Did you know that the Washington metro area has one of the highest concentration of (semi)professional choruses in the country? It’s true, Washington is blessed with a huge number of choirs and other vocal groups.
I love choral music, as a person and particularly as a priest. That said, there are certain choral works with which I (and many priests) have a love/hate relationship. For example, the Ave Maria is a staple of Catholic life… loving the Ave is sort of a ‘must,’ like loving the poor, and embracing lepers; it’s not an option. The Ave, however, is performed at EVERY wedding and funeral… often regardless of the soloist’s ability to sing the music. Another such piece is Alleluia Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Especially during Advent/Christmas, the choirs of the Metro region will perform Handel’s Alleluia in every way imaginable: the original setting, a rock setting, a Trans-Siberian Orchestra setting, the Ella Fitzgerald scat setting, and of course, the sing-along. If you only hear the piece once in a season, it’s no problem… but imagine how many times (and ways) I get to hear it. (Thus endeth my venting process)
All that said, the frequent performance of the Alleluia Chorus got me thinking, reexamining it through eyes (and ears) of faith.
Handel’s Messiah may be the most famous example of a great musical form: the Oratorio. Oratorios (probably better rendered, “oratorii”) are large musical settings with storylines, characters, soloists, choirs and instruments. Sounds like an opera, right? Wrong. Oratorios are concert pieces, never acted out on stage.
The oratorio began in 17th century Rome under the inspiration of St. Philip Neri. Philip was a major proponent of using the best parts of contemporary culture to spread the experience of Christ in daily life. Poetry readings, literary studies, talks, plays, and yes – concerts were all part of his schtick. Great idea, right? The only problem was that in 17th century Rome such activities were strictly forbidden in church buildings. So…Philip and his disciples built an annex onto their church (Santa Maria in Valicella a.k.a. Chiesa Nuova). The annex – a building used for prayer and evangelization, but not necessarily for mass – became known as an oratory, lending its name both to the musical pieces performed there and to Philip’s nascent religious community, the Oratorians.
In addition to being a performance, an oratorio is really a kind of prayer, uniquely suited to bringing God into daily life. Yes, you leave humming the tune. Yes, the music helps us to learn Gospel lessons in a mnemonic fashion… but there’s more. In ecclesiastical Latin, there are two categories of prayer: prex, and oratio. Prex is something I initiate… I am the primary actor. Oratio is my speaking the word’s of another (e.g. Jesus). The other works mystically through my voice and enters not only me but – through my voice – my world. Oratio is the category to which Mass belongs: Christ works through the voice of the priest pronouncing His words, and becomes present on the altar. An oratorio (like Handel’s Messiah) can be a non-sacramental parallel to such prayer.
A very short list of great oratorios includes: Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and Haydn’s Creation. (all avail. on iTunes)
If you’re interested in St. Philip Neri’s mission, you might check out the website for St. Thomas the Apostle in Woodley Park, DC, where an Oratorian community has been given stewardship of the parish and is doing great work.