About Oratorio

An oratorio is a large-scale musical composition based on a sacred subject. The form was first devised about 1600. Most oratorios are based on the Hebrew or Christian scriptures.

They are written for solo voices, a chorus and an orchestra and they might be performed in a place of worship or in a concert hall or theatre. Handel’s oratorios were essentially for the theatre rather than the church although the Messiah only found favour in England after it had been given in the chapel of Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital.

A major difference between an oratorio and an opera is that the former has neither scenery nor costume whilst the latter does have these. Apart from Handel’s oratorios, one of the most well known is Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

This was first performed in Birmingham in 1846. The Dream of Gerontius, an oratorio by Edward Elgar, was also first performed in Birmingham, this time in 1900. It is based on a religious poem by John Henry Newman, a Roman Catholic cardinal and the author of the hymn, ‘Lead Kindly Light’. Haydn’s oratorio, the Creation, also draws some of its words from a poem - Milton’s Paradise Lost; its other words are from the book of Genesis.

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