9th Biennial Conference on Baroque Music


The Choruses in Italianate Oratorios: a Problem in Eighteenth-Century Historiography

Mary Ann Parker

In his monumental study of the oratorio, Howard Smither cautioned that "changes in musical style and structure throughout the eighteenth century seem to be continuous, complex, and multidirectional, not necessarily away from a certain style of the past nor toward a certain style of the future." In Italianate oratorios, the arias fall invariably into the da capo or related forms. The choruses, however, are not so easily classified. The librettos of Metastasio, which provided either the poetic texts or the models for virtually all of the repertoire, generally call for only two or three "coro" movements. The study of these movements in their musical settings reveals a variety of styles, from the soloistic type in the madrigale ultimo tradition to more extensive numbers in true choral style. Here, Smither's statement seems particularly apt; if anything, composers in their choral movements sometimes seem to be moving backward to a more Baroque concept of dense, contrapuntal textures.

Examination of some three dozen oratorios from the period 1730-1760, some unpublished, by such composers as Hasse, Leo, Jommelli, Bonno, Marcello, and Caldara shows that the models for choral movements come not only from opera but more often from motets and liturgical music. The changing concept of fugue as a structural and topical element is considered. In spite of Smither's well-founded caution, there is a general trend toward substantial movements in true choral style, which can be related to the overall change in performance setting from oratories and palaces to churches and court chapels.

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Last updated on 22 March 2000 by Yo Tomita