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date: 18 February 2020


  • Howard E. Smither


An extended musical setting of a sacred text made up of dramatic, narrative and contemplative elements. Except for a greater emphasis on the chorus throughout much of its history, the musical forms and styles of the oratorio tend to approximate to those of opera in any given period, and the normal manner of performance is that of a concert (without scenery, costumes or action). The oratorio was most extensively cultivated in the 17th and 18th centuries but has continued to be a significant genre.

Distant antecedents of the oratorio may be found in the musical settings of sacred narrative and dramatic texts in the Middle Ages: the liturgical drama, the Divine Office for saints' feasts, the Passion and the dialogue lauda. Medieval miracle and mystery plays, as well as rappresentazioni sacre, are also related to the oratorio, but the real beginnings of the genre are to be found in the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods, where an ever-increasing interest in settings of dramatic and narrative texts gave rise first to opera and then to oratorio. Such texts were widely used for polyphonic madrigals in the 16th century (e.g. Andrea Gabrieli, ...

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