In 17th-century England the dramatic tendencies in music of the early Baroque period were by no means as strong as in Italy; English opera began later in the century, and sacred dramatic music did not develop beyond the brief dialogue. Among the earliest examples of English sacred dialogues are two works by John Hilton (ii), The Dialogue of King Solomon and the Two Harlots and The Dialogue of Job, God, Satan, Job's Wife and the Messengers, possibly composed as early as 1616. Some dialogues show a relationship to the verse anthem; for instance, an extant text of a verse anthem by Richard Portman, How many hired servants, dated 1635, is based on the story of the prodigal son, in which the dialogue takes place in the verses and the narrative passages are given to the chorus. Other composers of the few known sacred dramatic dialogues in English are Henry Blowman, Benjamin Lamb, Nicolas Lanier (ii), Purcell, Robert Ramsey and John Wilson. Purcell's only sacred dramatic dialogue is his setting of In guilty night, a text based on the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor, also set by other 17th-century composers. Thus English composers made a tentative beginning with the type of composition that might have led to a fully developed oratorio, perhaps by way of a dramatic verse anthem; they did not carry on this development, however, and when Handel arrived in England he found audiences that were unfamiliar with the form. The English oratorio is Handel's creation, his remarkable synthesis of elements found in the English masque and anthem, the French classical drama, the Italian opera seria and oratorio volgare, and the German Protestant oratorio. Similar in some respects to oratorio on the Continent, the Handelian variety is often so strikingly different as to appear to be an independent genre.
For Handel in England the word ‘oratorio’ normally designated a musical entertainment that used a three-act dramatic text based on a sacred subject; the musical setting used the styles and forms of Italian opera and English sacred choral music, although at times modified in their new context; the chorus was considered essential and was usually prominent; and the manner of performance was that of a concert, usually at a theatre or concert hall, often with concertos performed between the acts. The greater use of the chorus and the division into three acts (Handel preferred ‘act’ rather than ‘part’ for the sections of an oratorio) are among the features that distinguish the Handelian English oratorio from the Italian oratorio. Among Handel's exceptions to his normal meaning of the word ‘oratorio’ are its use for Israel in Egypt, Messiah and the Occasional Oratorio, all of which have non-dramatic librettos; another exception is his benefit concert in 1738, announced as ‘Mr Handel's Oratorio’, a miscellaneous programme with no unifying plan. The Triumph of Time and Truth (1757), a revision of an Italian work, might also be considered an exception, since its text is more ethical and moral than religious, even though Act 3 includes an anthem of petition to the Lord and closes with a ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. Seven works by Handel are sometimes classified as ‘secular oratorios’: Acis and Galatea, Alexander's Feast, Ode for St Cecilia's Day, L'Allegro, Semele, Hercules and The Choice of Hercules. Nevertheless, none of these compositions was originally called an oratorio by its composer; in Handel's England the term ‘secular oratorio’ was not used and would have seemed self-contradictory. Thus in a genre classification of Handel’s works based on the normal terminology used in England in his time, these seven compositions would be excluded from the oratorio category.
The English oratorio came into being quite by accident as an unstaged genre. In 1718 Handel composed Esther, a short work that borrows heavily from his Brockes Passion (1716). On the composer's birthday in 1732 the Children of the Chapel Royal, under the direction of their master, Bernard Gates, presented a private, staged performance of Esther for the Philharmonic Society at the Crown and Anchor Tavern. Later in the same year Handel intended to present publicly a similar staged version, using the same young performers, at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket, but he was prevented from doing so by the Bishop of London, Edmund Gibson. Bishop Gibson, who was dean of the Chapel Royal, considered the opera house an immoral place, and his objections were apparently to a staged performance there of a work with a sacred subject and to the participation in that performance of the boys of the Chapel Royal. Forced to compromise, Handel accepted for Esther the traditional, continental manner of presenting oratorios: the work was performed without staging, in a revised, concert version, by mature professional musicians (see fig.5). The success of Esther in this form prompted Handel to compose two more oratorios, Deborah and Athalia, for unstaged performances in 1733, and he retained this manner of performance for his oratorios for the rest of his life. Except for the 1732 performance of Esther, there is no precedent from Handel's time for the 20th-century staged performances of his oratorios.
Handel did not compose another oratorio for five years, during which he continued to concentrate primarily on Italian opera. During the period 1738–45, however, he returned to oratorio, composing six works: Saul, Israel in Egypt, Messiah, Samson, Joseph and his Brethren and Belshazzar. Of these, Messiah is by far the best known and has been the most influential work since Handel's death in shaping the popular conception of his oratorios; yet it is a setting of a purely biblical, non-dramatic text, and as such is not representative of the Handelian oratorio, which is essentially a dramatic genre. In the years 1746–8 Handel composed four oratorios of a militaristic flavour. The Occasional Oratorio, first performed in 1746, was an act of encouragement to the ruling Hanoverian regime in its struggle with the invading forces of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender. After the Hanoverian victory (1746), Handel composed Judas Maccabaeus, Alexander Balus and Joshua; in a sense, these are all ‘occasional’ oratorios, since they sought favour with a public still in a mood to celebrate conquering heroes. Handel's late period of oratorio composition, 1748–52, includes his Solomon, Susanna, Theodora and Jephtha; Theodora is reported to have been Handel's favourite.
The Handelian oratorio functioned as an opera substitute, in a sense, since Handel eventually abandoned Italian opera for oratorio but continued to use opera theatres and, at least for a while, opera singers. But it was not an opera substitute for the same reason that the oratorio volgare was in such cities as Rome and Venice where opera was not performed during Lent and oratorio took its place. Handel's oratorio seasons often coincided more or less with Lent because of the sacred subject matter of the oratorios, but, during his life, operas continued to be performed during Lent in London, and his oratorios competed with them.
The librettos of Handel's oratorios were received by their audiences as ‘unprecedented, unequalled expressions of the religious sublime’ (Smith, 1995, p.168). All the librettos but Messiah and Theodora are based on the Old Testament or the Apocrypha, and even Messiah contains more texts from the Old Testament than the New, despite its Christian theme. The Old Testament subject matter, which was considerably modified by the librettists, had a strong appeal to Handel's audiences. Not only were they generally familiar with the stories, but they perceived a parallel between the Israelites and the English of their own time: both were intensely nationalistic and led by heroic figures, and both regarded themselves as being under the special protection of God, who was worshipped with pomp and splendour. The ‘just’ wars that the Israelites wage against the enemies of their faith in Handel's oratorios were well understood by the oratorio audiences, for religion had long been the traditional English justification for war (Smith, 1995, p.242). Handel's librettists were influenced by the contemporary masque, which in this period was a short English opera, but even more so by classical drama. The librettists sought to incorporate into their works much of the spirit and technique of ancient Greek drama, and especially its use of the chorus, which functions at times within the action, and at other times outside it in the role of a commentator.
The most striking feature of Handel's choruses in the oratorios is their stylistic variety. A general classification of the choruses according to styles and procedures results in several types, including choruses with predominantly simple, homophonic texture; massive chordal effects, at times using double-chorus antiphony; predominantly fugal texture, including fugues with one to three subjects; a basso ostinato, usually varied; and a freely imitative texture, in what might be called motet or madrigal style. Nevertheless, it is difficult to find many choruses that are so consistent in their approach that they fit neatly into a single class, for there tends to be considerable variety within a chorus. Striking contrasts of texture, particularly, as well as contrasts of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic procedures within the choruses and large choral complexes are frequent; such contrasts no doubt have much to do with the general popularity of Handel's chorus-dominated Israel in Egypt and Messiah. Handel seems always to have been acutely aware of the expressive possibilities of the words in his choruses, and his text settings abound in striking effects of word-painting and symbolism. In no other oratorio, however, did he employ as much outright pictorialism as in Israel in Egypt.
The arias and ensembles in Handel's oratorios generally resemble those of contemporary Italian opera in the expression of their affections but less so in their structure. The virtually invariable da capo form of Italian opera seria and oratorio volgare is employed with generally decreasing frequency in Handel’s oratorios from Esther to Samson. There is considerable fluctuation in the proportion of da capo arias after Samson, but only in Susanna and Theodora are there more da capo arias than other types, and these works are both closer in several respects than Handel's other oratorios to the oratorio volgare. The other arias tend to be in binary, ABA1, or, occasionally, in strophic form. Most of the ensembles of the oratorios are duets, although there are a few trios and quartets. Unlike the duets of opera seria and oratorio volgare, those in Handel's oratorios are rarely in da capo form.
The French overture is the most prominent opening instrumental number of Handel's English oratorios; 11 of his 17 oratorios begin with a French overture, at times somewhat modified. The overtures of Deborah and Judas Maccabaeus foreshadow material used subsequently in their respective oratorios, the former more clearly than the latter.
Handel borrowed heavily from his own compositions and those of others in his oratorios; such borrowing was common in his time, and his practice differed from that of his contemporaries only in degree. But in only a few instances did Handel include an entire movement, unchanged, from another composer's work; he nearly always used the borrowed material to stimulate his imagination and developed the material in his own way. Handel was recognized in his time as the pre-eminent master of the English oratorio, and very few such works were composed by others, though there are examples by Maurice Greene, Willem De Fesch, Arne and Stanley.