Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

Charpentier and the oratorio in France


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9. Charpentier and the oratorio in France.

Although some of Carissimi's oratorios were known in France by the mid-17th century, French composers of the period appear to have been little interested in sacred dramatic music. The only antecedents of the oratorio comparable with those of 17th-century Italy and Germany are a few dialogue motets by such composers as Guillaume Bouzignac and Henry Du Mont. Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a student of Carissimi in Rome, appears to have been the first French composer of oratorios. By 1672 he had returned from Rome to Paris, and some of his oratorios no doubt date from the 1670s. Charpentier called none of his compositions oratorios, but used such terms as ‘historia’, ‘canticum’, ‘dialogue’ or ‘motet’; 34 of his works have Latin dramatic texts though, and clearly relate to the history of the oratorio. Of these, at least 22 may be called oratorios with as much justification as the Latin works of his master, Carissimi, listed above, whose influence they clearly reveal. Like Carissimi's, many of Charpentier's oratorios are relatively brief works in one section only, such as Le reniement de St Pierre. The longer ones, such as Judith sive Bethulia liberata, Mors Saülis et Jonathae and Judicium Salomonis, are divided into two, which was more common for oratorios in Charpentier's time. Most of Charpentier's oratorios are based on biblical subjects, although a few are hagiographical. The librettos include narrative passages set for one or more soloists and/or chorus. Of special importance in these oratorios is the chorus, often a double chorus, which is far more prominent than in the Italian oratorio of the same period. The chorus functions not only as a narrator, but also as a turba and a commentator standing outside the action. The precise functions of most of Charpentier's oratorios are not known, but they appear to have been performed as extended motets during festive masses, at concerts in churches (particularly the Jesuit church of St Louis) and during Lent for musical evenings at the residence of Marie de Lorraine, the Duchesse de Guise, whom Charpentier served as maître de musique.

Few oratorios appear to have been composed in France during the 50 years following Charpentier's death in 1704. Sébastien de Brossard, in his Dictionnaire de musique (Paris, 2/1705), defined ‘oratorio’, without giving the Italian word a French equivalent, as ‘a species of spiritual opera’, and he mentioned that one by ‘Sieur Lochon has just been presented to the public’, no doubt J.-F. Lochon's Oratorio de nativitate Christi, published in his Motets en musique, … et un oratorio (Paris, 1701), the only oratorio by a French composer to be published in the 18th century. Other oratorios dating from the first half of the 18th century by French composers are Louis-Nicolas Clérambault's L'histoire de la femme adultère, Brossard's Oratorio sopra l'immaculata conceptione della B. Vergina (incomplete) and the anonymous Oratoire St François de Borgia à gd. choeur sur la mort d'Isabelle reine d'Espagne; the first two are italianate in style, but the last is closer to the style of Lully. The first three have Latin texts; the last is in French.


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

Early Classical style traits are often present in music of the late Baroque period, as in the Roman oratorios of Caldara, but these traits become particularly prominent in works composed from the 1720s onwards by men such as Vinci, Pergolesi and Leo. This new style, with its emphasis on homophonic texture and symmetrical phrases, among other important elements, has often been referred to as that of the ‘Neapolitan school’, for some of its best exponents were trained at Naples. Nevertheless, these early Classical traits seem to appear in Venice, Rome and elsewhere as early as in Naples, and the style was favoured by numerous composers associated neither with Naples nor with Italy. This style became increasingly prominent in Italian oratorios from the 1720s on, and in the 1770s the fully developed style of the Classical period emerged. Composers of oratorios other than Vinci, Pergolesi and Leo, who were associated with Naples early in their careers and who composed in the early Classical and Classical styles are Porpora, Jommelli, Piccinni, G.F. Majo, Antonio Sacchini, Cimarosa, P.A. Guglielmi, Paisiello and Zingarelli. Among composers of oratorios whose works were in the early Classical or Classical style but were associated with other Italian centres of oratorio composition are Galuppi and Bertoni in Venice, and G.B. Casali, G.B. Costanzi and Pasquale Anfossi in Rome.

Throughout the period considered here the oratorio volgare dominated in Italy; at the Crocifisso, in Rome, where the oratorio latino had been fostered since Carissimi's time, oratorio performances ceased after 1710, except for Holy Year 1725, and only at the conservatories in Venice did the oratorio latino continue to be used through most of the 18th century. The two-part structure of the Italian oratorio, common in the Baroque period, was retained throughout the 18th century and beyond, and the librettos of Metastasio were among the most popular of this period. The primary emphasis in oratorios continued to be on solo singing, and the chorus was little used. The chief aria form was the da capo, although it became increasingly modified late in the century. Arias emphasizing vocal display, already prominent in late Baroque oratorios, continued to be important throughout the 18th century and well into the 19th.

Of interest in later 18th-century Italy was the occasional presentation of staged performances of oratorios. Such performances eliminated an important distinction between the genres of opera and oratorio, leaving only the sacred subject matter and the two-part structure as the essential distinguishing features of the oratorio. For example, Guglielmi's Debora e Sisara, with a libretto by Carlo Sernicola, was first performed in Lent of 1788 with operatic staging (with machines, but without dancing) at the Real Teatro di S Carlo in Naples. In the libretto printed for the performance, the work is sub-titled ‘azione sacra per musica’, a common label for oratorios of the time; characteristically for an oratorio it is divided into a prima parte and seconda parte (the word for ‘act’, common in operas, was not normally used in Italian oratorios), and except for its staging it is like the contemporary oratorio in every respect, including a closing chorus. (There is even biblical documentation, in footnotes, in the printed libretto, as is found in many oratorio librettos of the period.) Staged performances of Italian oratorios appear to have been more common in Naples than elsewhere, but they were occasionally given in other cities of Italy and abroad.

Outside Italy the Italian oratorio continued to play an important role in musical life, particularly in Vienna. The Viennese court patronage of oratorio was not as significant after the death of Charles VI (1740) as it had previously been, but Giuseppe Bonno and Salieri, among others, continued to compose oratorios for the court. With the founding of the Tonkünstler-Societät (1771), oratorios at Vienna became increasingly a part of public concert life; Haydn's only Italian oratorio, Il ritorno di Tobia (1775), was first performed at a concert of this society. The Roman Catholic court at Dresden became one of the most significant centres of Italian oratorio cultivation outside Italy by composers in the early Classical and Classical styles. The most important contributor of oratorios at the Dresden court was the Neapolitan-trained Hasse; others before and after him who composed Italian oratorios for this court are G.A. Ristori, J.D. Zelenka, J.D. Heinichen, Joseph Schuster, Franz Seydelmann and J.G. Naumann. Italian oratorio, like Italian opera, was exported to almost every part of Europe during this period, including England, the Low Countries, Spain, Portugal and Russia.


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