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Handel is recognized as the most important pioneer of the English oratorio. The exact definition of an oratorio has been debated, but usually for Handel they were unstaged musical dramas based on religious texts, sung in English, and with a strong choral component. The genre had several advantages artistically and financially. Oratorios were presented as concerts, requiring no sets, costumes, or expensive foreign singers. The musical experience was heightened by the inclusion of a chorus, and frequently the plots allowed grander drama than was afforded by his opera librettos. The change also appealed to the middle classes, and those Londoners who wished to hear music sung in their own language.
The oratorios were composed over a period of 30 years, overlapping largely with his opera career. The transition was reluctant and sporadic, but over time the new form came to demand the composer's full attention. Audiences resisted at times, but Handel's genius dispelled any doubts about the power of unstaged drama. With his successes he amassed a healthy fortune, and was a respected man at the end of his life.
Handel wrote over twenty oratorios, most of them dramatic, meaning they have individual characters rather than only narration. Messiah, his most famous, is actually an exception, as is Israel in Egypt. Most of them were based on Biblical stories, but not all. Semele, Hercules, and Acis and Galatea have their roots in classical mythology, and Theodora comes from the story of a Christian martyr during Roman times. Handel’s final oratorio, Jephtha, was completed in 1751. See the
Works section for a full list, as well some recommended ones for a newcomer to his music. Next Page
Biography: Upbringing and Early Career | Handel's Opera Career | Transition to Oratorios | Final years | Legacy | Personality