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Canadian author R. J. Anderson once said, “I heard the universe as an oratorio sung by a master choir of stars, accompanied by the orchestra of the planets and the percussion of satellites and moons”. The genre of oratorio was established and popularized during the 17th century. This type of music is primarily known for its diverse use of orchestral style and various instruments. Oratorios were much like operas, however they were primarily focused on presenting biblical and religious stories rather than romance or dramas. In regards to earlier church music, the oratorio presented more emotional audience engagement through the use of monologues or duets. The style’s presentation of religious stories, rather than the prayerful chants that had been seen previously in the church’s history, made the religious messages easier for the congregation to follow. Additionally, the oratorio style differed through the use of narrative, dialogue, and commentary. During the mid-17th century, the genre of oratorio evolved to differ from the earlier church’s music traditions and was preformed within a different setting and musical style resulting in new composers and compositions.
Oratorios were typically performed within a theatre, much like how an opera would be performed. However, unlike an opera, the oratorio had a much smaller cast and presented little acting. The voice actors would instead stand in one place and deliver their lines in the form of storytelling. In some cases the actors would use monologues to express their emotions, while at other time the narrator or sole performers expressed the thoughts and emotions of the main characters on stage. With this, the oratorios were typically recitative, arias, duets, or instrumental preludes and ritornellos with combined narrative, dialogue, and commentary. These vocal works, or Libretti’s, were often in Latin or Italian, and later in English. Many of these performances focused on religious matters and were described through the narrator and chorus rather than being directed.
The purpose of the oratorios was to make the biblical stories easier for the audiences to understand and kept them engaged during the performance. In order to do this, the composers would take a creative license and modify the literal text from the old and new testaments by making the phrases and dialogue flow throughout the performance rather than reading directly from the bible. Many of the topics included the life of Jesus, creation stories, or other prominent Biblical stories. In the early 17th century, many of the settings of these Latin Biblical texts were very similar to motets with a strong narrative and dramatic emphasis with conversational exchanges between the actors. Towards the end of the 17th and early 18th century, the oratorios became more secularized. Due to this, regular performances outside of church halls in courts and public theatres became more prevalent.
One of the most revolutionary oratorio periods in music history was the Baroque period. This period is commonly known as the “sacred opera”, sharing similar characteristics as previous operas but focusing on biblical content. Some of the music characteristics of the baroque music included a figured bass, dissonance and chromaticism, and very metric and very free tempo. Through these features, the music contained clear pulses throughout the course of the songs. These characteristics were often portrayed in one of the most prominent forms of music, Basso continuo, which focused on the prominent role of the soloist and the performers. This type of music consisted of a composed bass accompanied by an improvised harmony, often an instrumental backup ensemble. Instead of using the same melody for every stanza, there was a vast variety over a repeated, steady moving measure. One very famous type of aria during the baroque period that is still highly acknowledged today is the da capo aria.
The da capo aria is a musical form that is sung by a soloist while being accompanied by instruments, and collectively an orchestra. The English translation for da capo aria is “from the head (beginning) to the end”, serving as an indication to repeat from the beginning of the music, and continue until you reach the final barline, or a double barline, marked with the word fine. During this performance, the initial melody and text were repeated after an intervening melody and text had been sung. With is being in ternary form (ABA’), the A section was typically in the tonic key, while the B section was tonal, either operating in a minor or major key with the mood frequently being more reflective. Following this, in the repeat of the A section (A’), the singer would demonstrate their vocal skills by improvising vocal ornaments to keep the drama moving forward. Some of these vocal ornaments included adding runs, trills, jumps, etc. to portray their skill as a singer. With the increased popularity of this style of music during the 17th -18th century, many famous composers incorporated this style into their work.
Johann Sebastian Bach, often regarded to as the greatest composer of all time, is a famous composer that incorporated Basso continuo and da carpo aria into his works in the late Baroque period. He was a church organist and composer that included recits, arias, ensembles, chorales, choruses and orchestral accompaniments in his oratorios. One of his most famous works is the St. Matthew Passion. In this oratorio, the tenor is narrator, the soloists play parts of Jesus and other characters, and the chorus sings parts of disciples, crowds. Along with this, the strings play a long high chord whenever Jesus is singing, setting his singing apart from others in order to portray him as our true Savior. In this performance, Bach used declamatory writing, focusing on the way that the language flows and incorporating that into the way the melody flows.
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