Samson (Handel)

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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) 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. 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 cast[edit]

Poster for an early American performance of Samson


Act 1[edit]

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.

Act 2[edit]

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 their God.

Act 3[edit]

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.


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 and harpsichord)
and University of Utah Symphonic Chorale (Dr. Newell B. Weight, director)
CD: Vanguard Classics
Cat: SVC-131-32
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


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

External links[edit]