Samson (Handel)

Samson (HWV 57) 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), "Total eclipse" (for tenor) and "Let their celestial concerts" (the final chorus) are often performed separately in concert.

Background and compositionEdit

A picture of the theatre at Covent Garden where Samson was first performed

The German-born Handel had been resident in London since 1712 and had there enjoyed great success as a composer of Italian operas. His opportunities to set English texts to music had been more limited. He had spent the years 1717 to 1719 as composer in residence to the wealthy Duke of Chandos, where he had written church anthems and two stage works, Acis and Galatea and Esther. He had composed vocal music to English words for various royal occasions, including a set of Coronation anthems for George II in 1727, which had made a huge impact.[1] In 1731, a performance of the 1718 version of Esther, a work in English based on a Biblical drama by Jean Racine, was given in London without Handel's participation and had proved popular. He thus revised the work and planned to present it at the theatre where his Italian operas were being presented. However, the Bishop of London would not permit a drama based on a Biblical story to be acted out on the stage; Handel therefore presented Esther in concert form, thus giving birth to the English oratorio.[2]: 212 

Esther in its revised form proved a popular work, and Handel, though still continuing to focus on composition of Italian operas, followed it with two more sacred dramas with English words to be presented in concert form, Deborah, and Athalia (which, like Esther, was also based on a Biblical drama by Racine), both in 1733. Such was the success of his oratorios in English that eventually Handel abandoned Italian opera, his last being Deidamia in 1741, and produced a string of masterpieces of oratorio in English.[3]

Handel began the composition of Samson 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.[4] Handel completed the first act on 20 September 1741, the second act on 11 October that year, and the whole work on 29 October. Shortly after that he travelled to Dublin to put on the premiere of Messiah, returning to London at the end of August 1742 and thoroughly revising Samson.

The premiere was given at Covent Garden in London on 18 February 1743, with the incidental organ music probably the recently completed concerto in A major (HWV 307). 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.

Premiere castEdit

Poster for an early American performance of Samson
Roles, voice types, and premiere cast
Role Voice Premiere cast
Samson tenor John Beard
Dalila, Wife of Samson soprano Catherine Clive
Micah, Friend to Samson contralto Susanna Maria Cibber
Manoah, Father to Samson bass William Savage
Harapha, a Giant bass Henry Reinhold
Philistine Woman, Attendant to Dalila soprano Miss Edwards
Israelitish Woman soprano Christina Maria Avoglio
Philistine tenor Thomas Lowe
Israelitish Man tenor Thomas Lowe
Messenger tenor
Chorus of Israelites
Chorus of Philistines
Chorus of Virgins


Samson, Judge of Israel, married a Philistine woman, Dalila, who discovered that his supernatural strength derived from his never cutting his hair. Dalila shore his hair while he was sleeping and betrayed him to her people, the Philistines, enemy of the Israelites. The Philistines captured Samson and put his eyes out. The scene is set in front of the prison in Gaza. Since it is a festival day in honour of the Philistine god Dagon Samson is allowed to come out of his prison cell, albeit in chains, and receive visitors.

Act 1Edit

Samson Imprisoned, by Annibale Carracci

The Philistines celebrate the holiday in honour of their god as Samson, blind and in chains, bewails his fate. Samson's friend Micah, allowed to visit on this special day, is appalled by how low their once invincible hero has fallen, seeing in Samson's humiliation a symbol of Israel's defeat, but Samson insists it is all his own fault for having been unable to keep the secret of his magical strength from the woman who betrayed him. Samson bitterly 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.

Act 2Edit

Micah and the Israelites implore divine assistance as Samson still wishes to die. Dalila, with a group of young women, appears and tells Samson she is sorry for what she did and that she did not realise how serious the consequences would be. She attempts to convince him that she still loves him, but he angrily repudiates her.

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 their God.

Act 3Edit

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 these sounds turn to noise and panic.

An Israelite messenger arrives and tells the Israelites what has happened: Samson pulled down the building on himself and the Philistines. Samson's dead body is brought out to a funeral march and the children of Israel lament his death. The work ends on a note of thanksgiving as the Israelites praise their God.[4][5]

Musical featuresEdit

John Beard, who created the role of Samson

Samson is richly orchestrated by the standards of its day, calling for strings, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two flutes, two trumpets, timpani and continuo instruments. Handel's characterisation through music is much in evidence throughout the work, not only in the music for soloists such as Dalila's would-be seductive aria with alluring violins or in the swagger of Harapha's music, but also in the choruses, with the solemn gravity of the Israelites' music sharply contrasted with the hedonistic carefree choruses with added horns for the Philistines.[4]


Samson discography
Year Cast: Samson,
A maiden,
A messenger
Orchestra and chorus
1962 Jan Peerce,
Phyllis Curtin,
Louise Parker,
Malcolm Smith,
Roy Samuelsen,
Jean Preston,
Kenly Whitelock
Maurice Abravanel,
Utah Symphony Orchestra (Dr. Alexander Schreiner, organ, harpsichord),
University of Utah Symphonic Chorale (Dr. Newell B. Weight, director)
CD: Vanguard Classics
Cat: SVC-131-32
1968 Alexander Young,
Martina Arroyo,
Norma Procter,
Ezio Flagello,
Thomas Stewart,
Helen Donath,
Jerry J. Jennings
Karl Richter,
Münchener Bach-Orchester,
Münchener Bach-Chor
CD: 453245
1978 Robert Tear,
Janet Baker,
Helen Watts,
Benjamin Luxon,
John Shirley-Quirk
Raymond Leppard,
English Chamber Orchestra,
London Voices (Terry Edwards, dir.)
LP: STU 71240
1992 Anthony Rolfe Johnson,
Roberta Alexander,
Jochen Kowalski,
Alistar Miles,
Anton Scharinger
Nikolaus Harnoncourt,
Concentus musicus Wien
and Arnold Schoenberg Chor
CD: Teldec, Das Alte Werk
1996 Thomas Randle,
Lynda Russell,
Catherine Wyn-Rogers,
Jonathan Best,
Michael George,
Lynne Dawson,
Matthew Vine
Harry Christophers,
The Symphony of Harmony and Invention,
The Sixteen
CD:Coro Cat: COR16008
2019 Joshua Ellicott,
Sophie Bevan,
Jess Dandy,
Vitali Rozynko,
Matthew Brook,
Mary Bevan,
Hugo Hymas
John Butt,
Dunedin Consort,
Tiffin Boys' Choir
CD:Linn Records
2020 Matthew Newlin,
Klara Ek,
Lawrence Zazzo,
Luigi Di Donato,
Luigi Di Donato,
Julie Roset,
Maxime Melnik
Leonardo García Alarcón,
Millenium Orchestra,
Chœur de chambre de Namur
CD:Ricercar Records,


  • Winton Dean: Handel's Dramatic Oratorios and Masques. Clarendon, Oxford 1989, ISBN 0-19-816184-0, (Originalausgabe: Oxford University Press, Oxford 1959)
  • (in German) Hans Joachim Marx: Händels Oratorien, Oden und Serenaten. Ein Kompendium. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1998, ISBN 3-525-27815-2.
  • (in German) Albert Scheibler, Julia Evdokimova: Georg Friedrich Händel. Oratorien-Führer. Edition Köln, Lohmar 1993, ISBN 3-928010-04-2.


  1. ^ Kemp, Lindsay. "Programme Notes for Saul" (PDF). BBC. Retrieved 31 July 2016.[permanent dead link]
  2. ^ Burrows, Donald (2012). Handel (Master Musicians Series). Oxford University Press, USA; 2 edition. ISBN 978-0-19-973736-9.
  3. ^ Hicks, Anthony (2013), "Handel, George Frideric", Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press (subscription required)
  4. ^ a b c Kemp, Lindsay. "Programme Notes for "Samson"" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 May 2013. Retrieved 31 July 2016.
  5. ^ Jack, Gordon. "Programme Notes for "Samson"". Aberdeen Bach Choir. Archived from the original on 22 August 2016. Retrieved 31 July 2016.

External linksEdit