Samson was originally conceived to cover only the three main encounters between Samson and the other characters in the story: Dalila, Harapha and Manoah. It ended with the funeral music for soloists and chorus, Glorious Hero. But Samson was never performed in this version, since Handel had meanwhile given the first performance of the Messiah and met a number of singers, including the alto Susanna Maria Cribber whom he now thought of casting in Samson. Therefore, he decided to expand the work to include Samson's friend, Micah (alto) and also a triumphant ending.
The oratorio was performed many times under Handel's direction and with various singers. The selection of numbers to be performed depended on which singers and instrumentalists were available for each performance. So, no rendition of the work contained all the music ever written for Samson and it can be assumed that Handel never intended it that way. He just wanted to have options so that he could still mount a complete performance of the work regardless of the ever changing pool of available musicians and singers in London. Samson was first performed at London's Covent Garden on 18 February 1743. It was acclaimed by the audience, so it was revived in the nine subsequent concert seasons. On each occasion Handel made many changes to both the cast list and the text. So, tonight, please don't feel short changed that we are not performing every single number in the piece, but be reassured that we are presenting you with a complete version of the story.
Samson is the second of Handel's oratorios to be based on Milton. His librettist Newburgh Hamilton recommended Samson Agonistes to the composer in the belief that 'nothing of that Divine Poet's work wou'd appear in the Theatre with greater Propriety or Applause', although he conceded that Milton's tragedy 'never was divided by him into Acts or Scenes, nor design'd for the stage'. Hamilton adapted the poem by turning it into three acts, retaining the Classical unities and borrowing the bulk of the recitatives from Milton's text, albeit in a substantially reduced form. At the same time he added arias and choruses from other poems by Milton.
The Anglican episcopate had put a ban on staged performances of Biblical subjects, so Handel had to find a way of presenting the 'action' of these stories without the use of scenery, lighting or a stage. To Handel, this was no great obstacle. He simply replaced the scenic element of opera by putting the drama in the music. Hence, Handel's preference for calling his oratorios, that were based on Biblical texts, 'sacred dramas', thereby emphasising the extent to which the dramatic element was of fundamental importance to him.
The most important distinction between his oratorios and his operas was the elaborate way he used the chorus. There are still the 'usual' large-scale choruses that generally bring each section to a close, i.e. the Feast of Dagon and the final Requiem. But, Handel gives the chorus two functions; firstly, to be a part of the action; and secondly, as a group that comments on the events, just like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. With these two roles the chorus participates in the drama on two levels; contributing to the action by influencing it or by reacting to it, while at the same time articulating or reflecting the emotions that emerge in the drama.
The Background- the story before the oratorio
Samson was a Hebrew hero and for 20 years the 12th judge of the tribes of Israel before the establishment of hereditary kingship. He was the son of Manoah of Zorah, of the tribe of Dan. Manoah's wife was barren, but an angel appeared to her and promised a son and said the boy should be a Nazarite - a person consecrated to the service of God. No razor was to touch the boy's head, and it was through the supernatural strength with which his hair endowed him that Samson performed his great feats, including the strangling of a lion and the slaying of a thousand Philistines (at that time the dominant peoples of Israel) with the jawbone of an ass. He was betrayed in Gaza by a Philistine woman, Dalila, who befriended him and in his sleep had his head shaved so that the Philistines could capture him. His eyes were gouged out and he was made to do forced labour.
Page last updated 6 April, 2008 by Ian Downie