, the musical forms and styles of the oratorio tend to approximate to those of opera in any given period, and the normal manner of performance is that of a concert (without scenery, costumes or action). The oratorio was most extensively cultivated in the 17th and 18th centuries but has continued to be a significant genre.

1. Antecedents.

2. Early oratorio in Italy: Anerio's ‘Teatro’.

3. ‘Oratorio volgare’.

4. ‘Oratorio latino’: Carissimi and his contemporaries.

5. Italy and Spain, c1650c1720.

6. The Italian oratorio and ‘sepolcro’ in Vienna.

7. Protestant Germany, Baroque.

8. Handel and the English oratorio.

9. Charpentier and the oratorio in France.

10. Italian oratorio at home and abroad, early Classical and Classical styles.

11. Germany, early Classical and Classical styles.

12. France and elsewhere, early Classical and Classical styles.

13. Germany, Scandinavia and eastern Europe, 19th century.

14. France and the Low Countries, 19th century.

15. England and America, 19th century.

16. Italy and Spain, 19th century.

17. The 20th century.



1. Antecedents.

Distant antecedents of the oratorio may be found in the musical settings of sacred narrative and dramatic texts in the Middle Ages: the liturgical drama, the Divine Office for saints' feasts, the Passion and the dialogue lauda. Medieval miracle and mystery plays, as well as rappresentazioni sacre, are also related to the oratorio, but the real beginnings of the genre are to be found in the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods, where an ever-increasing interest in settings of dramatic and narrative texts gave rise first to opera and then to oratorio. Such texts were widely used for polyphonic madrigals in the 16th century (e.g. Andrea Gabrieli, Tirsi morir volea) and for monodic madrigals, dialogues and dramatic cantatas in the 17th century (e.g. Monteverdi, Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda). Sacred music, too, was affected by this new tendency, as may be seen in the increasingly dramatic treatment of the Passion, and in the laude, spiritual madrigals and motets that use dramatic and narrative texts, all of which may be considered antecedents of the oratorio. Lassus, for example, composed motets on the stories of the finding of Jesus in the Temple, the raising of Lazarus, the marriage feast at Cana, the Annunciation and Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Fili quid fecisti nobis sic, Fremuit spiritus Jesus, Nuptiae factae sunt, Missus est angelus and Qui sunt hi sermones, respectively); these motets are related by text, but not by music, to the history of the oratorio. In the first three decades of the 17th century, however, dialogues were composed to Latin texts based on similar biblical stories, but with greater dramatic emphasis in the new monodic style. Both in text and music such works are often close to the genre later known as oratorio, but they are brief, are normally found in motet books (e.g. Severo Bonini's ‘Dialogo della madonna e del angelo’ in his Primo libro de motetti a tre voci, Venice, 1609), and were intended to be used in church as motets.

Although oratorio has traditionally been considered to have originated within the context of Filippo Neri's Roman oratory (see below), recent research has pointed to its origin in the pan-Italian tendency towards greater emphasis on the dramatic element in sacred music. In Florence in the late 16th century and the early 17th, for example, the Compagnia dell'Arcangelo Raffaello performed dialogues comparable to those heard in Rome, and dialogue texts were composed by several Florentine poets, including Ottavio Rinuccini, Alessandro Ginori, Benedetto Rigogli and Benedetto Buonmattei (Hill, 1979). Yet Rome was particularly active in the cultivation of sacred dialogues and oratorios, and appears to have been the locale in which the genre acquired its name.

In Rome, the immediate social context from which the oratorio emerged was provided by the spiritual exercises of the Congregazione dell'Oratorio, founded by Filippo Neri (1515–95). Responding to the reforming spirit of the Council of Trent, Neri began in the 1550s the informal meetings, or spiritual exercises, for which he was to become famous. In the earliest period these meetings, for prayer and the discussion of spiritual matters, comprised only a few men, Neri's close friends and followers, and took place in his quarters at the church of S Girolamo della Carità. Those present for the exercises sang spiritual laude for entertainment, which Neri no doubt remembered from his Florentine boyhood, and which he considered an important element in the exercises. As the spiritual exercises grew in popularity, larger quarters were necessary, and thus an oratory (from Latin oratio, ‘prayer’), or prayer hall, was constructed in a space above the nave of the church. In 1575 Neri and his followers, more numerous by then, were officially recognized by Pope Gregory XIII as a religious order, the Congregazione dell'Oratorio, and were given the historic church of S Maria in Vallicella, which was soon replaced by a new one still known as the Chiesa Nuova (see fig.1). For the rest of Neri's life and until the mid-18th century, the Congregazione dell'Oratorio continued to increase in strength and prominence, first in Italy, then throughout Europe and in other parts of the world. Music continued to be important in the oratories, particularly those in Italy. Sung in the 16th century by both the congregation and professionals (later only by professionals), the music functioned as edifying entertainment and was intended to attract people to the spiritual exercises.

Throughout the second half of the 16th century, as in the earliest meetings, laude continued to be performed in the spiritual exercises of Neri's oratory more frequently than any other genre. These are usually quite simple three- and four-part pieces in popular poetic and musical styles, but sometimes they are more complex polyphonic works (seeLauda). Between 1563 and 1600 nine different lauda books and four reprints were published specifically for the oratorians' use. Giovanni Animuccia composed two of the books, Francisco Soto de Langa compiled probably five, and Giovenale Ancina two. The laude predominated in the exercises, but the more sophisticated motet and madrigale spirituale were not excluded, particularly for the musically elaborate oratorio vespertino, which took place in the oratory after Vespers on feast days during the winter months. Some of the finest musicians of Rome volunteered their services for the oratorio vespertino; there is some evidence that Palestrina may have been active in these exercises. Towards the end of the 16th century the laude used in the spiritual exercises reflected the pervading interest of the period in narrative and dramatic texts. Alaleona (Storia dell'oratorio, 1908), Pasquetti (L'oratorio musicale, 1906) and Schering (Geschichte des Oratoriums, 1911) saw a direct line of evolution, within the oratory, from the laude with narrative and dramatic texts to the oratorio in the Italian language. The number of laude with such texts, however, is by no means as significant as it once appeared to be, and the hypothesis that the oratorio evolved directly from the lauda within the confines of the oratory is now unconvincing; rather, the origin of the oratorio seems more satisfactorily explained as resulting from the general tendency to incorporate dramatic elements into music for oratories.

Of special importance for the history of the oratorio was the performance, in 1600 at the oratory at the Chiesa Nuova, of Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo. This is the earliest known performance in an oratory of a large-scale dramatic work in which the solo portions are set to music in the new monodic style. Despite the location of its first performance and its significance for the development of oratorio, however, the Rappresentatione is not itself an oratorio, as Burney and many historians after him imagined it to be. The work – with its scenery, costumes, acting and dancing – is much longer and more elaborate than works that later came to be called oratorios (in 1600 the term ‘oratorio’ was not yet used to designate a musical composition). The widespread misconception of Cavalieri's famous work has led to the erroneous assumption in some writings that the earliest oratorios were staged in the manner of operas. Rather than being an oratorio, Cavalieri's Rappresentatione has been shown to form part of the oratorian tradition, which extended from the late 16th century to the late 17th, of using young boys as actors in spiritual plays, usually during Carnival (Morelli, 1991, pp.82–7). Some such plays included musical insertions, others intermedi, and still others, like Cavalieri's, were sung throughout. Another study (Gianturco, 1995, pp.175–7) argues that Cavalieri's Rappresentatione was the earliest ‘moral opera’.

Apart from laude, little is known of the repertory performed in the spiritual exercises of the oratorians during the first decade of the 17th century, but the second and third decades are well represented by madrigali spirituali and dramatic dialogues composed for the oratorians by G.F. Anerio and others.


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