AN 2 2005

Italian Oratorios: Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Caldara, Zelenka

Album information

By the second half of the 17th century the word “oratorio” was used to describe the new musical genre associated with the prayer services in Italian oratories. These oratorios were musical settings of texts drawn from the Bible, hagiography, or moral allegory. The early oratorios were relatively small-scale works, generally composed in two sections, between which a sermon was delivered.

By the turn of the 18th century oratorios were increasingly performed in secular settings, in particular the palaces of the nobility. The midpoint sermons were replaced by intermission refreshments. These high baroque oratorios were virtually indistinguishable from operas in form and content. Librettos continued to draw on Biblical or allegorical subjects, but they were often as dramatic as opera librettos. The primary distinction was in the manner of presentation: although the oratorios were often performed in front of elaborate, custom-painted backdrops and with some props, they were not otherwise staged.

The Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka had studied in Italy and Vienna before taking up the position of Church composer at the court in Dresden. He composed three oratorios for the court, including Gesù al Calvario in 1735. The oratorios offer a taste of an expressive Zelenka, and his trademark virtuosity and somewhat eccentric style are well in evidence. The arias “Se in te fosse viva fede” and “A che riserbano” are sung by San Giovanni.

Antonio Vivaldi composed four oratorios, only one of which has survived. Juditha triumphans was written in 1716 for performance at the Pietà. The libretto by Giacomo Cassetti is based on the story of Judith as told in the fourth book of the Apocrypha. In Cassetti’s version, which takes some liberties with the story, Judith approaches Holofernes, who is laying siege to the Jewish city of Bethulia, to beg for peace. Holofernes instantly falls in love and invites Judith to dine with him. Drunk with wine, he falls asleep. Judith cuts off Holofernes’ head with his own sword and escapes, freeing Bethulia and its people. The aria “Noli, o cara” is sung by the lovesick Holofernes to Judith with an unusual accompaniment of solo oboe and obbligato organ. In the aria “Agitata infido flatu” the accompanying strings depict the fluttering of a swallow’s wings as it attempts to make its way through a fierce wind. As Vivaldi did not include a sinfonia or “introduzione” in the manuscript score of Juditha triumphans, we have chosen to include one of his many concertos for strings.

Alessandro Scarlatti was a remarkably prolific composer. He divided his career between Naples and Rome, though most of his oratorios were written for Rome. Cain, alternately titled Il primo omicidio, was the only oratorio written for Venice, in 1707. The anonymous libretto is based on the familiar story of Cain and Abel, as told in Genesis. Cain’s arias range in expression from resolve to remorse. The three-movement introduzione which opens the oratorio is a veritable mini-concerto for solo violin.

Antonio Caldara enjoyed considerable success as a composer of opera and oratorio in Venice and Rome before moving to Vienna to join the service of Emperor Charles VI in 1715. He contributed to the court one or two oratorios during each Lenten season. The oratorio La Passione di Gesù Cristo Signor Nostro was sung during Holy Week in 1730. “Giacchè mi tremi in seno” is the opening aria sung by the tormented Peter.

© Charlotte Nediger

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