Messiah by Josiah Tazelaar, member of Fort St. Chorale

‘Musings from the Musicologist’—Handel and his Messiah, Part III
by Josiah Tazelaar, member of Fort St. Chorale
What, exactly, is an oratorio and is "Messiah" a true oratorio? This is what the Random House
Dictionary states:
"Oratorio: An extended musical composition with a text more or less dramatic in character
and usually based upon a religious theme, for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra, and performed
without action, costume, or scenery."
Encyclopaedia Brittanica characterizes, in its many pages of discussing Oratorio, the Bach
Passions ("St. Matthew" and "St. John") as oratorios, but they are in a class by themselves (as
are those by Schutz). Later composers, such as Haydn ("The Creation" and "The Seasons") and
Mendelssohn ("Elijah" and "St. Paul") wrote oratorios, and EB considers Brahms's Requiem as a
possible oratorio (due to its un-Latin and non-Catholic structure). Berlioz's "l"Enfance du Christ"
could be considered, and then there is Elgar's "Dream of Gerontius", composed in 1900.
But Handel was the unquestioned essential composer of oratorios. Several were secular
("Hercules", "Semele", "Alexander's Feast"), but most were religious in content. Now I had stated
in my first installment that Handel "invented" the oratorio, but that isn't really so: oratorios existed
before Handel was born. For instance, an Italian by the name of Giacomo Carissimi composed
"Jefte" a century before Handel wrote one on the same subject ("Jephtha"). Let's thus say that
Handel "invented" the English oratorio in his desire to terminate Italian opera in England and
create a suitable replacement in the language of the people, to inspire audiences to "moral"
lessons through Biblical tales set to his music.
Going back to the Random House Dictionary's definition: oratorio is a work more or less
dramatic in character. It is the "less" part of this which makes "Messiah" an oratorio. Most of
Handel's other oratorios are dramatic, like his operas (but far less ridiculous!).
Due to time constraints, I must cut short this "Musings", but a next installment is
forthcoming soon.