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What’s the Difference Between Cantata and Oratorio? (Facts Revealed)

What’s the Difference Between Cantata and Oratorio? (Facts Revealed)

Cantatas and oratorios are sung musical performances from the Baroque period that include recitative arias, choruses, and duets. They lack staging, sets, costumes, or action, which distinguishes them from opera, which has a more fully realized tale and theatrical presentation.

Although some of the most brilliant and memorable oratorios and cantatas were based on religious texts, at least one of the musical forms did not incorporate sacred themes at first.

In this article, I’ll give you details about cantata and oratorio and what makes them different from each other.

The Cantata

The cantata is the shorter of the two, and it was originally a secular production, then mostly religious song and music, and finally a form that could be interpreted in either way.

Cantatas are 20 minutes or less-long works that feature soloists, a choir or chorus, and an orchestra. They are much shorter works than operas or oratorios.

A cantata is made up of five to nine movements that tell a single sacred or secular story. For his patron, Prince Esterhazy, Haydn composed a “Birthday Cantata.” “Orphee Descending aux Enfers” — “Orpheus Descending to the Underworld” — was one of Charpentier’s favorite classical themes, and he composed a cantata for three male voices on it. Later, he composed a little opera on the same subject.

The Cantata Was Sung Not Produced
The Cantata Was Sung Not Produced

History of Cantata

The cantata was developed in Rome and spread throughout Europe from there. It was sung but not produced, like the oratorio, but it may have any theme and any number of voices, from one to many; for example, a secular cantata for two voices might have a romantic theme and use a man and a woman.

A cantata was similar to an opera in that it blended arias with recitative portions, and it could even appear to be a scene from an opera that stood alone. Cantatas were also quite popular as church music in German Protestant areas, particularly in the Lutheran Church.

These sacred cantatas, often known as chorale cantatas, were frequently based on a well-known hymn or chorale. The chorale is mentioned several times throughout the cantata, and the chorus sings it in typical four-part harmony at the end.

The demand for cantatas from composers, many of whom were also church organists, was especially high in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and a large number of cantatas were created during this time period.

For example, Georg Philipp Telemann (1686–1767) is thought to have composed as many as 1,700 cantatas during his lifetime, with 1,400 of them surviving in printed and handwritten copies today.

Telemann was an exception, but his production reflects the Lutheran church’s near-insatiable desire for cantatas in the first part of the eighteenth century.

Telemann’s Cantatas

Many of Telemann’s cantatas were written while he was the musical director of the Saxe-Eisenach court, as well as in Frankfurt and Hamburg.

Composers like Telemann were required by these roles to regularly produce a fresh cycle of cantatas for the church year, which was subsequently revived and played on later occasions.

For the weeks of the year and other feasts marked with music in the church, these cycles necessitated at least sixty independent pieces. Telemann was expected to complete a cycle of cantatas and church music for the city’s churches every two years during his time in Eisenach.

The city of Frankfurt insisted that he develop a fresh cycle every three years. However, in Hamburg, where the composer lived from 1721 until 1767, he was expected to produce two cantatas for each Sunday service, as well as a concluding chorus or aria.

Despite this demanding schedule, which included the obligations of leading the city’s opera and choral school, Telemann proved to be more than capable of producing the required music.

During this time, he also managed to write 35 operas and other works for the city’s theatre, as well as accept requests for occasional music for Hamburg’s wealthy people and nobility from other parts of Germany.

Telemann, who was always open to the financial opportunities his talents provided, was able to publish several of his cantata cycles in Hamburg, which was a rarity at the time.

The cantatas of the composer were widely performed in German Lutheran churches, and by the second half of the eighteenth century, they were among the most frequently sung works in the Lutheran church.

Cantata is a shorter version of the Oratorio
Cantata is a shorter version of the oratorio

The Oratorio

The oratorio was originally performed in a church and was created to a long, continuous religious or devotional text.

Oratorios quickly filled secular as well as religious venues with Latin — and even English — texts arranged to music that contained anywhere from 30 to more than 50 movements and lasted anywhere from one and a half to two hours or more.

Composers — or their patrons, who were typically important religious people — were drawn to the Passion of Christ and Christmas. Oratorios such as Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” and Handel’s “Messiah” are regularly performed.

Oratorio’s Ascension

The oratorio sprang to popularity as a type of religious vocal music performed outside of churches. The name derives from the early works’ performance in houses of prayer erected for devotional societies in Rome.

An oratorio is theatrical in the same way that an opera is, and it arose about the same time as opera. Emilio de’ Cavalieri‘s Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo, written in 1600, appears to be a cross between an oratorio and an opera in many aspects.

The plot of an oratorio is usually religious, but the plot of an opera isn’t. Another distinction is the lack of acting. Oratorio singers don’t act out their parts on stage. Therefore, costumes and staging are rarely used.

Instead, they stand and sing along with the rest of the chorus, while a narrator explains the scene. During Lent, oratorios began to take the place of opera in Italian cities.

The religious subject matter of oratorios appeared more appropriate for the penitential season, but spectators could still enjoy attending a performance that contained musical forms akin to opera.

Giacomo Carissimi (1605–1704), an early oratorio composer in Rome, was instrumental in establishing the genre’s distinctive characteristics.

Oratorios, like operas, featured a combination of recitative, arias, and choruses, with recitative used to tell events and arias meant to highlight particularly important aspects of the biblical stories on which the libretti were based.

Carissimi’s oratorios had more choruses than operas, and this was true of the genre as it developed in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century.

Oratorios used all of the popular musical styles in Italy at the time, but as the form moved to France and composers like Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643–1704) began to write them, they also incorporated styles from French opera.

The oratorio was added to the German-speaking parts of Central Europe’s long-standing traditions of performing religious plays during Holy Week and Easter, as well as at Christmas and other religious holidays, by the late seventeenth century.

The oratorio became a popular type of music in both Protestant and Catholic areas of the Holy Roman Empire, with Hamburg, a Lutheran city in northern Germany, serving as a major hub for oratorios.

Oratorio is similar to Opera
Oratorio is quite similar to opera.

Cantata vs. Oratorio

The cantata is seen as the inevitable successor to the madrigal by some. This was a very popular secular vocal work throughout the Renaissance period, and it dominated the scene.

As we enter the Baroque era, it follows that the cantata should find its place among the other vocal forms of composition. 

Despite their secular origins, the cantatas were quickly absorbed by the church, particularly Lutheran churches, and into German sacred music. 

The cantata evolved into a connected series of recitatives followed by the popular ‘Da capo’ aria, from a simple recitative and aria structure that can be traced back to early opera.

The forces for which the piece is composed are a crucial distinguishing feature when it comes to cantata and oratorio. The cantata is a small-scale piece, usually requiring only a few vocalists and a small ensemble of instruments.

There was no staging of these works, no operatic grandeur, just a text setting that was almost recitative-like. Buxtehude’s and, of course, JS Bach’s works are possibly the best examples of this.

As you might assume, JS Bach didn’t merely embrace the popular form of cantata; rather, he refined it and elevated it to new musical heights.

JS Bach’s Chorale Cantatas were one of these breakthroughs. These longer works would start with a sophisticated fantasy chorale based on the opening stanza of a hymn of choice. JS Bach contrasted this start with the hymn’s last verse, which he composed in a significantly simpler style. 

Many theories exist as to why JS Bach did this, but the possibility for the congregation to participate may have been the most plausible.

The cantata fell out of favor as the classical age progressed, and it was no longer on active composers’ minds. Cantatas were written by Mozart, Mendelssohn, and even Beethoven, but they were far more open in their focus and form, with a noticeably more secular slant. 

Later British composers, such as Benjamin Britten, wrote cantatas, with his setting of the Good Samaritan story in his Op. 69 piece ‘Cantata misericordium‘ as an example. (1963) 

Let’s have a look at the oratorio, the second competitor mentioned in the headline of this piece. Scholarly consensus favors the oratorio’s origins in the Renaissance Era, as well as lesser-known Italian composers such as Giovanni Francesco Anerio and Pietro Della Valle.

These and other Italian composers were regarded as producing sacred dialogues that included both narrative and drama and were stylistically similar to madrigals. 

The Baroque Period

The oratorio grew in prominence during the Baroque period. Performances began taking place in public halls and theatres, signaling a shift from the sacred oratorio to a more secular style. 

The Life of Jesus or other Biblical figures and stories remained at the center of composers’ popular materials for the oratorio.

As the oratorio entered the final stages of the Baroque period, both Italian and German composers began to produce significant numbers of these pieces. Surprisingly, England was one of the last countries to embrace the oratorio. 

It wasn’t until GF Handel, who was highly influenced by his Italian contemporaries, composed magnificent oratorios like ‘Messiah,’ ‘Israel in Egypt,’ and ‘Samson,’ that England began to appreciate the oratorio. In his oratorios, GF Handel created a near-perfect marriage of Italian’serious opera and the very English song.

Cantata and Oratorio are usually performed in a choir
Cantata and Oratorio are usually performed in a choir

The Classical Period

In the Classical period, Joseph Haydn continued to produce oratorios, following in the footsteps of GF Handel.

Both ‘The Seasons’ and ‘The Creation’ are beautiful classical oratorios. Unlike the cantata, the oratorio grew in popularity and success as the western musical world progressed. 

Few composers continued to exemplify ideals established by GF Handel so many years before, such as:

Oratorio even drew the attention of Paul McCartney, the famed Beetle, whose ‘Liverpool Oratorio’ (1990) received critical acclaim. The oratorio is a composition for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, akin to the cantata.

The main distinction is that the oratorio is on a much larger scale than the late Baroque or Classical oratorio, which can span up to two hours and feature multiple recitatives and arias. The humble cantata, on the other hand, is a far cry from this.

Some oratorios have staging directions in their scores that a cantata does not, however these seem to have been less prevalent in the late classical period. Similarly, rather than the usual hymns or prayers, the chorus was frequently entrusted with components of narrative. 

Both the oratorio and the cantata have comparable beginnings and utilize similar forces, with the oratorio outnumbering the cantata in terms of a sheer number of performers and time.

Since the Baroque era, when both vocal styles achieved great popularity, sacred and secular variants of both have been written.

Both oratorio and cantata lost ground during the Romantic Era, but the oratorio has maintained a solid lead over the cantata in recent years.

There are several instances of each style of art, each with its own distinctive offering to the listener. Here’s a table containing some differences between cantata and oratorio.

Cantata is a more dramatic work that is performed in acts and sets to music for singers and instrumentalistsOratorio is a large musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists
Musical theatreConcert piece
Uses myths, history, and legendsUses religious and sacred topics
No interaction between charactersThere’s little interaction between characters
Difference Between Cantata and Oratorio
What is the difference between an Oratorio and a Cantata?


  • Cantatas are shorter version of oratorio. They last only for 20 to 30 minutes. Whereas oratorios are much longer.
  • They are both performed using instruments and in choir or solo. No costumes or stage is involved in cantata and oratorio.
  • Oratorio usually tells a religious story or uses sacred topics. Whereas, the cantata is usually based on history.
  • The Cantata was developed in Rome and spread throughout Europe.

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