Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

The Italian oratorio and ‘sepolcro’ in Vienna


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

Outside Italy the Italian oratorio was performed primarily in the Roman Catholic courts of central Europe, where it usually functioned as a Lenten substitute for the extremely popular Italian opera and thus was accessible only to the aristocracy. While the Dresden court and numerous smaller ones adopted the genre only in the 18th century, the Habsburg court in Vienna did so as early as the mid-17th century. Particularly prominent for its cultivation of Italian opera, the Viennese court also became the most important centre of sacred dramatic music in the Italian language outside Italy. Emperor Leopold I (1658–1705), both an avid patron of Italian music and a composer of at least nine sacred dramatic compositions, wrote the earliest oratorio known to have been performed in Vienna, Il sacrifizio d'Abramo (1660). (Leopold's two sacred dramatic works with German texts are quite exceptional for Vienna in this period because of their language.) Other patrons of the oratorio were Leopold's stepmother, Eleonora, who was the empress dowager, and the Emperors Joseph I (1705–11) and Charles VI (1711–40), both of whom were musicians. The most active period of oratorio cultivation closed with the death of Charles VI. Among the 17th-century composers of sacred dramatic music in Vienna, Antonio Draghi was the most prolific; others, in addition to Leopold I, were Antonio Bertali, Cesti, G.B. Pederzuoli, G.F. Sances and P.A. Ziani. Later composers (17th and 18th centuries) were C.A. Badia, F.T. Richter, P.F. Tosi and M.A. Ziani. The latest period of Baroque oratorios in Vienna, being in the second decade of the 18th century, is best represented by the works of Caldara and Fux; composers of oratorios for Vienna in this late period whose works show a mixture of late Baroque and early Classical styles are Giovanni Bononcini, A.M. Bononcini, F.B. Conti, Matteo Pallota, Giuseppe Porsile, L.A. Predieri and the elder Georg Reutter. Most important among the librettists of Viennese sacred dramatic works in the 17th century are Draghi and Minato; among the early 18th-century oratorio librettists of note are Pariati, G.C. Pasquini and Stampiglia. Of special significance are the two most famous 18th-century librettists Zeno and Metastasio (see below).

Sacred dramatic music at Vienna was identified by a number of terms, among them ‘oratorio’, ‘oratorio per il santissimo sepolcro’, ‘componimento sacro’, ‘rappresentazione sacra’ and ‘azione sacra’. The 17th-century repertory may be generally divided, however, into two related genres, the oratorio and the sepolcro. The oratorio is normally in two sections, unstaged, and similar in virtually every other respect to the oratorio volgare of the second half of the 17th century in Italy; its general function was also similar, as both were Lenten substitutes for opera, but its immediate context differed, for it was performed in a court chapel as a part of a semi-liturgical service. The 17th-century sepolcro, which was often termed ‘rappresentazione sacra’, is like the Italian oratorio in text and music, with the following exceptions: it is normally in one section only, its text is restricted to the description or interpretation of the Passion, its performances were restricted to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and it was performed with scenery, costumes and action. The principal element of the scenery was the holy sepulchre of Christ, which was usually erected in the choir of the court chapel of Eleonora and in the main court chapel, the Hofburgkapelle. (The tradition of erecting sepulchres in the churches of Vienna to commemorate the Passion and death of Christ from Maundy Thursday to Holy Saturday can be documented as early as the beginning of the 15th century.) According to stage directions in extant sources, a curtain opened at the beginning of the performance to reveal the sepulchre, and in the course of the sepolcro the members of the cast were required to perform actions appropriate to the circumstances of the drama (e.g. to weep, carry a cross, lift a veil, kneel or bring flowers). For performances of Draghi's sepolcri (which appear to be generally characteristic of the 17th-century sepolcro) in the chapel of Eleonora, the only scenery was the sepulchre; in the Hofburgkapelle, however, the sepulchre was supplemented by a large backdrop of painted scenery (see fig.4). In the early 18th century the tradition of erecting a sepulchre was continued at the Hofburgkapelle, but the works performed at the sepulchre were usually oratorios in two sections; at least seven of Caldara's Viennese oratorios are specified to be performed at the sepulchre.

Of special importance for the Italian oratorio in the 18th century are the libretto changes that took place at Vienna in the works of Zeno and Metastasio. As the court poet from 1718 to 1729, Zeno wrote librettos for both operas and oratorios. Among his aims as an oratorio librettist were the restriction of oratorios to subjects found in the Bible, the adherence to the Aristotelian unities of action, time and place, and the creation of spiritual tragedies which would be suitable even as spoken dramas, though intended to be set to music as oratorios. Zeno also opposed the introduction of divine personages in the oratorio. Most of Zeno's 17 oratorio librettos were first set to music by Caldara. Zeno's successor as court poet in 1730, Metastasio, one of the greatest poets of his time, retained many of the changes introduced by his predecessor. Of Metastasio’s eight oratorio librettos, seven were written for Vienna; two of these were first set to music by Caldara, three by the elder Reutter, one by Porsile and one by Predieri. Like Zeno, Metastasio preferred biblical subjects, and only one of his Viennese librettos, Sant'Elena al Calvario (1731), is non-biblical; Metastasio also sought to adhere to the Aristotelian unities, and he avoided introducing divine personages. But unlike his predecessor, Metastasio clearly distinguished between the libretto for an oratorio and one for a staged drama; thus his oratorio librettos tend to concentrate on the inner, psychological development of the drama, the external events themselves being outside the poetry, which only refers to them. The appropriateness of Metastasio's oratorio librettos for an unstaged musical genre and their highly polished literary style no doubt account for their being the favoured librettos of composers of Italian oratorios throughout the 18th century.

Until the first decade of the 18th century the musical style of Viennese oratorios remained similar to that of oratorios in Italy, but in the period of Fux and Caldara the style became more elaborate. After 1716, the year of his arrival in Vienna from Rome, where his music had become increasingly galant, Caldara considerably modified his style by making it conform more closely to that of Fux, whose music had been favoured at the Viennese court for several years. In the Viennese oratorios of both composers the orchestral accompaniments and independent numbers are more elaborate than was characteristic in Italy; solo vocal lines reveal little of the early Classical element but are typical of the late Baroque period in their long, spun-out phrases; the choruses, while not more numerous, tend to be longer and more contrapuntal.

Vienna was by far the most prominent centre of oratorio cultivation in Roman Catholic, German-speaking areas, but oratorios and oratorio-like works were at times performed elsewhere in Catholic Austria and Germany. Of special importance are the early 17th-century Latin dialogues of Daniel Bollius, active at Mainz. His Latin sacred dramatic work titled Repraesentatio harmonica conceptionis et nativitatis S Joannis Baptistae … composita modo pathetico sive recitativo (?1620) has been called the ‘first oratorio in Italian style composed on German soil’ (Gottron, 1959).


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