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Sources for the early history of the oratorio

October 19, 2009

Extracts from translations of four primary sources relating to the early history of the oratorio.  The extracts are all quoted in Howard E. Smither’s A History of the Oratorio, 1977, and mostly translated by Smither.  I have omitted Smither’s explanatory notes.

 

1. The dedication of Giovanni Francesco Anerio’s Teatro armonico spirituale di madrigali (Rome, 1619).  This work contains the earliest oratorios and is dedicated to Philip Neri, the founder of the first Oratory and to St. Jerome.

 2.  A description by Philip Neri, in a letter to the pope, of the practices of the first Oratorians.

 3.  A description by Cesare Baronio, from his history of the church, of the practices of the first Oratorians.

 4.  An extract from Pope Alexander VII’s Apostolic Constitution of 1657 which aimed to reform liturgical music. 

 The extracts

 1. The dedication of Giovanni Francesco Anerio’s Teatro armonico spirituale di madrigali (Rome, 1619).  This work contains the earliest oratorios and is dedicated to Philip Neri (1515-95), the founder of the first Oratory, and to St. Jerome (342-420). The dedication of the Teatro is, however, not written by Anerio; it is by the composer Orazio Griffi. Griffi was a priest at the church of San Girolamo della Carità, i.e. the church of St. Jerome.

  

To Father St. Jerome, Doctor of the Holy Church, and to the Blessed Philip Neri.

 

It has seemed to me a very reasonable and suitable thing, Glorious Champions of Christ, that the present winter Theater of the Gospels, Stories of Sacred Scriptures, and praises of all the Saints, should be issued forth by the press.  The texts were recently set to music by the Reverend Mr. Giovanni Francesco Anerio, at my urging, for the use of your Oratory under your most felicitous and holy names, in order to render to you in part, my Advocates and Protectors, the proper recognition for the high regard and devotion which I owe you.  And it is very suitable that the dedication be to you, St. Jerome, for having received and kept the Blessed Philip Neri for a period of thirty three years in your house. Where, with the help of your intercession, he arrived at such an eminent degree of Sanctity that not without marvel and amazement can his works be told.  And it is very suitable that the dedication be to you, Blessed Philip, for having done works so heroic and distinguished, under his protection in this same house, that the reform of the ways of many of the faithful, it can be said truthfully, has had its beginning in large part from you.  Easier and more effective means could not be found for drawing souls to the perfect love and fear of God than daily familiar discussions and holy persons making known to them the ugliness of sin, the pains of Hell, the beauty of the blessed souls, and the reward of eternal glory; and in this way brought to penitence, they are introduced to the frequentation of the most holy Sacraments and to the performance of works of mercy.  This you accomplished, Blessed Philip, inspired to do so by His Divine Majesty, by beginning the Oratory in this same house; and then you founded that of the Most Reverend Fathers of Vallicella under the name of the Congregation of the Oratory, which today, more than ever, flourishes with most holy progress and universal profit………since some, coming at times to the oratory only to hear the music, and then remaining, moved and captivated by the sermons and the other holy exercises that are done there, have become servants of God…………..

From your house called St. Jerome of Charity (San Girolamo della Carità) in Rome, on the First of November, 1619.

Your least and most humble servant,

 Horatio Griffi

 Smither, Howard E., A History of the Oratorio Vol. I, The University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 0-8078-1274-9, Library of Congress No. 76-43980, pp. 121-22. Trans. Smither, H., from an original in Alaleona, Oratorio, pp. 245-46; full reference: Alaleona, Storia dell’oratorio musicale in Italia.  Milan: Fratelli Bocca, 1945, original edition 1908.

  

2.  A description by Philip Neri, in a letter to the pope, of the practices of the first Oratorians.  This document was written some time after 1575, but the exact date is unknown.

Our Congregation, other than the daily spiritual discussions which take place in our Oratory, has been accustomed on feast days to holding the same exercises as a kind of recreation in various parts of Rome; and the more to allure every sort of person, between the discussions of the priests we are accustomed to have some boys recite some edifying sermons, and it is seen that our Lord is served with each of these nets for fishing souls.  Last year these exercises were continued in the courtyard of the Minerva with a much greater crowd than usual all summer, and this year the same thing was done continually, as long as the good weather lasted, in the vineyard of the Compagnia de’ Napoletani, with a crowd of perhaps three or four thousand persons; and now with the same attendance it has been transferred to the church of the Brescians in Giulia street.  Practice has shown that by inserting the pleasure of spiritual music and the simplicity and purity of boys into the serious exercises done by serious persons one draws many more people of every sort.

 Smither, Howard E., A History of the Oratorio Vol. I, The University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 0-8078-1274-9, Library of Congress No. 76-43980, p. 52. Trans. Smither, H., from an original in Marciano, Oratorio, I:37; full reference: Marciano, Giovanni, Memori historiche della Congregatione dell’ Oratorio.  5 vols.  Naples: De Bonis, Stampatore Arcivescovale, 1693-1702.

  

3.  A description by Cesare Baronio, from his history of the church, of the practices of the first Oratorians c. 1557.

There was first a little silent prayer, and then a brother would read some spiritual book.  During that reading usually the same father, who supervised everything, would discuss what was read, explaining it, amplifying it, and impressing it into the hearts of the listeners.  And sometimes he would ask others about it, proceeding almost in the manner of a dialogue; and this exercise would last perhaps an hour, to the very great enjoyment of all.  After that a brother would go up, in turn, to a chair that was raised by a few steps, and without any ornament of language he would preach a sermon woven from the approved lives of the saints, from some place in the Scriptures, and from some place in the writings of the Fathers.  After him would follow a second, and he would preach another sermon in the same style, but on a different subject.  Finally came the third, who would tell of the history of the Church, according to the order of the time.  Each lasted one half-hour. When that was done, to the marvelous utility and consolation of the listeners, a spiritual lauda was sung.  And after a few more prayers, the exercise concluded.  When things were organized in this manner and established with the authority of the pope, it seemed that, as much as the present times allow, the ancient apostolic manner had been renewed.

 Smither, Howard E., A History of the Oratorio Vol. I, The University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 0-8078-1274-9, Library of Congress No. 76-43980, p. 49. Trans. Smither, H., from an original in Baronio, Annali, I: 160; full reference: Baronio, Annali ecclesiastici.  19 vols.  Lucca: Leonardo Venturini, 1738-46.

  

4.  An extract from Pope Alexander VII’s Apostolic Constitution, Piae sollicitidinis of 23 April 1657, which aimed to reform liturgical music. 

 We, occupied in looking after the decorum and reverence of the churches destined for divine praises and prayer, and of the oratories of our gracious city (from which examples of good works go forth into all parts of the world), are compelled, by the desire of pious solicitude, to keep far away from them anything ostentatious, and especially choirs of music and symphonies in which anything indecorous or divorced from ecclesiastical rite is mixed in, with offense of the Divine Majesty, scandal of the faithful, and impediment of the elevation of hearts and devotion to things that are above.

 Smither, Howard E., A History of the Oratorio Vol. I, The University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 0-8078-1274-9, Library of Congress No. 76-43980, p. 150.  Translated in Culley, German, pp. 266-67; full reference: Thomas D., S. J. A Study of the Musicians Connected with the German College in Rome during the 17th Century and of  Their Activities in Northern Europe.  Sources and Studies for the History of the Jesuits, vol. 2, Jesuits and Music, vol. I.  St. Louis Mo.: Jesuit Historical Institute, St. Louis University, 1970.

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