Oratorio Performance | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Oratorio Performance

Oratorio performance (international repertoire). The history of oratorio performance in Canada may be said to date back to Good Friday, 1646, when a plainsong passion was sung at Quebec City, the first known performance of an extended Easter-season program to be given in Canada.

It was not until the 18th century, however, that true oratorio was performed. At St Paul's Anglican Church in Halifax the Philharmonic Society, along with officers of the army and navy, is said to have presented an oratorio (unidentified) in April 1769, and in 1789 'several Gentlemen with Musick Bands of the Regiments' sang the final chorus of Messiah. While extracts from Messiah were given at Quebec City in 1793, it was not until 1857 that the work was performed there virtually complete, under Henry Carter. In December 1857 John Carter conducted the Sacred Harmonic Choir of Toronto in the first performance of the work in Upper Canada. Messiah has remained the most popular of all oratorios, and there have been many hundreds of performances in Canada.


Oratorio enjoyed its greatest popularity in Canada during the 19th century. By the 1840s selections often were performed in concert, and as the number of choral societies increased complete presentations were given more often in concert halls than in churches. In 1842 in Saint John, NB, a choir and 22-piece orchestra performed part of Haydn's The Creation, and in October 1845 at two Toronto concerts (conducted by J.P. Clarke and J.D. Humphreys) oratorio excerpts, including 'The Horse and His Rider' from Handel's Israel in Egypt, were performed. In May 1858 the first complete performance of Haydn's The Creation was given by the Hamilton Philharmonic Society, and in June of that year what appears to have been the first performance of Handel's Judas Maccabaeus was given in Toronto by a 160-voice choir under the direction of Rev G. Onions.

There were several premieres in the last 30 years of the 19th century. Excerpts from Sterndale Bennett's The Woman of Samaria were presented in Toronto in 1877. The Toronto Philharmonic Society under F.H. Torrington gave Mendelssohn's Elijah in 1874 and St Paul in 1876 and the Toronto premiere of Gounod's Redemption in 1882 and Mors et vita in 1886 with Lilli Lehmann as a soloist in the latter. According to Hector Charlesworth the Mors et vita performance preceded the New York premiere by 20 years.

The Montreal Philharmonic Society (1877-99) gave regular oratorio presentations, many of them local or Canadian premieres. Included were such works as Schumann's Paradise and the Peri (1885), Haydn's The Seasons (1887), and Beethoven's Christ on the Mount of Olives (1893). In London, Ont, the choir of Knox Church gave in 1885 what possibly was the first Canadian performance of Sullivan's The Prodigal Son.

Other choirs that gave oratorio performances during the late 19th century included the Berlin (Ont) Philharmonic and Orchestral Society, the Choral Societies of Hamilton and Toronto, the Mendelssohn Choir of Montreal, the New Westminster Choral Union, the Ottawa Philharmonic Society, the Sacred Harmonic Society of Hamilton, and the Saint John Oratorio Society.


While the oratorio declined somewhat in popularity in the 20th century, performances continued to be given regularly, particularly in larger cities. Coleridge-Taylor's The Atonement was premiered in Canada in 1904 by the Calgary Philharmonic Society. Torrington conducted a repeat of Gounod's The Redemption at Massey Hall in 1906 with Emma Albani as a soloist. Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius was given its Canadian premiere by the Montreal Oratorio Society in 1906. The Association chorale St-Louis-de-France presented Massenet's Marie-Magdeleine in 1907 and Pierné's La Croisade des enfants in 1909. The first Montreal performance of Franck's Les Béatitudes was given by the Association chorale Brassard in 1921; the first Montreal performance of Honegger's Le Roi David by the Association des chanteurs de Montréal in 1928. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir gave the Canadian premieres of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast in 1936 and Penderecki's St Luke Passion in 1971 and performed Vaughan Williams's Sancta civitas in 1932 (first Toronto performance) and Honegger's Joan of Arc in 1958, in addition to its innumerable performances of Messiah and the Bach St Matthew Passion. The Toronto Jewish Folk Choir sang several oratorios, including Jacob Schaefer's Biro Bidjan and Di Tzvei Brider, in 1946 and 1960 respectively, and an abridged version of Handel's Joshua in 1952. Tippett's A Child of Our Time was given its Canadian premiere in 1946 by the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir. The choir also gave the North American premiere of Penderecki's Dies irae (Auschwitz Oratorio) in 1978 with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

During its existence (1951-66) the Montreal Bach Choir gave many performances of Bach's St Matthew Passion, St John Passion, and Christmas Oratorio. The Vancouver Bach Choir has performed Berlioz' L'Enfance du Christ, Honegger's Le Roi David, and G. Welton Marquis'ss God and a Child, the last of which it commissioned and premiered in 1962. Beginning in the early 1970s the choir of the Church of St Andrew and St Paul in Montreal presented some five concerts a year whose programs included such oratorios as The Creation, Elijah, Vaughan Williams's Dona Nobis Pacem, and Handel's Judas Maccabaeus. In 1989 the Richard Eaton Singers presented the first complete performance of Alexis Contant'sLes Deux Âmes as part of the 40th anniversary of French broadcasting in Alberta. On 13 Dec 1990, Roger Norrington conducted Messiah with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and chorus.

Other 20th-century choirs which have regularly performed oratorio are the Calgary Philharmonic Chorus, the Confederation Singers (see Confederation Centre choirs) the Disciples de Massenet (Montreal), the Edmonton Choral Society, the Halifax Choral Society, the Kingston Choral Society, the Kitchener-Waterloo Philharmonic Choir, the London Fanshawe Symphonic Chorus, the Ottawa Choral Society, the Winnipeg Oratorio Society, and the Montreal Elgar Choir.

1991 - Present

The 1990s witnessed revivals of Handel and others, with a distinct upsurge in numbers of performances alongside new, eclectic, and original compositions for community ensembles. In 1993 theatre veteran Richard Ouzounian directed his own dramatic oratorio, Hasten to Come Before Winter, written to celebrate the 150th anniversary of St Paul's in Toronto. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performed US composer Richard Einhorn's oratorio Voices of Light: The Passion of Joan of Arc in 2001. Inspired by Dreyer's 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, Einhorn's music was performed at Roy Thomson Hall as an underscore to the film.

At the National Arts Centre, Victor Davies's oratorio Revelation was performed in 1997 (it had its Winnipeg premiere in 1996), with a 270-member chorus including the St Lawrence Choir of Montreal and the Ottawa Choral Society, the music described as "populist and tuneful."

The routes taken by oratorio ensembles include large ensembles (both community and professional groups) and smaller, more intimate groups, which may or may not engage in historical performance. Under Elmer Iseler, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir resounded with some 180 members from the community, with a professional core. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is reputed to be one of the leading oratorio choruses in the world.

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale was founded in Toronto in 1997 to perform the compositions of the Niagara Falls-born composer of that name whose works include The Chariot Jubilee, the first oratorio based on African-American as well as other repertoire. February 1997 saw the Toronto premiere of Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio, Blood on the Fields (on the subject of American slavery), at the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts (North York). The US composer directed the jazz oratorio and played trumpet for the event.

The Elmer Iseler Singers performed the Messiah in St James Cathedral, Toronto, in 2001. The Amadeus Choir performed Handel's Israel in Egypt in Toronto in 1997 and, at Massey Hall, Montreal's Les Violons du Roy performed the Messiah in 2001. Toronto-based Tafelmusik performed its Messiah in 1998. In the same year the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performed Bach's Easter Oratorio. In 1999 the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performed Mendelssohn's St Paul in Toronto. Laurence Ewashko's Cantata Singers of Ottawa, along with the Ottawa Choral Society and Opera Lyra over the 2003-4 season, focused on Haydn's Creation for their concert programs.

See also Christmas; Cycle of Musical Festivals of the Dominion of Canada; Easter, Lent, and the Passion; Masses; Oratorio composition; Te Deum laudamus