What’s Oratorio?

An oratorio is a large-scale musical drama that is generally presented without sets or costumes. It takes the legendary sacred stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition and combines them with poetic verse, classical references, and a musical setting. The art form was widely popular for over 150 years.

Early Days

Oratorio comes from the same musical roots as opera. In the late sixteenth century, a group of musicians and poets called the Florentine Camerata gathered with the intention of reviving the dramatic methods of ancient Greece. To that end, they were unsuccessful. However, they invented a style of musical declamation called recitative that forever changed the course of Western music.

In oratorio (and early opera), the more speech-like patterns of recitative carry the plot. All the action happens in the recitative, and reflections on those events take place during the arias (or songs)—much like dialogue in a Broadway musical would be organized.

The music is written for an instrumental ensemble that provides a foundation for vocal soloists. The soloists play the roles of specific characters—based on either actual people or allegory. In later years, a chorus also plays a pivotal role.

Fiona Gillespie, soprano, plays the role of Moses (formerly a castrati part) in the Academy’s production of Bernardo Pasquini’s I fatti di Mosè nel deserto (1687).

From a religious standpoint, oratorio is based on the work of St. Philp Neri and his efforts to renew and revive the faith in Italy. Now seen as part of the action of the Counter-Reformation, music was used as a device to bring people back to prayer.

While initially a Catholic art form with strong links to Italian creativity, oratorio spread to other nations and denominations. The most famous sacred dramas are no longer Italian. George Frideric Handel’s English-language Messiah and the German Lutheran St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach are prominent examples.

Reviving an Art Form

Though largely forgotten today, oratorios in Latin and Italian still represent the bulk of the sacred drama repertoire. Cultural amnesia has unfortunately led audiences in our time to miss out on some of the finest artistic achievements of Baroque Europe.

The Academy of Sacred Drama is working to revive this neglected repertoire in the United States. We invite you to join us to experience forgotten masterworks.