By the 1660s the oratorio was a firmly established genre not only in Rome but also in other Italian cities, and its cultivation beyond the Alps had begun. Oratorios continued to function in a more or less devotional context in oratories; during the course of the later 17th century and early 18th, however, they were performed with increasing frequency in the palaces of noblemen, where they functioned as quasi-secular entertainments, often as substitutes for opera during Lent when the theatres were closed.
In Rome the chief centres of oratorio performances in a devotional context continued to be the oratories, particularly those of S Girolamo della Carità, the Chiesa Nuova and the Crocifisso. These oratories had become famous musical centres by the middle of the century, and during the second half of the century oratorios began to dominate their services, making the prayer hall increasingly a place of entertainment; yet the practice of preaching a sermon between the two sections of an oratorio was retained. Oratorios were also performed at educational institutions in Rome, such as the Jesuits' Seminario Romano and the Collegio Clementino. Performances in an essentially secular context frequently took place in the private palaces of such patrons as Queen Christina of Sweden, Cardinals Benedetto Pamphili and Pietro Ottoboni (see Rome, fig.15) and Prince Ruspoli. In a private palace an oratorio performance was a purely secular affair, usually with refreshments served to the guests during the interval between the work's two sections. Oratorios continued to be performed without operatic staging in this period, but the platform provided for the orchestra and singers would at times be elaborately decorated, with a painted background relevant to the subject of the oratorio; such was the stage for Handel's oratorio La resurrezione when given at the Ruspoli residence in Rome on Easter Sunday and Monday, 1708. Fig.3 shows the stage for G.B. Costanzi's Componimento sacro per la festività del SS Natale (libretto by Metastasio), performed in Rome at the Palazzo della Cancelleria in 1727 for the annual Christmas meeting of the Arcadian Academy. This is clearly a ‘concert’ performance: the singers are seated (while singing, with books in their hands) in the centre of an elaborately decorated stage; string instruments are placed behind them, and the other instruments are in the orchestra pit. In the Vatican Apostolic Palace, works approximating to oratorios (called oratorios in Marx, 1992, and cantatas in Gianturco, 1993) were performed on Christmas Eve in the second half of the 17th century and throughout much of the 18th. Until 1714 these tended to be in one part only; thereafter, however, most were in two parts. Among the most prominent oratorio composers active in Rome during this period were Pasquini, Stradella, Alessandro Scarlatti, Caldara and, briefly, Handel. A host of less prominent oratorio composers active there included Alessandro Melani, Antonio Masini, Ercole Bernabei, Antonio Foggia, Giovanni Bicilli, Giuseppe Pacieri, G.F. Garbi, Giuseppe Scalamani, Quirino Colombani, Gregorio Cola, G.B. Costanzi, F.C. Lanciani, Domenico Laurelli, G.L. Lulier, T.B. Gaffi and C.F. Cesarini; most of these men are named as composers in printed librettos, but few of their oratorio scores have survived. Among the oratorio librettists active in Rome were Cardinals Pamphili and Ottoboni, Sebastiano Lazarini and Arcangelo Spagna; Lazarini published a collection of ten of his librettos under the title Sacra melodia di oratorii musicali (Rome, 1678), and Spagna published at least 30 oratorio librettos, which appeared in his Oratorii overo melodrammi sacri (Rome, 1706) and I fasti sacri (Rome, 1720). Spagna is also important for his treatise on the improvement of the oratorio libretto, Discorso intorno a gl'oratori, printed at the beginning of his Oratorii overo melodrammi sacri. Silvio Stampiglia, G.B. Grappelli, Francesco Posterla, G.F. Rubini, Bernardo Sandrinelli and Francisco Laurentino also wrote librettos for Roman oratorios.
Other Italian cities important for the development of the oratorio in this period are Bologna, Modena, Florence and Venice. In Bologna, judging primarily from information given in the librettos printed there, oratorios were sponsored not only by the oratorians, at their church of the Madonna di Galliera, but by a number of other religious societies as well, including the Arciconfraternita di S Maria della Morte, the Arciconfraternita de' SS Sebastiano e Rocco, the Venerabile Compagnia detta de' Fiorentini, the Venerandi Confratelli del SS Sacramento, the Veneranda Compagnia della Carità, the Arciconfraternita della SS Trinità, the Veneranda Confratelli di S Maria della Cintura and the Confraternita de' Poveri della Regina de' Cieli. Among other places of performances were the oratory of S Domenico and the church of S Petronio. Performances of oratorios throughout the year marked a variety of occasions, including church feasts, the taking of religious vows, the visits of dignitaries and the celebration of such events as marriages or baptisms. More oratorios were performed during Lent than in any other season. Oratorios were given in both secular and sacred contexts in such Bolognese academies as the Accademia dei Unanimi, the Accademia degli Anziani and the Accademia delle Belle Lettere. Likewise in private palaces the contexts of oratorio performances were either sacred or secular. Cazzati's Il transito di S Giuseppe, for instance, was performed in 1665, with a sermon between the two sections, in the private oratory of the palace of the Marquis Giuseppe Maria Paleotti. Yet performances in private residences in Bologna had at times much the same secular atmosphere as did those in Rome – that of social gatherings for the entertainment of the aristocracy. Nearby Modena was closely related to Bologna in its musical life, and many of the same composers were active in both cities. The most important patron of the oratorio in Modena was Duke Francesco II d'Este, and the favoured place of the oratorio performances that he sponsored was the oratory of the Congregazione di S Carlo. Modena's period of greatest oratorio activity was 1677–1702, during which 113 performances were given (Crowther, 1992, appx 1). The repertory of oratorios given in the Bologna–Modena area included some works by composers of Rome, Venice and other cities, yet numerous local composers were also active. Among the most important were Cazzati, G.P. Colonna, Antonio Giannettini, G.A. Perti, G.B. Bononcini and Vitali. These composers and many others are represented in the Bologna and Modena libraries and archives by manuscript scores and printed librettos of oratorios. The two poets who are represented by more librettos than any other in this repertory are G.A. Bergamori and G.B. Giardini.
In Florence the Congregazione dell'Oratorio was established at the church of S Firenze in 1632 and began to perform oratorios probably in the 1650s. For the rest of the 17th century and throughout the 18th the oratorians of Florence were the most active sponsors of oratorio performances in the city. Following the lead of the Congregazione dell'Oratorio in Rome, the Florentine oratorians presented an oratorio every Sunday and on selected feast days from All Saints' Day (1 November) to Palm Sunday (Hill, 1979). Most of these oratorios, which were by native Florentine composers, are lost, but many printed librettos survive. Oratorios were also presented in Florence by the lay confraternities, in particular the Compagnia dell'Arcangelo Raffaello, the Compagnia di S Bernardino e S Caterina, the Compagnia di S Niccolò, the Compagnia di S Jacopo, and the Compagnia della Purificazione detta di S Marco and its subsidiary, the Ospizio del Melani (Hill, 1986). Among the oratorio composers active in Florence were G.M. Casini, A.F. Piombi, G.M. Orlandini, F.M. Veracini, Carlo Arrigoni, G.N.R. Redi and Bartolomeo Felici. Of special importance among the other oratorio composers of Tuscany is G.C.M. Clari, of Pistoia (Fanelli, 1998).
In Venice the oratorians initiated their activities in 1661 in the church of S Maria della Consolazione, detta della Fava. The earliest oratorios were performed in the oratory of that church, probably as early as 1667 but at least by 1671, according to the oratorians' extant records. The account books of the oratorians show that Giovanni Legrenzi's oratorios were composed for them. The oratorians continued, with some interruptions, to present oratorios until the late 18th century (Arnold, 1986). Oratorios began to be performed in the conservatories of Venice in 1677, when the Ospedale degli Incurabili presented its first oratorio, Carlo Pallavicino's S Francesco Xaverio. The majority of the oratorios given at the Venetian conservatories in the late Baroque period were in Latin; these institutions and the Crocifisso in Rome were highly exceptional in Italy for their cultivation of the oratorio latino. Among the composers of oratorios who were active in Venice in this period, in addition to Legrenzi and Pallavicino, were Pollarolo, Caldara (until 1700), Gasparini (after 1700), Lotti and Vivaldi. Among the librettists of Venetian oratorios are Bernardo Sandrinelli, Nicolò Minato (more important for Vienna than Venice), F.M. Piccioli, G.M. Giannini, Pietro Pariati, Z. Vallaresso and J. Cassetti.
The libretto of an oratorio from about 1660 to about 1720 is an extended poem of about 350–450 lines, characteristically in two sections; when set to music its performance time is about one and a half to two hours, with those in the earlier part of the period tending to be shorter than the later ones. Oratorios in three or more sections are rare; slightly less exceptional are those in only one. Brief spiritual cantatas for two or more voices, using dialogue between characters and sometimes including narrative passages, continued to be used in Italian oratories throughout the Baroque period. These are usually designated by a term other than ‘oratorio’, as may be seen in Cazzati's Diporti spirituali per camera e per oratorii (Bologna, 1668) and G.C. Predieri’s Cantate morali e spirituali (Bologna, 1696); a few, however, are actually given the term of the larger form, as are Ghezzi's Oratorii sacri a tre voci (Bologna, 1700) and Albergati's Cantate et oratorii spirituali (Bologna, 1714).
The chief sources of oratorio librettos are the Bible, hagiography and moral allegory. For biblical librettos, stories from the Old Testament were much more frequently employed than from the New: of the relatively few texts based on the New Testament, those on the Passion, without narrative sections and in poetic form, appear to have been the most numerous and are found mostly in the repertory of the Bologna–Modena area. Hagiographical texts were used with increasing frequency from the mid-17th century to the early 18th until they rivalled, and with some poets and composers surpassed, the number of Old Testament texts. The prominence of hagiographical subjects for oratorios has been attributed to the influence of the Counter-Reformation in general, and to that of Jesuit dramas in particular; the latter had turned increasingly to hagiographical stories of conversion since about 1590 in an effort to further the process of conversion called for by the Council of Trent. Since the oratorio was so important in Rome within the cultural milieu of the Counter-Reformation, it is not surprising that many oratorio librettos reflect aspects of Counter-Reformation sensibility: heroism, mysticism, asceticism, gruesomeness and eroticism are all present. Most prominent are the first three of these, but gruesomeness and eroticism are occasionally found. The erotic element is important in the oratorios that stress the sensual aspects of female characters such as Susanna, Judith, Esther and Mary Magdalene and emphasize love scenes of a worldly, operatic nature. The oratorio with sensual emphasis has been termed the ‘oratorio erotico’. Until about the last decade of the 17th century narrative sections, usually labelled ‘testo’, but sometimes ‘textus’, ‘poeta’, ‘storico’ or ‘historicus’, were common in oratorio librettos; in the 18th century, however, Italian librettists virtually abandoned such narrative sections and relied exclusively on dramatic dialogue. Oratorios usually required three to five soloists throughout this period, although exceptional works in the 17th century include as many as nine to 16 solo roles. Following the lead of opera, oratorio in Italy nearly abandoned the chorus in the second half of the 17th century and the early 18th; the few choruses used in oratorios are generally quite brief, and the composer usually set the text so that they could be sung by an ensemble of the soloists who sang the dramatic roles. The requirement of a separate choral group for the performance of an oratorio is rare in Italy after Carissimi.
The development of the musical style of oratorio from about 1660 to about 1720 followed closely that of opera. This development may be divided into two phases, one from the 1660s to the 1680s, and another from the 1680s to about 1720. Even before the 1720s, early Classical style traits are clearly in evidence in the music of some oratorio composers; from the 1720s these traits grew increasingly prominent, although for some time to come they were still mixed with traits of the late Baroque style. As pointed out above, there are Roman, Bolognese-Modenese, Florentine and Venetian ‘schools’ of oratorio composers in the sense that certain composers wrote oratorios primarily for those centres. From the standpoint of musical style, however, the extant oratorios of these composers show far more similarities than differences; there seems to be a single, basic, ‘pan-Italian’ style within each phase, with only slight local variants. Thus what has often been called the ‘Venetian’ style in discussions of opera is found equally in oratorios of Rome, Florence, Bologna and Modena, as well as Venice; likewise, the so-called ‘Neapolitan’ style seems to appear as early in Venice and Rome as in Naples.
From about 1660 to about 1720 most oratorios required three to five voices to sing the solo roles, and these united in ensembles of characters and in those few numbers marked ‘coro’ or ‘madrigale’. Among the more important characteristics of the earlier phase, from the 1660s to the 1680s, are the small number of instruments normally required (either basso continuo alone, or two or three string parts plus continuo); the free intermingling of passages in recitative, arioso and aria styles; the predominance of arias accompanied only by basso continuo; the relatively brief arias in strophic, modified strophic, binary or ternary forms (the ABB1 form is the most common, while ABA and ABA1 forms are infrequent, and the designation ‘da capo’ is virtually non-existent); and the basso-ostinato unification of arias. The extant oratorios of Legrenzi (Il Sedecia, La vendita del core humano and La morte del cor penitente) clearly represent this phase in the genre's development, as do most of those by Stradella (Ester, Susanna, S Giovanni Chrisostomo, S Editta and S Pelagia); Stradella's S Giovanni Battista, one of the greatest works from this phase of the oratorio's development, is exceptional for its large orchestra, using concerto grosso instrumentation.
In the 1680s and 1690s many oratorios continued to exhibit the characteristics described above, but new styles and structures grew increasingly important and dominated by the first decade of the 18th century. Among the new characteristics are the tendency to use a larger and more colourful orchestra with concerto grosso instrumentation, the predominance of orchestrally accompanied arias, the occasional use of orchestrally accompanied recitative, the regular alternation of recitatives and arias, the predominance of the da capo form for arias and small ensembles and more elaborate coloratura passages. The arias also show a clearer stylization in their expressions of such affections as rage, vengeance, militarism, joy, lamentation, love and pastoral bliss, and in their programmatic imitations of phenomena such as birdcalls, storms, wind, ocean waves and waterfalls. Early Classical tendencies (in particular the light, simple style favouring dance rhythms, balanced phrases and homophonic textures with slow harmonic rhythm) clearly appear in the second decade of the 18th century, especially in Caldara's Roman oratorios. Of primary significance for the history of this genre are the oratorios of Alessandro Scarlatti, which reflect the development of the oratorio from the 1690s to the end of the second decade of the 18th century, except that early Classical elements are virtually absent from them. Handel's La resurrezione (1708) is a masterly example of the contemporary oratorio volgare; Vivaldi's Juditha (1716) mixes early Classical elements with its essentially late Baroque style and shows that the oratorio latino is identical in every musical respect to the more fashionable oratorio volgare; Caldara's Roman oratorio S Flavia Domitilla (1713) clearly reveals early Classical features. In Spain a tradition of oratorio composition began with the works of A.T. Ortells (c1650–1706). His El hombre moribondo, El juicio particular and Oratorio sacro a la passión de Cristo señor nuestro were performed in 1702, 1703 and 1706 respectively at the Oratorio de San Felipe Neri in Valencia (Ferrer-Ballester, 1993).