Handel supposedly invented the English oratorio. For sure the oratorio existed before but not in England for historical reasons. In Elizabethan and Jacobite times the theatre was not that musical. Music though was in churches and a great choir singing tradition remained very alive and even probably developed with Oxford and Cambridge being some strongholds of the tradition. Henry VIII helped music too but not in the direction of oratorios, rather the English madrigal.
Then the Puritans came and that kind of distraction (not entertainment, distraction of course) was banned and theatres closed and then the only surviving musical tradition was that of chorals and hymns in churches. The Glorious Revolution after the Restoration gave to music a new impulse and Purcell was first, going back to Shakespearian and Elizabethan subjects and bringing in some French forms. The theatres were reopened and music was reintroduced in them. It was the time of masques. Handel arrived and just pushed that renascent art slightly further and he developed the tradition of the opera and of the oratorio, or Biblical opera.
This oratorio is in this tradition and shows all the innovations Handel brought to the English stage.
First the instrumental music of the small symphonies and here a dead march too is rich and very innovative in the way the instruments are used together both contrasted and associated. He also uses the trumpets and other instruments of that family in a very dynamic way. The subject containing some military action is pushing that way. But even when the music is the accompaniment of an aria or a recitative it is rich and colorful.
The second element is the work on voices. They are not haphazard as they could have been even with Monteverdi. He is in the tradition of Vivaldi and Mozart. He also uses altos who were castratos at the time and brought some to London for his operas. He had up to three permanent castratos in London in some periods, like when he produced Agrippina that has three alto parts. This oratorio has one alto part. Strangely enough he is not the main hero but his friend Micah, who plays an important role but is not the main hero.
Yet this voice is chosen to contrast with all other characters, especially when he is in a duet. Contrast with Samson, a tenor, with Manoa, a bass, Harapha, another bass, and he could have contrasted a lot more with Dalila, a soprano, but this production has reduced Dalila to little to center the oratorio on the heroic act or rebellion of Samson rather than his betrayed love affair with Dalila. Dalila betrayed Samson to the Philistines who thus managed to vanquish his strength and to blind him and put him to slavery in Gaza. Dalila is a secondary plot in this oratorio and Nikolaus Harnoncourt has reduced it.
Yet, to finish with the alto voice, in the play Samson is an enslaved hero who is more or less going to be a hero again, but in his death and by his death. On the other hand Micah, his friend is the real hero since he is a free man and he is the one who is going to guide Samson along, encourage him, even strengthen him in his weakness and give him the courage he needs to bring the fall of the Philistines and the cult of Dagon, the pagan god and idol. At the same time he is the one, with Samson's father, who is going to sing the dirge after his death, the funeral song.
The plot is also interesting not only because it is biblical. All that is in the Bible is not of interest, but because we are in England in the 18th century when England is living a great transformation: the invention of parliamentarianism but also the development of the Industrial Revolution, the agricultural revolution with the enclosure movement and England due to the fact that her kings have been of rather foreign origin for a century and a half, Scottish, Dutch and now Hanoverian needed to build some kind of national folklore. Purcell had invented a very British King Arthur and Handel develops oratorios on the great heroes of the Bible, Saul, Solomon, with David and other characters, and of course Jesus in his Messiah, and many others. The operas often concerned Roman emperors and generals and the question of the legitimacy of power.
This oratorio is of a deeper trend since it does not study the legitimacy of power but the legitimacy of rebellion when it is against here a pagan idol and paganism with a strong accent on the connection between the father and the son, their continuation in both direction and in this case the father is going to continue the son. These themes were themes directly debated in England with the successive kings and the religious debate which was far from being closed.
Some of the tracks are extremely beautiful. On the first CD the three tracks 11-12-13 with Manoah, the father, are extremely powerful and we meet in such tracks the great care of Handel to have librettos that were poetic. The very powerful chiasmus: "To sorrows now I tune my song, / And set my harp to notes of woe." gives to the music a meaningful artistic beauty that is not always present in many other operas and oratorios whose librettists are not necessarily great poets.
On the second CD the Symphony of Horror is quite effective as a break in the composition and the Dead March is also very special. Far from being a real somber dirge, it is a funeral rite for sure but that brings the dead man to glory, a sort of triumphant dead march. And Manoah's aria on track 26 is great poetry again with a whole set of intertwined chiasmi: "Glorious hero, may thy grave / Peace and honour ever have; / After all thy pain and woes / Rest eternal, sweet repose." The final chiasmus of the final line is at least as beautiful as the dead march/lullaby of the end of Bach's Saint John's Passion: "Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine,", "Rest well, sacred bones."
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU