Handel’s dramatic oratorio, Samson, features epic instrumental color and sumptuous vocal writing that showcases Handel’s virtuosity. For this stunning season finale, Harry Christophers is joined by an international cast of exceptional singers alongside the Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus. Premiered by H+H in US in 1845, the oratorio tells the well-known Biblical story of the imprisoned hero who falls powerless after his wife, Dalila, cuts off his hair.
Joshua Ellicott, tenor (Samson)
Joélle Harvey, soprano (Dalila)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers, alto (Micah)
Matthew Brook, bass-baritone (Manoah)
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone (Harapha)
Stefan Reed, tenor (messenger)
Sonja DuToit Tengblad, soprano (Israelitish woman)
Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus
Friday May 2, 7.30pm, at Symphony Hall
Sunday May 4, 3pm, at Symphony Hall
Note: Online sales for the Sunday, May 4 concert have closed. Tickets will be available at Symphony Hall Box Office lobby beginning at 1:30pm.
While they [the Philistines] were in high spirits, they shouted, “Bring out Samson to entertain us.”… When they stood him among the pillars, Samson said to the servant who held his hand, “put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them.” Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform. Then Samson prayed to the Lord, “O Sovereign Lord, remember me.”… Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them… Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. (Judges 16:25–30)
This passage from Judges inspired the poem Samson Agonistes by John Milton (1608–1674). The poem of over 1,750 lines was published in 1671 with Paradise Regain’d. Milton’s poem focuses on the end of the Biblical story in Judges 13–16, in which Samson, an Israelite, having revealed the secret of his immense physical strength to his Philistine wife, Dalila, is captured, blinded, and bound in chains. In the end, he sacrifices himself for the Israelites.
Handel’s Samson, an oratorio in three acts, sets a libretto by Newburgh Hamilton (1691–1761). Hamilton, who provided Handel with two other librettos, Alexander’s Feast (1736) and the Occasional Oratorio (1746), adapted Milton’s poem for this oratorio, highlighting a portion of the Biblical story that would have resonated with London audiences; many in England felt the nation’s position in the world in the early eighteenth century reflected in the Old Testament struggles of the Israelites.
The continuing appeal of this oratorio has been the topic of some discussion. In his preface to the wordbook or libretto, Newburgh Hamilton said that Handel had united the “the most pleasing Airs of the Stage” with church music. More recent commentators cite the use of the chorus as both characters (the Israelites or Philistines) and observers. Another factor in the appeal of this oratorio lies in the simplicity of the plot: Samson is the story of a man who makes a decision.
In order to carry the listener into Samson’s mindset, Handel juxtaposes pairs of characters. As the oratorio opens, Samson sings a recitative, full of the stops and starts of an exhausted laborer. He explains how he can’t rest because of “a solemn feast to Dagon” (the god of his captors). This feast forms the backdrop for the entire oratorio. The joyous chorus and trumpet fanfares of the Philistines’ celebration (“Awake the trumpet’s lofty sound”) contrast sharply with Samson’s next recitative of despair (“Why by an angel was my birth foretold?”).
Next, Micah, a friend of Samson, comments on how “heroic Samson” is diminished “beyond report, thought or belief.” Micah and Samson do not yet interact, each expressing their own anguish privately, as Micah then sings a lament for Samson that links his fate to that of Israel (“O mirror of our fickle state!”). Samson confirms this connection and takes the responsibility for Israel’s plight on himself (“Whom have I to complain of but myself”), before Micah makes her presence known.
The true depth of Samson’s misery is revealed in his aria “Total eclipse.” Handel expresses Samson’s isolation from his community (as a captive of the enemy) and from the world (through both his physical and metaphorical blindness) beautifully and explicitly in Samson’s unaccompanied, descending lines. The halting rhythms that open and recur in the aria along with the sparse string accompaniment recall the opening recitatives that expressed Samson’s exhaustion. The length of the aria is somewhat unexpected; however, it, too, underscores both Samson’s situation and state of mind.
What Handel’s audiences knew—and what will be stated openly in Act II—is how Samson brought all this on himself (or fate decreed it). He married a Philistine, Dalila, and then revealed to her that his hair was the source of his amazing strength. She shared his secret with her people and Samson is now blinded and a prisoner. While speaking to his father Manoah, Samson accepts responsibility for all that has happened both to him personally and to Israel; Samson’s physical blindness is now related to his remorse over revealing his God-given gift (“My griefs forbid my eye to close”) and his frustration for his people (“Why does the God of Israel sleep?”). For himself, Samson only hopes for death (“Soon shall these orbs to double darkness yield”), even though his father talks about negotiating Samson’s release from captivity.
In Act II, Samson, having not yet made his decision, is at his lowest and most helpless point. The next character to enter is Dalila; Samson’s conversation with her propels him to a decision. As a manifestation of his growing inner strength, Samson matches Dalila in power and has the last word in their duet, “Traitor to love.”
Samson’s journey back from hopelessness is characterized in his interactions with Harapha who comes to mock Samson. In another play on the word “see,” referring to the battle in which Samson slew an army with the jawbone of an ass, Harapha claims that he would have beaten Samson on the battlefield. When Samson challenges Harapha to fight, he replies that Samson is not a worthy opponent (“The combat with a blind man I disdain”). Samson’s initial encounter with Harapha ends like that with Dalia, in a duet in which Samson surpasses Harapha in strength—especially in the florid vocal passages (melismas) in Samson’s music. Again, he has the final word. Mirroring the duets, the Act II finale features in a spectacular vocal “battle” a chorus in which the Israelites turn to Jehovah for help even as the Philistines turn to Dagon.
In Act III, Harapha returns to bring Samson to the Philistine celebration as entertainment. At first refusing, Samson finally relents, feeling his physical strength returning (with the passage of time, his hair has begun to grow again). Far more important is the fact that Samson has made a decision. Samson’s resolution is heard in “Thus, when the sun,” which uses imagery of morning dispelling the shadows, set in ascending lines with a gently pulsing accompaniment. The long lines and rising motion of the music create a serene feeling, indicating that Samson is at peace with what he intends to do.
The raucous sound of the chorus of Philistines, leaves Manoah fearing for his son’s life. After hearing a terrible sound and the cries of the Philistines, a messenger delivers the news of the destruction of the Philistine temple and Samson’s heroic death. A solemn funeral procession, with the most colorful orchestration in the entire oratorio, is followed by “Glorious hero,” which also moves from low to high. There is a tender quality to Manoah’s opening, followed by the women’s call to “Bring the laurels,” and the full chorus’ plaintive lament. Sorrow turns to praise in the final aria (“Let the Bright Seraphim”) and chorus, in which the strength of the Israelites is heard in the chordal exclamations “Let their celestial concert all unite.”
Handel began composing Samson on September 14, 1741, within days of finishing Messiah. Handel completed this oratorio in less than six weeks, after which he went to Dublin where Messiah would be premiered. After returning from Dublin, Handel revised Samson, and it was premiered in London on February 18, 1743. A great initial success, Samson was revived (and revised) throughout Handel’s lifetime. The work has never been entirely forgotten; audiences are kept riveted by the dramatic and poignant musical characterization of a person who seemed to have lost everything, but who realized an inner strength that reached beyond all else (sight, family, and country). Through his music, Handel made this hero human.
The concepts of “seeing” and “light” are used throughout the oratorio to refer to both Samson’s physical circumstances and his mindset as he progresses from hopelessness to inner strength and fortitude. The storytelling is vivid; the music defines each character. Although there is no staging, the audience can “see” the dramatic situation being played out in the music. This is perhaps another play on seeing, one that Handel, as an experienced opera composer, brought to full fruition in this powerfully moving oratorio.
© Teresa M. Neff, PhD, 2014
2013–2014 Christopher Hogwood Historically Informed Performance Fellow