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I'm writing a large work (30+ minutes) for chorus and orchestra, and have just finished my first pass at writing the libretto. There is quite a lot of text and I worry it's too many words to fit the allotted time. I'm trying to research how many words oratorios have so I can get a sense of how many words are common for works of a certain length. But several unsuccessful google searches later I have determined that no one seems to have this information readily available. I searched for things like

libretto word count

and got nothing useful. Are there any sources that might have this information? Or is there a rule of thumb that might tell guide me?

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  • @ToddWilcox in an oratorio, the entire libretto typically fits on a couple of pages. The rough estimate you propose makes no sense for most musical text setting. Something in the range of 10 to 60 minutes per page is probably more like it, depending on the text (is it a poem with short lines?) and the style of text setting (tempo, declamatory vs. lyrical, etc.).
    – phoog
    May 31, 2023 at 3:28
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    There is a difference between the number of words in the text of an oratorio and the number of words actually sung isn't there. The Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah has a text of just 39 words but some are repeated a lot. This makes the calculations more awkward in my view.
    – JimM
    May 31, 2023 at 9:05
  • @JimM (And the last movement of the Messiah is just "Amen"!) May 31, 2023 at 17:22
  • @ToddWilcox even then the page-to-time ratio will depend on the recitative-to-aria ratio and other stylistic variables. A minute a page seems very wrong for opera, too. I know lots of 2- to 3-hour operas. None of them has a libretto of anything close to 120 to 180 pages.
    – phoog
    May 31, 2023 at 17:29
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    @phoog It’s widely known for plays, musical theatre, and screenplays. It’s also not a rule, it’s a good approximation when you’re drafting to have a sense of where you are. But it wasn’t too far off for opera either, based on my survey of a few libretti. Jun 1, 2023 at 13:28

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All you can really do is start writing the music. You'll soon find out if you've got too many/too few words. There's no words-per-minute rule. Some composers just say everything once and get through lots of text (though there's usually a certain amount of repetition in a musical work). Others could get ten minutes out of 'Amen'! I expect you'll be somewhere in-between.

How many words did you use in other, shorter, pieces you've written? I don't suppose a big 30 minute work is your first attempt at composition!

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I don’t think so. Generally this would also differ, as different treatment will result in different text density. A recitative will be able to pack a lot of text in quite little time, an aria or ensemble piece on the other hand will be able to make four sentences take ten minutes.

You could try taking existing works you think are similar to what you want to achieve and simply run the librettos through a word count software.

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I have not encountered such a term, and I suspect it is of the category: easily explained but little real world impact (similar to number of notes in a composition).

For compositions nothing beats average performance time possibly supplemented by number of soloists/instrumentalists, where the latter is typically given as minimum..

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