Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

Germany, Scandinavia and eastern Europe, 19th century

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13. Germany, Scandinavia and eastern Europe, 19th century.

A new tendency in German oratorio librettos of the 19th century is that of literary Romanticism: supernatural, mysterious, fantastic and apocalyptic scenes, themes of death and doubt, and those based on religious legends from the distant past are prominent. Oratorios with apocalyptic librettos, including passages from both the Old and New Testament, are Eybler's Die vier letzten Dinge (text by Joseph Sonnleithner; 1810), Spohr's Die letzten Dinge (text by Friedrich Rochlitz; 1827) and Friedrich Schneider's Das Weltgericht (text by August Apel; 1819). Among the numerous works based on legends are Maximilian Stadler's Die Befreyung von Jerusalem (1813) and Schneider's Das befreite Jerusalem (1835) (both with texts based on Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata); Carl Loewe's Die Zerstörung Jerusalems (1829), Die sieben Schläfer (1833), Gutenberg (1836), Palestrina (1841) and Johann Hus (1842) and Liszt's Die Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth (1862).

Oratorio subjects that had long been traditional in Germany, particularly those using biblical stories, continued to be popular in the 19th century. The increasing interest in the oratorios of Handel in the first half of the 19th century contributed to the popularity of biblical oratorios, particularly those based on Old Testament stories. Bernhard Klein's biblical oratorios, Hiob (1822), Jephta (1828) and David (1830), reveal this traditional tendency, as do Schubert's Lazarus, oder Die Feier der Auferstehung d689 (1820, incomplete), Schneider’s Pharao (1828), Gideon (1829) and Absalon (1831), A.B. Marx's Mose (1841) and, late in the century, Bruch's Moses (1895). Mendelssohn's Paulus (‘St Paul’, 1836) and Elijah (‘Elias’, 1846), both based on scriptural texts, also represent the traditional tendency in librettos; both were extremely popular works in their time, and Elijah, first performed in Birmingham, has retained its popularity to the present day in both English- and German-speaking areas. The Romantic period has also continued to favour oratorios on the theme of the Messiah, as the later 18th century had done; among the numerous Romantic oratorios on this theme are Schneider's Höllenfahrt des Messias (1810), Loewe's Festzeiten (1825–36) and Liszt's Christus (in Latin, with biblical and liturgical texts; 1862–7).

The oratorio continued to be conceived primarily as a sacred genre in the 19th century, but the term itself was exceptionally applied to a purely secular work, such as Bruch's Arminius: Oratorium (1877); three other secular oratorios by Bruch, although not identified as oratorios in their titles, are his Odysseus (1872), Achilleus (1885) and Gustav Adolf (1898). Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri (1843–5) and Der Rose Pilgerfahrt (1851), neither of which was called an oratorio by the composer, are closely related to the genre and are sometimes classified as secular oratorios. ‘Staged oratorios’, or sacred operas, continued to be exceptional in the 19th century; Anton Rubinstein’s sacred operas, Sulamith (1883), Die Maccabäer (1872–4), Moses (1887–9) and Christus (1893), are close to the oratorio in conception, despite their composer's intention that they be staged.

The music of the 19th-century German oratorio, like the libretto, reveals a mixture of traditional and new procedures. Traditional for Germany is the use of the chorale and the emphasis on the chorus, but the performing forces tended to be far greater than in the 18th century. With the growing emphasis on performances of oratorios at music festivals in 19th-century Germany and the period's penchant for massive performances, the composer with a festival performance in mind could expect several hundred voices in his chorus. The aspects of German musical Romanticism that are new in the oratorio of the period are essentially those of German musical Romanticism in general, and particularly of Romantic opera: the large, colourful orchestra, new harmonic and melodic styles and new approaches to motivic and structural unification. Programmatic orchestral preludes and interludes became increasingly prominent, as did ‘reminiscence’ motifs, phrases or sections, used much in the manner of the operatic reminiscence motif and leitmotif. Prominent among the oratorios of the first half of the century that point the way to the newer musical procedures are those of Schneider, particularly his Weltgericht; especially important in the second half of the century for their full development of the new techniques are Liszt's oratorios, mentioned above, and Raff's Welt-Ende, Gericht, Neue Welt (1879–81).

Scandinavia and eastern Europe remained heavily dependent upon other areas in the 19th century, particularly Germany, for the oratorios performed in their concerts. The following are among the few composers in Scandinavia of oratorios using the national languages: in Sweden, J.C.F. Haeffner, Pehr Frigel and Gunnar Wennerberg; in Norway, Johannes Haarklou and Catharinius Elling; and in Denmark, Hans Matthison-Hansen. The Czech Dvořák is of particular importance for his oratorio St Ludmilla (1886), composed for the Leeds Festival in England. The earliest oratorio known to have been composed in 19th-century Russia is S.A. Degtyaryov's Minin i Pozharsky, ili Osvobozhdeniye Moskvï (‘Minin and Pozharsky, or The Liberation of Moscow’; 1811). Based on a patriotic libretto by N.D. Gorchakov, with a strong religious element, the monumental setting has a colourful mixture of Western and Russian musical elements. The large orchestra includes a Russian horn band, a large percussion section and a battalion of cannons.


14. France and the Low Countries, 19th century.

The oratorio in 19th-century France was little influenced by that of other areas. Oratorios were performed in public concert halls throughout the century, but they were also given in churches. Le Sueur's Deborah (1828), for example, is in Latin and was intended to be performed at Mass; it incorporates the liturgical element of unison psalmodic recitation. But most oratorios of 19th-century France are in French and were intended for the concert hall. They are thus closer to the mainstream of oratorio history than those of Le Sueur; yet a Roman Catholic mystical and quasi-liturgical current runs through most of the oratorio production of France and tends to distinguish French oratorios from those of other nations. Representative of French Romantic oratorios from around the middle to the end of the 19th century are those of Ferdinand David (Moïse au Sinaï, 1846; Le jugement dernier, c1849), Antoine Elwart (Noë ou Le déluge universel, 1845), Berlioz (L'enfance du Christ, 1854), Franck (Ruth, 1843–6; La tour de Babel, 1865; Rédemption, 1871–4; Les béatitudes, 1869–79; Rébecca, 1881), Saint-Saëns (Moïse sauvé des eaux, c1851; Oratorio de Noël, 1858; Le déluge, 1875), Gounod (Tobie, 1865; Mors et vita, ?1885; La rédemption, ?1882), Massenet (Marie-Magdeleine, 1873; Eve, 1875; La Vierge, 1880; La terre promise, 1900) and Dubois (Les sept paroles du Christ, 1867; Le paradis perdu, 1879; Notre-Dame de la mer, 1897; Le baptême de Clovis, 1899).

Few composers in the Low Countries wrote oratorios before the mid-19th century. The Belgian Peter Benoit is important in the second half of the century for his Lucifer (1865), De schelde (1868), De oorlog (1873) and De Rhijn (1889). Other Belgian oratorio composers in this period are Gustave Huberti (Een laatste zonnestraal, 1874, and Verlichting, 1884) and Edgar Tinel (Franciscus, 1886–8). Among the oratorio composers in 19th-century Holland are Anton Berlijn (Moses auf Nebo, 1843) and Richard Hol (David, 1879).


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