Samson is a three-act oratorio by George Frideric Handel, considered one of his finest dramatic works. It is usually performed as an oratorio in concert form, but on occasions has also been staged as an opera.
The well-known arias “Let the bright Seraphim” (for soprano) and “Total eclipse” (for tenor) are often performed separately in concert.
Handel began its composition immediately after completing Messiah on 14 September 1741. It uses a libretto by Newburgh Hamilton, who based it on Milton’s Samson Agonistes, which in turn was based on the figure Samson in Chapter 16 of the Book of Judges.
The story traces Samson’s slavery by the Philistines after betrayal by Delilah, his imprisonment and his ultimate triumph as he destroys the Temple of Dagon.
The premiere was given at Covent Garden in London on 18 February 1743. The oratorio was a great success, leading to a total of seven performances in its first season, the most in a single season of any of his oratorios. Samson retained its popularity throughout Handel’s lifetime and has never fallen entirely out of favor since.
Blind and in chains, Samson is recovering from his slavery since the Philistines are having a festival in honour of
their god Dagon. He grieves at his fate.
The Israelites observe how their once invincible hero lies and that there is now no hope. Micah sees the whole
people’s lot reflected in his own. Samson reproaches himself, because he has been betrayed by his wife Dalila, and
especially laments his loss of sight.
Samson’s father Manoah finds Samson and is shocked by his transformation. Samson longs for death, but is
comforted by the Chorus of Israelites that he will triumph over death and time.
Micah and the Israelites call upon God to look upon the troubles of his servant. Dalila tries to recover Samson’s love
but her attempts to re-ensnare him come to nothing.
The Philistine Harapha comes to insult Samson, who challenges him to a duel. Harapha, however, reviles Samson,
claiming it is beneath his dignity to fight with a blind man. Samson mocks him as a braggart. Micah proposes to
measure the power of Dagon against that of the god of the Israelites. The Israelite and Philistine choruses both praise
Harapha arrives to take Samson to the feast of the Philistines and show him off there. Samson at first refuses to be
present at the worship of Dagon, but then thinks of a plan and agrees to go to the festival, though he warns the
Israelites to stay away from it.
Manoah arrives with plans for the children of Israel, including how to free Samson. From a distance are
heard the songs of the Philistines, calling on Dagon. Suddenly the audience hears noise and panic.
An Israelite messenger arrives and tells the audience what has happened: Samson pulled down the
building on himself and the Philistines. Samson’s dead body is brought out and the children of Israel play
and sing a funeral march. At the end, the Lord is praised.
For more information go to http://www.putnamchorale.org
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