German composers adopted some of the new techniques of Italian dramatic music in the early 17th century, but they were slow to develop the new genres of opera and oratorio in their own language. Only in the mid-17th century did the German oratorio tentatively begin, and not until the early 18th century did a more or less clearly defined genre identified by the term ‘Oratorium’, with a German text, begin to be recognized and accepted in German concert life and Lutheran church services. Indeed, in the early 17th century in Germany the terms ‘stylus oratorius’ and ‘actus oratorius’ referred to the art of speech; stylus oratorius designated an ‘oratorical’ or recitative style, and an actus oratorius was usually a spoken, sacred, school drama, sometimes with music, given by students learning the art of the orator. Even in the 18th century the term ‘Oratorium’ seems to have been used more freely in Germany than in Italy to designate musical settings of a greater variety of texts. Among the antecedents of the German oratorio are the historia (including the Passion with a purely scriptural text), the actus musicus, the oratorio Passion, the sacred dramatic dialogue, sacred dramas with music and the sacred opera cultivated at Hamburg in the late 17th century. The Italian oratorio, too, influenced the development of the German oratorio, particularly in the early 18th century.
One of the strongest roots of the German oratorio is the Lutheran historia, a musical setting of a scriptural story, intended for performance in church. The Passion was the earliest and by far the most important subject; the Easter and Christmas stories were of secondary importance, and others were rarely used. In the 16th century and early 17th the text of the historia was restricted to biblical narrative, except for brief introductory and concluding passages. Among the several types of musical settings for 16th-century historiae, the one most clearly an oratorio antecedent required a responsorial performance and was realistically dramatic in conception: solo chant (a liturgical recitation tone) was used for the Evangelist's narration and the speech of the individuals, while that of two or more was set polyphonically (see Passion). In the early 17th century this type of historia sometimes adopted the basso continuo accompaniment and adapted the monodic style in such a manner that the solo vocal lines constituted a compromise between the traditional recitation tone and the new monody, as in the Evangelist's part in Schütz's Historia der frölichen und siegreichen Aufferstehung unsers einigen Erlösers und Seligmachers Jesu Christi (Dresden, 1623). Although this work is sometimes called Schütz's ‘Easter Oratorio’, it is better understood as an antecedent of the oratorio: in the tradition of the Lutheran historia but unlike the contemporary oratorio libretto, its text is composed entirely of biblical quotation (except for the introductory and concluding passages). Furthermore, the work is modelled on a 16th-century historia by Antonio Scandello, and like the latter shows an unrealistic, non-dramatic approach to the text in that the speech of individuals (Jesus and Mary Magdalene) is set for two voices. (In his prefatory remarks to the work, however, Schütz allowed for a more dramatic performance by suggesting that one of the vocal parts for these roles might be instrumentally performed or even omitted.) Schütz's Passion historia on the Seven Words of Christ (Die Sieben Wortte unsers lieben Erlösers und Seeligmachers Jesu Christi, ?1645) is much closer to the oratorio in its melodic style, which is free from the influence of chant, and in its realistic approach to the dramatic roles. Indeed, a work in which Schütz arrived at the threshold of the oratorio is his historia for Christmas (Historia der freuden- und gnadenreichen Geburth Gottes und Marien Sohnes, Jesu Christi, unsers einigen Mittlers, Erlösers und Seeligmachers, Dresden, 1664). Often referred to as the composer's ‘Christmas Oratorio’, this work has also been called ‘the first German oratorio’ (Schering, 1911, p.148). The composition merits this claim on the basis of its length, dramatic treatment of roles and musical style in general; yet it is a historia in that its text consists entirely of biblical quotation (except for the opening and closing passages) and the Evangelist's recitatives retain suggestions of a liturgical recitation tone.
In the mid-17th century some composers, particularly in Saxony and Thuringia, began to use the term ‘actus musicus’ for works with some of the same characteristics as those called historia. The new term was analogous to actus oratorius, mentioned above, already in use. In the second half of the 17th century the actus musicus and historia were similar in function and general structure. Both were intended to be performed during a Lutheran church service, both characteristically quoted narrative and dialogue passages drawn from a biblical story, and both could include non-biblical interpolations – either stanzas of chorales or freely composed poetry or prose. The actus musicus differed from the historia, however, in its greater use of non-biblical interpolations and greater emphasis on dramatic elements, such as musical characterization and quasi-theatrical performing practice. The historia tended to remain close to the liturgy, as a musical and dramatic elaboration of a scriptural reading, but the actus musicus was less liturgical and at times quite close to the oratorio. Andreas Fromm's Actus musicus de Divite et Lazaro, das ist Musicalische Abbildung der Parabel vom Reichen Manne und Lazaro (Stettin, 1649) has been called ‘the first German oratorio’ by Schwartz (1898), with some justification, for its German text is dramatic and non-biblical, as are oratorio librettos, despite the fact that its theme was drawn from Luke xvi.19–25. Among the other sacred dramatic compositions of the 17th century that bear the designation ‘actus’ are Johann Schelle’s Actus musicus auf Weihnachten (1683), P.H. Erlebach's Actus pentecostalis (1690), and four works dating from about 1690–1702: Abraham Petzold's Actus paschalis and Actus (in Festo Michaelis), F.W. Zachow's Actus pentecostalis and Kuhnau's Actus Stephanicus.
From the mid-17th century composers began to insert music with non-biblical texts into their historiae, primarily the Passion historiae, a practice which resulted in what may be termed the ‘oratorio Passion’. Like the responsorial type of Passion historia, the oratorio Passion uses as its basic text the Passion story, either quoted from a single Gospel or ‘harmonized’ from the four Gospels; soloists sing the roles of the Evangelist and the individual characters, and the chorus sings the parts of the turba. The distinguishing features of the oratorio Passion are the interruption of the Gospel account by contemplative interpolations and the use of modern recitative and concertato styles, as opposed to the plainsong and a cappella styles common in the responsorial historiae. The interpolations in the earliest oratorio Passions have texts from books of the Bible other than the Gospels or from chorales. In the late 17th century and early 18th, however, the interpolations are increasingly made up of freely composed spiritual poetry, comparable with that found in Italian oratorios. The musical settings of the interpolations vary from the simplest choral and song styles to elaborate imitative and antiphonal choruses and italianate arias.
In its retention of the biblical text and its function as a part of the traditional, established liturgy, the oratorio Passion would seem to lie outside the mainstream of the oratorio's development. Nevertheless, the combination of narrative, dramatic and contemplative elements in its text and the use of an operatic musical style make it a close relative of the oratorio. In fact, in the early 18th century Scheibe actually considered the oratorio Passion as a type of oratorio (Der critische Musikus, i, 1738, pp.159–60), but the term ‘oratorio’ (or the German ‘Oratorium’) is virtually never found on the title-page of an oratorio Passion in the Baroque era.
The earliest-known oratorio Passion is Thomas Selle's Passio secundum Joannem cum intermediis (1643). Oratorio Passions from the second half of the 17th century include Johann Sebastiani's Das Leyden und Sterben unsers Herrn und Heylandes Jesu Christi nach dem heiligen Matthaeo (1663; printed Königsberg, 1672), Johann Theile's Passio nach dem Heiligen Evangelisten Matthäo (Lübeck, 1673), and an anonymous Matthäuspassion dating from between 1667 and 1683, attributed by Birke (1958) to Friedrich Funcke. From about the turn of the century are the St Matthew oratorio Passions by J.G. Kühnhausen and J.V. Meder. Numerous other oratorio Passions of the late 17th century and early 18th are extant, with the passions of J.S. Bach forming the culmination of the development. (For the German Passion oratorio, see below.)
Closely related to the Lutheran historia, and important as an oratorio antecedent, is the large corpus of sacred dramatic dialogues which sometimes functioned as motets in the Lutheran liturgy of the 17th century. Some works called dialogues in this period are, in fact, quite brief historiae, with strictly biblical texts, solo settings for individuals and either solo or polyphonic settings of narrative passages. Many more, however, differ from the historia in their texts by combining fragments from various books of the Bible, omitting the connecting narratives of biblical stories, freely paraphrasing biblical passages, combining biblical with non-biblical material (especially with chorales), or using purely non-biblical material, often with allegorical characters. Most of the 17th-century sacred dramatic dialogues in German are so brief and include so little dramatic development that they can scarcely be considered oratorios by comparison with the works in Italian and Latin that were normally so called in the same period. Among the composers of these brief works, which have been called ‘oratorio dialogues’ by Schering and others, are Schütz, Schein, Scheidt, Andreas Hammerschmidt, the younger Kaspar Förster, J.E. Kindermann, Johann Rosenmüller, J.R. Ahle, W.C. Briegel, Augustin Pfleger, Matthias Weckmann, Christoph Bernhard and Buxtehude. Among the best examples of such dialogues, and one that has been loosely called an oratorio in musicological literature, is Weckmann's Dialogo von Tobia undt Raguel: Wo willen wir einkehren (1665), formerly attributed to Rosenmüller.
Latin dramatic dialogues, although less prominent than those in German, were also composed for the Lutheran liturgy. Of special interest in the mid-17th century are the two extended Latin dramatic dialogues of the younger Förster, Dialogus de Juditha et Holoferne and Dialogi Davidis cum Philisteo, both of which could equally well be called oratorios; a student of Carissimi in Rome, Förster adopted many elements of his master's oratorio style.
While the function of sacred dramatic dialogues in Germany was normally liturgical, such dialogues were also performed in Hamburg in the concerts of Weckmann's collegium musicum, founded about 1660. Another non-liturgical function of oratorio-like works is found in the performances at the Marienkirche in Lübeck known as Abendmusik. These concerts of sacred music were of special importance for the development of the oratorio from the period of Buxtehude's activity in Lübeck (1668–1707) and throughout the 18th century. Presented during the evenings of the last Sundays of Trinity and the second, third and fourth Sundays of Advent, the Abendmusiken under Buxtehude's direction appear to have consisted either of concerts of miscellaneous vocal and instrumental compositions or performances of large, oratorio-like works. What is known of the music performed at Buxtehude's concerts is limited primarily to the conclusions that may be drawn from four extant librettos printed for use at the Abendmusiken and one subject of a work known to have been performed at one of these concerts. The four extant librettos are Die Hochzeit des Lammes (1678), Abdruck der Texte, welche … bey den gewönlichen Abend-Musicen … praesentiret werden (1700), Castrum doloris (1705) and Templum honoris (1705). The work known only by its subject is one which Buxtehude called, in a letter, his ‘Abend Music’ of the prodigal son, performed in 1688. The first of the librettos is clearly an oratorio, although that term was not yet used for German works, and the last two are closely related to the oratorio. The work on the story of the prodigal son might have been an oratorio. The second-named libretto, Abdruck der Texte, however, provides the texts for all five of the Abendmusiken in 1700, and it shows that each of these concerts consisted of a mixture of sacred vocal works, none of which related to the oratorio.
Hamburg was the chief centre for the cultivation of German oratorio in the early 18th century, as it was for German opera. Nevertheless, oratorio was viewed by some as an unwelcome innovation there in the first decade of the century. In 1705 Reinhard Keiser's Der blutige und sterbende Jesus, with a text by C.F. Hunold (under the pseudonym of Menantes), met with opposition from the clergy and the city fathers when it was performed in Hamburg Cathedral. The work is a Passion oratorio, i.e. an oratorio with a poetic text, based on the biblical Passion but without biblical quotations. Influenced by the Italian oratorio and the new italianate cantata texts of Erdmann Neumeister, Hunold expressly stated that his new work was like ‘the Italian so-called oratorios’. The criticisms of this historically significant work focussed on its theatricality and its omission of the Evangelist's narrative passages. Further controversies about oratorio came in 1705, when the Hamburg organist Georg Bronner met with opposition to his performance of an oratorio at a public concert, and again in 1710 when he was denied the use of a church for an oratorio performance. But oratorios were fully accepted in Hamburg Cathedral from 1715 when Mattheson introduced them there. In fact, his oratorios were intended to take the place of church cantatas in the liturgy of Hamburg Cathedral on important feast days or other special occasions, although they were often subsequently performed in public concerts as well. A direct successor of Hunold's libretto is the Passion oratorio by Brockes, Der für die Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus (1712), which was set to music by numerous composers, including Handel, Keiser, Mattheson and Telemann (the settings by these four composers were performed under Mattheson's direction at Hamburg in Holy Week of 1719).
By the second decade of the 18th century the German oratorio had become a well-established genre in Hamburg and in the Abendmusiken at Lübeck, and it was becoming increasingly popular in other areas of Germany as well. Among the more important composers of German oratorios in the late Baroque style of the first half of the 18th century are Keiser, Mattheson and Telemann, although in the oratorios of Telemann early Classical elements are sometimes prominent. The German oratorios of these composers and others in the first half of the 18th century reflect the styles and forms of the German opera of its time; they differ from contemporary Italian oratorios in that both libretto and music are marked by greater contrast and variety. The librettists were little interested in restricting their works by observing the Aristotelian unities, and their librettos seem less carefully worked out than those of Zeno and Metastasio. The subject matter is usually biblical (the Passion oratorio was more important than in Italy), and allegorical characters are frequently included. Choruses are more prominent than in the Italian oratorio and often have biblical texts; the frequent use of chorales is a distinguishing feature of the German oratorio.
There are many German works from the first half of the 18th century designated as oratorios and distinguishable as examples of the genre, but the term ‘Oratorium’ seems to have been more frequently applied to borderline cases than in Italy, i.e. to works which combine elements of the related genres of oratorio, sacred cantata, sacred dialogue and/or historia. The three works for which Bach used the term ‘Oratorium’ (Weihnachts-Oratorium bwv248, Oster-Oratorium bwv249 and Oratorium auf Himmelfahrt bwv11) illustrate this terminological freedom in Germany. All three show some relationship to the oratorio, but they are more like church cantatas (or, in the case of the Christmas Oratorio, a series of six cantatas) than oratorios in the normal 18th-century sense. Both the Christmas and Ascension works are also related to the historia; the texts of both are largely contemplative, but they include, like the historia, narrative quotations from the Bible sung by the ‘Evangelist’. The Easter Oratorio is essentially a dialogue among four people; although its duration is more like that of a cantata than an oratorio (it is a parody of a secular cantata, bwv249a), in its purely poetic text it is closer to the genre of oratorio than the other two works.