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Oratorio

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Oratorio

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An oratorio is a large musical composition for orchestra, vocal soloists and chorus. It differs from an opera in that it does not have scenery, costumes, or acting. Oratorio closely mirrored opera in all ages in musical style and form, except that choruses were more prominent in oratorio than in opera. The peak period for composition of oratorios was the 17th and 18th centuries.

Most oratorios from the common practice period to the present day have biblical themes, but a number of composers, notably George Frideric Handel, wrote secular oratorios based on themes from Greek and Roman mythology. Whether religious or secular, the theme of an oratorio is meant to be weighty, and can include such topics as the creation of the world, the life of Jesus, or the career of a classical hero or biblical prophet.

The plot of an oratorio is often minimal, and some oratorios are not narratives at all. While operas are usually based on a dramatic narrative, in oratorios the aesthetic purpose of the narrative is more often to provide organization and significance to a large musical work.

Oratorios usually contain:

  • An overture
  • Various arias, sung by the vocal soloists
  • Ensemble singing
  • Recitative, usually employed to advance the plot
  • Choruses, often monumental and meant to convey a sense of glory. Frequently the instruments for oratorio choruses include timpani and trumpets.

Probably the best known oratorio in the English-speaking world is Handel's Messiah. Other well known oratorios include Handel's Samson, the Christmas Oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach, The Creation by Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn's Elijah, and Igor Stravinsky's "opera-oratorio" Oedipus Rex.

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