Certain Famous Oratorios
About the middle of the sixteenth century, San Filippo Neri, a zealous Florentine priest, opened the chapel, or oratory, of his church in Rome, for popular hours with his congregation. His main object being “to allure young people to pious offices and to detain them from worldly pleasure,” he endeavored to make the occasions attractive as well as edifying, and supplemented religious discourse and spiritual songs with dramatized versions of Biblical stories provided with suitable music. Associated with him in his labors for a good cause, was no less a composer than that great reformer of Catholic church music, Giovanni Pierluigi Sante da Palestrina, whose harmonies were declared by a music-loving Pope to be those of the celestial Jerusalem. The laudable enterprise proved successful. People flocked from all quarters to enjoy the gratuitous entertainments, and a form of sacred musical art resulted that derived from them its name.
Roswitha, a nun of the Gandersheim cloister, in the tenth century, made the earliest attempt recorded to invest church plays with artistic worth. Her six religious dramas, written in Latin for the use and edification of her sister nuns, were published in a French setting, in 1845. It was a woman, too, Laura Guidiccioni, a brilliant member of the Florence group of aristocratic truth-seekers in art, who wrote the text of the first religious musical dramatic composition to which the name oratorio became attached. It was set to music of a declamatory style by Emilio del Cavalieri, the author’s collaborator in the pastoral plays that were really embryo operas. The title of the piece, “The Representation of the Body and the Soul,” indicates the allegorical nature of the subject.
Its initial performance occurred at Rome, February, 1600, in the oratory of San Filippo’s church, Santa Maria della Vallicella. The composer had died some months earlier, but his minute stage directions were accurately observed. Behind the scenes was placed an orchestra comprising a double lyre, a harpsichord, a large guitar and two flutes, to which was added a violin for the leading part in the ritornels, that is, instrumental preludes and interludes. The chorus had seats assigned on the stage, but rose to sing, employing suitable movements and gestures. Time, Morality, Pleasure, and other solo characters bore in their hands musical instruments and seemed to play as they acted and declaimed their parts, while the playing actually came from the concealed instruments. The World, the Body and Human Life illustrated the transitoriness of earthly affairs by flinging away the gorgeous decorations they had worn when they appeared on the stage, and displaying their utter poverty and wretchedness in the face of death and dissolution. The representation ended with a ballet, danced “sedately and reverently” to music by the chorus.