Date of Award


Document Type




First Reader

Dr. William L. Horton


Without a doubt, the most ambiguous and obscure of the larger musical forms is the oratorio. It is extremely difficult to define because it has taken so many meanings at different times and in different countries. One may explain or describe it as a dramatic poem, usually of religious or contemplative character (but not liturgical), to be performed throughout by solo voices, chorus, and orchestra in a concert hall or church without the assistance of scenery, costumes, or action. This description, however, does not cover every example of oratorical literature; exceptions are already evident, even with the works by composers of one century--Bach's Christmas Oratorio and Handel's Occasional Oratorio are in no sense dramatic; Haydn's Seasons is in no sense sacred; Handel's Israel in Egypt is almost entirely choral, while his Trionfo del Tempo and La Resurrezione have no chorus at all; "full orchestra" can only be a relative tern, and at all periods some oratorios have been staged and others not.

Miscellaneous concerts of sacred music have been called 'oratorios'; for example, those given in Lent toward the end of the eighteenth century. Even single-movement sacred vocal compositions have had the name applied to them; this was probably the nature of the 'oratorio' mentioned in the announcement at New York in 1751 to be sung between the acts of "The Beggar's Opera".

The historian overlooking the situation finds himself playing a kind of bland man's bluff. After despair, he may emerge with no more positive conclusion than that an oratorio is a fairly serious work of fairly large proportions for voice and instruments. The attempt to define the form, then, becomes a problem of major proportions in that no consistency is evident.

If all the ingredients are so variable, how, then, do we conclude what the essential quality of the oratorio is? The question can only be answered with reference to each period and each country individually.



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