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  • Chris Anderson

Music Revision - Vocal Music - Oratorio

Continuing our alphabetical exploration of vocal music we come to oratorios.

What It Is

An oratorio is a religious version of an opera…only there’s no scenery or acting.

They will tell stories from the Bible, or ones with a religious theme, even mythological tales. Often there will be a moral.

They are a large version of sacred music.

They will have an instrumental accompaniment, often an orchestra.

Unlike Mass which was (originally) written specifically for church use, an oratorio would be performed all over the place such as a concert hall…or a church.

Similar to an opera an oratorio will have recitatives, arias, and choruses.

The chorus adds to the grandeur of the piece and adds depth to the performance.

Famous Oratorios

The most famous one is probably Handel’s “Messiah”. It was composed in 1741 and includes the iconic “Hallelujah Chorus” which is often sung at Christmastime. Sadly in this video the chorus don't seem be demonstrating much joy in this performance! Though “For Unto Us A Child Is Born” also fits beautifully - and this version conducted by John Rutter is breathtaking.

Here are some others:

"Elijah" by Felix Mendelssohn: Written in 1846, "Elijah" is a dramatic oratorio based on the life of the biblical prophet Elijah. It features powerful choruses and expressive arias.

"The Creation" by Franz Joseph Haydn: Composed between 1797 and 1798, "The Creation" depicts the biblical account of the creation of the world as described in the Book of Genesis.

"St. Matthew Passion" by Johann Sebastian Bach: Although sometimes referred to as a passion, "St. Matthew Passion" contains elements of both passion and oratorio. It was composed around 1727 and narrates the Passion of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel of Matthew.

"St. Paul" (or "Paulus") by Felix Mendelssohn: Written in 1836, "St. Paul" is an oratorio based on the life of the Apostle Paul, featuring a blend of beautiful choral passages and solo arias.

"The Creation" by Michel Haydn: This oratorio, composed by Michael Haydn (brother of Franz Joseph Haydn), is another musical depiction of the creation story, and it is often compared to Haydn's more famous work of the same title.

"Judas Maccabaeus" by George Frideric Handel: Written in 1746, this oratorio tells the story of Judas Maccabaeus, a Jewish hero and military leader, who led the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire.

And for fun, Eric Idle and John Du Pre wrote a comic oratorio based on the Monty Python film - “The Life Of Brian”. This is actually an immense work, full of incredible music but also a load of humour! It’s called “Not The Messiah (He's A Very Naughty Boy)”.

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