Saturday, June 25, 2016

Handel: Samson, Act I

What time is it? 3:06 pm on Friday 24 June
What coffee am I drinking? Napoletano (Italian roast)
What version am I listening to? The Sixteen & The Symphony of Harmony and Invention, conducted by Harry Christophers

Initial thoughts: Handel does an amazing job of taking a story without much action (Samson has already been captured and blinded, and he is now a slave for the Philistines) and yet creating something that is still full of drama. As in many of Handel's oratorios, the characters' thoughts and expression of feeling, rather than the plot, was most important. So, if there isn't much action happening, how does Handel create this drama? A few thoughts:
  1. Changes in mood
  2. Intriguing instrumental writing
  3. Character development
First of all, Handel is a master of "setting the mood". (I bet he really wooed the ladies if he did this on dates as much as he did in his music.) Samson's father, Manoa, shows a huge contrast of emotions within a single aria, Thy glorious deeds inspir'd my tongue. The first part of the aria shows a father's pride and joy because of his wonderful son; the second part changes to grief and despair due to his son's downfall and current pitiful condition. Handel writes two heart-wrenching arias for Samson in Act I: Torments alas! and Total eclipse! Right from the beginning of the latter, the lack of instruments shows Samson's feelings of aloneness and hopelessness in being blind. And even the choruses play quite different emotional roles: the chorus of Philistines comes in towards the beginning with their joy and exuberance, yet when the chorus of Israelites comes in later in Act I, they are much more reserved. 

Handel's music is so interesting not only because of the vocal music but also because of the instrumental writing. As Aaron Keebaugh said in his Boston Classical Review, ( “...but Handel’s instrumental writing is the soul of the story. Chromatic shadings lace the music’s sorrowful moments. At other times, the strings unleash a fury of darting figures, like strikes of lightning on a barren landscape, to capture Samson’s all-consuming anger.” We see this in Samson's aria Why does the God of Israel sleep? as Samson finally seems to move past his grief (at least for a moment) and, with zeal, becomes angry towards the Philistines and calls God to awaken and punish them. But the zeal is not only from Samson...the strings also have fire and zeal which give this song the energy it needs. 

And finally, this oratorio is like a great book in that the writing of the characters keeps the audience intrigued. Robert Hugill, in a Music and Vision review (, says that this tenor role of Samson is "one of the biggest and most heroic of Handel's tenor roles." What I love most about Samson's role, though, is the type of hero he is. He doesn't blame anyone else for the poor state he is in (blind, fallen from great strength to no strength, enslaved) but takes sole responsibility for it. Over and over again he blames himself for what has happened to him: "Whom have I to complain of but myself ... Myself the cause, who, vanquished by her (Delila's) tears, gave up my fort of silence ... Justly these evils have befall'n thy son; sole author I, sole cause, who have profan'd the mysteries of God; by me betray'd..." Now, you can still tell Samson is angry at Delila for the role that she played in his downfall (and, unfortunately, Samson seems to project annoyance on all women because of her), but I appreciate that he takes responsibility for his actions. If only more people could do that in our world...

Act I has set the stage for this oratorio by showing the pitiful state of Samson and the Israelites, and we've just begun to see his anger and zeal against the Philistines. Handel has done a wonderful job making this act interesting and intriguing. Although I know how the story ends, I'm excited to see the journey towards it in Act II and III!


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