An oratorio is a piece of music for orchestra, choir and solo singers. It usually tells a story from the Old Testament. An oratorio may be about two hours long: a whole concert. It is rather like an opera, but whereas an opera is acted out in costume on a stage, an oratorio is sung and played in a concert hall or church. The oratorio as we know it was created in the 18th century. The words were normally in the composer’s own language, not in Italian like most operas were at that time.
The word "oratorio" had been used many centuries ago for music-dramas performed in churches in western Europe. In Italy oratorios and operas were both being composed in the 17th century. In Germany composers like Heinrich Schutz and, later, Johann Sebastian Bach were writing Passions which tell the story of the crucifixion. These are not usually called “oratorios” but they are similar.
The first important composer of oratorios was George Frideric Handel. Handel, who was born in Germany, had become English. Handel had written a lot of operas, but in 1732 he started to write oratorios instead and quite suddenly people became very interested in oratorios. He used the same sort of music as in his operas: the work would start with an overture (an introduction on the orchestra) and then there would be recitative (the bits that told the story), arias (songs for the solo singers) and choruses for the choir. The chorus was very important in oratorios: they got more to sing than in most operas. This meant that choral societies became very popular, and this tradition spread from England (where Handel lived) to other countries in Europe. Handel’s most famous oratorio is Messiah. Unlike most of his other oratorios, the story is not from the Old Testament. It tells the story of the birth, life and death of Jesus. In Britain Handel’s Messiah is traditionally performed around Christmas. Other oratorios by Handel include: Deborah, Saul, Samson, Judas Maccabaeus and Solomon. Handel composed all these oratorios to English texts.
In the 19th century the oratorio was very popular. At the turn of the century Joseph Haydn wrote some of his best music in his two oratorios: Die Schöpfung (The Creation) (1798) and Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) (1801). Mendelssohn wrote St Paul, Elijah and the Hymn of Praise. Dvořák, Berlioz and Gounod are among the most important Romantic composers of oratorio, and in the 20th century famous oratorios include Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius (1900), Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) and Tippett’s Child of our Time (1941).