What is an Oratorio? The Intersection of Drama, Religion, and Music

Embark on a journey to understand what an Oratorio is. Explore its history, influences, and impact on modern music production. This is music lore redefined!

Ever wondered how Handel’s “Messiah” or Haydn’s “The Creation” came to be? Buckle up folks, we’re hitting rewind and digging deep into the roots and evolution of a genre that’s been shaking up the music scene since the 1600s: the Oratorio. Are you ready to rock this journey with me? Let’s go!

What is an oratorio? An Oratorio is a grand musical composition, kinda like an opera, but it’s strictly a concert piece – no fancy costumes or props, and it usually deals with sacred topics, like stuff from the Bible or the lives of saints.

Where did oratorio originate?

Our story begins in Italy, around the early 17th century. The word Oratorio, from the Italian for “pulpit” or “oratory,” gets its name from the type of musical services held in churches. Oratorios were settings of Biblical, Latin texts, bearing a striking resemblance to motets.

Image of an oratorio performed in a church. Source: pixabay
Image of an oratorio performed in a church. Source: pixabay

With a strong narrative, dramatic emphasis, and conversational exchanges between characters, these early compositions laid the ground for the development of the Oratorio as we know it today. Now, let’s fast forward to Handel’s time, the genius behind the epic “Messiah.” Handel was deeply influenced by his forerunners, composers like Scarlatti and Stradella.

In Germany and Britain, the Handelian Oratorio tradition was sustained by choral societies and festivals. We saw great works like Mendelssohn’s St Paul and Elijah emerge. However, genre-defining works became fewer after Mendelssohn, represented only by isolated masterpieces like Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius.

My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

What is an oratorio? The intersection of drama, religion, and music | 717qmgla7zl. Ac sl1500 | audio apartment
My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

I’m loving the AKAI MPK Mini MK3 for its compact design and the range of controls. It’s one of my essential tools. The velocity-sensitive keys and MPC-style pads are great for making beats, while the thumbstick and knobs give me precise control.

What are the elements of the musical oratorio?

An oratorio is a large-scale musical composition featuring an orchestra, a choir, and soloists. It is similar to an opera in its grandeur but typically based on a religious or sacred subject, intended for concert performances without staging, scenery, or costumes. Some key elements of an oratorio include:

  • Overture: This is the instrumental introduction that sets the tone for the entire oratorio.
  • Recitative: This is a style of singing that imitates the natural inflections of speech. It’s used to advance the narrative and express the thoughts and emotions of characters. Recitatives can be “secco” (accompanied only by a basso continuo) or “accompagnato” (accompanied by the orchestra).
  • Aria: These are elaborate solo pieces that often reflect the emotions of the character. They are typically melodic, allowing the soloist to display their virtuosity.
  • Chorus: The chorus in an oratorio plays a significant role, often commenting on the action, expressing collective emotions, or participating in the events. The chorus can range from simple hymn-like settings to complex polyphonic pieces.
  • Ensemble: Duets, trios, quartets, or larger ensembles are often part of oratorios, providing variety and contrast to solo arias and choral sections.
  • Libretto: This is the text or lyrics of the oratorio, usually based on religious or sacred stories. The libretto gives the narrative structure to the composition.
  • Orchestra: The orchestra accompanies the singers and sometimes plays instrumental interludes. The size and composition of the orchestra can vary widely, depending on the composer’s preferences and the period in which the oratorio was written.
  • Part or Section: Oratorios are often divided into several parts, each typically reflective of a particular episode in the overall narrative.

What are the different types of oratorios?

Oratorios, as a genre of music, have evolved over the centuries and have various forms that reflect different periods in music history and different cultural influences. Although oratorios do not have rigid sub-types, they can be differentiated based on their thematic content, musical style, and period of composition:

  • Biblical Oratorios: These are based on stories or characters from the Bible. They are probably the most common type of oratorio. Handel’s “Messiah,” based on the life of Jesus Christ, is a famous example.
  • Secular Oratorios: These are non-religious oratorios, based on themes from history, mythology, or even original themes. Examples include Handel’s “Semele” and Haydn’s “The Seasons.”
  • Italian Oratorios: Oratorios initially emerged in 17th-century Italy. These early oratorios were often performed during the Lent season when operas were banned. They usually told biblical stories and were performed with minimal or no staging.
  • German Oratorios: German composers, most notably Johann Sebastian Bach, further developed the oratorio form. His oratorios, such as the “Christmas Oratorio,” are large-scale works with complex musical structures.
  • English Oratorios: Handel popularized the oratorio in England, developing a form that was similar to Italian opera but with English texts and a concert-style, unstaged presentation. His works include “Messiah,” “Judas Maccabeus,” and “Samson.”
  • French Oratorios: French oratorios, often called “oratorio français,” emerged in the late 17th century. They are usually smaller and more intimate than their Italian counterparts. An example is Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Le Reniement de Saint Pierre.”
  • Romantic Oratorios: During the Romantic period, oratorios became larger and more dramatic. They often included a narrator who told the story in addition to the music. Examples include Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” and “St. Paul.”
  • 20th Century and Contemporary Oratorios: In the 20th century and beyond, composers continued to write oratorios, often incorporating modern musical styles and themes. Examples include Igor Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” and John Adams’ “El Niño.”

Who are the major contributions to the oratorio genre?

Among the maestros who’ve made major contributions to the Oratorio genre, here are some you should definitely know about:

  • Giacomo Carissimi: Often seen as the father of the Oratorio, his composition “Jephte” is regarded as one of the first masterpieces of the genre.
  • Alessandro Scarlatti: A key figure in the late baroque oratorios, this dude helped shape the genre as we know it today.
  • Joseph Haydn: Known for his Oratorios “The Creation” and “The Seasons,” mixing grandeur with a charming vein of pastoralism.
  • Felix Mendelssohn: Creator of the theatrically conceived “Elijah.”
Image of a choir member holding sheet music. Source: pixabay
Image of a choir member holding sheet music. Source: pixabay

Apart from the big names we already talked about, there were other significant contributors to the genre. Composers like Luigi Rossi, Francesco Foggia, and Marco Marazzoli significantly shaped Oratorio in the mid-seventeenth century. Later on, it was composers like Berlioz with his L’enfance du Christ, and the great Stravinsky with his Latin opera-oratorio Oedipus rex, who kept the Oratorio flame alight.

What’s the difference between oratorio and opera?

Here’s where things get a little tricky. An Oratorio is like an opera in its use of a choir, soloists, an ensemble, and distinguishable characters. But, unlike opera, it’s strictly a concert piece—light on the costumes and props. Both forms employ recitative, a speech-like singing style used to progress the plot. However, in opera, there is often a clear distinction between “secco” recitative (accompanied only by a basso continuo) and “accompagnato” recitative (accompanied by the orchestra).

Oratorios often deal with sacred topics, making them appropriate for performance in churches.

In oratorio, the accompagnato style tends to dominate. Oratorios often deal with sacred topics, making them appropriate for performance in churches. Remember, opera might dig into history and mythology, but Oratorio goes beautifully Biblical!

What is a passion oratorio?

The so-called Passion Oratorio, often simply referred to as a “Passion,” is a specific sub-genre of oratorio that focuses on the Passion of Christ – the final period of Jesus’ life, including his trial, crucifixion, and death, as depicted in the New Testament of the Bible.

This type of oratorio is predominantly found in Christian music traditions, especially within Western classical music. Composers have used the form to deliver a profound religious message through a narrative that combines recitatives, arias, choruses, and hymns.

If you want even more great tips and information, check out the video below.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Ready for a few more fun facts? Here are some interesting questions and answers that’ll surely add some zest to our Oratorio conversation!

Can an oratorio be written in different languages?

You betchya! While the earliest oratorios were predominantly in Latin, the genre matured in Italian. With time, oratorios grew multilingual and were composed in German, English, and French among other languages.

Can an oratorio be staged like an Opera?

Traditionally, no. Oratorio is delivered as a concert piece, without staging, acting, or costumes. However, in more recent times, some productions have taken liberties and staged Oratorios, blurring the boundaries with Opera.

Are there any modern oratorios?

Yes, indeed! Even though the golden age of Oratorios has passed, composers continue to explore the genre. For instance, John Adams’ “El Niño,” is a great example of a contemporary Oratorio.


We’ve had quite the chord-nation of music history, influences, and fun facts today, haven’t we? There’s a whole world inside each Oratorio, from the historical embodiment of cultural values to the phenomenal arrangement of sounds that have the power to stir something deep within us.

Did I cover everything you wanted to know? Let me know in the comments below. I read and reply to every comment. And if you’re hungry for more, my blog’s got plenty more tips and tricks on all things music. So, until next time, keep those musical passions aflame and your creative juices flowing!

Key Takeaways

This article covered the history and influences of oratorio in music. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Oratorio originated in early 17th-century Italy, heavily influenced by composers like Scarlatti and Stradella.
  • Oratorio flourished with Handel’s compositions, deeply rooted in biblical narratives.
  • Oratorio and opera are similar, but Oratorio is a concert piece mainly dealing with sacred topics.
  • Knowing the roots and development of Oratorio can inform modern music production techniques.

Helpful resources

Image Andrew Ash
Written by Andrew Ash, Staff Writer

Hey there! My name is Andrew, and I'm relatively new to music production, but I've been learning a ton, and documenting my journey along the way. That's why I started this blog. If you want to improve your home studio setup and learn more along with me, this is the place for you!

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