On Writing an Oratorio…

November 3rd, 2016

www.phillipcooke.comAs I have a brief window of time between the joy that was moving house and the beginning of a new academic year (and shortly after that – a baby…) my thoughts have naturally turned to my next large-scale compositional project – an oratorio. This will be the largest piece I have ever written (both in terms of duration and actual performers) and is my first real foray into the choral/orchestral domain and all the baggage that comes with that. It goes without saying that I begin this process with more than a little trepidation. Excitement, though mainly trepidation.

First things first, one needs a text. Choral pieces are generally not much use without one (though Howells’s Sine Nomine is great…) and in this case it has to be Advent themed. I’m in the fortunate position that the choir who commissioned the work have given me plenty of ideas and places to research, but much of the decision making still lies on my shoulders – could I ruin this piece before I have even committed a note to manuscript paper? Hopefully not, but it does make setting something with a definite, generally agreed text (such as a Mass, Requiem etc) seem appealing. Or maybe writing my own text? Not sure that ever works particularly well, I’m not a big fan of Tippett’s poetry and prose, though I’m happy to look at other examples if people strongly disagree!

Presuming I then find the text, and I’m happy with it, what sort of piece do I actually want to write? What is an oratorio? Generally they are supposed to be long, for large choral and orchestral forces and will be on a religious theme. Perhaps they will also be multi-movement with sections for soloist, semi-chorus, arias, interludes, overtures, marching band, dancing goats etc. OK, that seems to make some sense – but if that is an oratorio, what is a cantata? Which is mine? Is it purely on scope and ambition or something else?

Presuming I have decided what beast my work is, where should I then look for inspiration? What are good models to look at? I’m going to sidestep The Messiah and Elijah and as much as I love Dream of Gerontius and Belshazzar’s Feast, they may be a little too ambitious for this occasion. I like Hymnus Paradisii, Child of Our Time and The Hymn of Jesus – but maybe something more modern? What are good examples of pieces written in the last ten, twenty, thirty years that look and smell like an oratorio?

Well, any help would be greatly appreciated. James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross is excellent and seems to fit the bill; I quite liked Nicholas Maw’s Hymnus and Paweł Łukaszewski’s Via Crucis – but these are really works for a professional, large chamber choir rather than a massed choral society. Where to look? Karl Jenkins? John Rutter? I quite liked Howard Blake’s Benedictus (in some ways) but I’m not sure it’s much use to me. John Adams’s El Niño – is that worth a listen? Jonathan Harvey, Osvaldo Golijov? Peter Maxwell Davies – he must have written at least twelve…

Well, I digress and procrastinate – it’s probably best just to jump in feet first and get on with it. This is a piece I’ve wanted to write for a while, so there is no reason to put it off any longer. I may write another blog entry when I’ve written some of it asking for more guidance or inspiration. But now I need to find that text, then listen to Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio – Wikipedia says it’s a good example of the genre – right?


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