There is a new book out on Handel's Messiah (reviewed in the Wall Street Journal), just in time for a flood of performances associated with the season. Perhaps the two most popular pieces performed this time of year are Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet and Handel's oratorio. So what is an oratorio, anyway?
Its origins are in the 17th century and it became a vehicle for the expression of both the Reformation in the works of the great German composer Heinrich Schütz, student of Giovanni Gabrieli, and the Counter-Reformation in the works of Giacomo Carissimi, a priest, organist and choirmaster in Rome. An oratorio is basically an unstaged dramatic narrative on a sacred text, a sacred dialogue.
Schütz called his oratorios "historien" and one of the best-known is his joyous, Italianate outpouring of Christmas cheer titled Historia der freuden- und gnadenreichen Geburt Gottes und Marien Sohnes Jesu Christi (Historia of the joyful und blessed birth of Jesus Christ, son of God and Mary). This is often shortened in English to Christmas Story. It was first performed in 1660. Let's have a listen.
Carissimi's most famous biblical narrative, Jephte, was composed around 1649 and tells the tragic story of the sacrifice of Jephte's daughter. A chorus from this work was "borrowed" by Handel for a chorus in his oratorio Samson. Let's listen to the Carissimi:
Handel's great genius was to reinvent the oratorio in English as a solution to his problems with the decline in popularity of his operas in Italian. Interestingly Handel's oratorios in English became vehicles for the expression of civic heroism and national triumph. The English in the 18th century identified with the Old Testament Israelites and regarded the oratorios as gratifying allegories of themselves (see Taruskin, Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 2, p. 315). Handel began the composition of the Messiah in 1741 and it was first performed in Dublin in 1742. The great innovation that Handel made was to re-conceive the genre as being essentially choral. Indeed, the most famous section is the "Hallelujah" chorus, which is possibly the most famous piece of choral music ever written. Let's have a listen:
Now that is stirring! The book by Keates makes the point that performances throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries were characterized by enormous choirs and orchestras, quite distant from the original performances. But in recent decades, a return has been made to the modest forces and crisper tempos of the 18th century. Here, as an example, is the Messiah performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (soloists listed at YouTube):