A History of the Oratorio - Vol. 1

A History of the Oratorio - Vol. 1

A History of the Oratorio - Vol. 1

A History of the Oratorio - Vol. 1


Howard Smither has written the first definitive work on the history of the oratorio since Arnold Schering published his Geschichte des Oratoriums in 1911. This volume is the first of a four-volume comprehensive study that offers a new synthesis of what is known to date about the oratorio.

Volume 1, divided into three parts, opens with the examination of the medieval, Renaissance, and early Baroque antecedents and origins of the oratorio, with emphasis on Rome and Philip Neri's Congregation of the Oratory and with special attention to the earliest works for which the term oratorio seems appropriate. The second part recounts the development of the oratorio in Italy, circa 1640-1720. It reviews the social contexts, patrons, composers, poets, librettos, and music of the oratorio in Italy, especially in Vienna and Paris.

The procedure adapted throughout the work is to treat first the social context, particularly the circumstances of performance of the oratorio in a given area and period, then to treat the libretto, and finally the music. For each geographic area and period, the author has selected for special attention a few oratorios that appear to be particularly important or representative. He has verified the information offered in the specialized literature whenever possible by reference to the music or documents. In a number of areas, particular seventeenth-century Italy, in which relatively few previous studies have been undertaken or secondary sources have proven to be inadequate, the author has examined the primary sources in manuscript and printed form- music, librettos, and documents of early oratorio history. Impressive research and intelligent integration of disparate elements make this complicated, diffuse subject both readable and accessible to the student of music.

Volume 2, The Oratorio in the Baroque Era: Protestant Germany and England, and Volume 3, The Oratorio in the Classical Era, continue and expand the study of oratorio history. Although this series was originally announced as a three-volume study, Smither will conclude with a fourth volume.

This new work- the first English-language study of the history of the oratorio will become the standard work on its subject and an enduring contribution to music and scholarship.


This chapter introduces in broad and general terms some basic concepts about the oratorio and its history in various subperiods of the Baroque era and in various geographical areas. These concepts -- relating to the genre's terminology, social context, antecedents and related genres, and libretto and music -- are treated in greater detail in the subsequent chapters of this volume and in volume 2.


What is an oratorio? Is it simply any work that is called an oratorio by its composer? Or can a composition be reasonably classified as an oratorio even though the composer has given it some other designation -- such as spiritual madrigal, motet, dialogue, cantata, historia, actus musicus, dramma sacro, componimento sacro, or azione sacra? If this last question be answered in the affirmative, what criteria should be used for selecting the works to be classified as oratorios?

In the present study the general approach to answering the kinds of questions raised above is to accept the Baroque period's concepts of the musical genre called oratorio. These concepts are derived from Baroque writings about music and from a study of the compositions called oratorios in their primary sources. The concepts differ from one subperiod of the Baroque to another, and to some extent from one geographical area to another, but they tend to have certain basic elements in common: the oratorio is nearly always a sacred, unstaged work with a text that is either . . .

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