George Frideric Handel’s Samson oratorio (HWV 57, 1743) has posed critical difficulty for scholars because of its libretto. The librettist, Newburgh Hamilton, is often accused of making a poor adaption of John Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671). One of the main points of criticism centers on how Hamilton removed much of Samson’s deliberation from the source text. In this article, however, it will be argued that the way ideas and commentary pass through different voices (namely, from Samson and Micah to the Chorus of Israelites) contributes to the unique interpretation the oratorio puts forward of the Samson narrative. The method to explore this theme is interdisciplinary, derived from literary hermeneutics and musical aesthetics, to locate theological notions specifically related to the material of the body in the oratorio.
To emphasize the hermeneutic movement in the oratorio, and the theological relevance of the different perspectives embodied in these voices, this article will focus on one particular sequence in the oratorio (from in act 1, scene 2): the “Total Eclipse!” air, to the accompagnato “Since Light so necessary is to Life,” to the chorus “O first created Beam!” This excerpt is especially interesting from a hermeneutic perspective since the libretto draws on Milton’s Samson Agonistes (ll. 80-97), and Hamilton returns to the same Miltonic lines within this sequence multiple times. This sequence is particularly important for the Samson narrative; “Total Eclipse!” constitutes a frequently cited starting point for Samson’s spiritual progress in the oratorio, notably because of how successful the air is in portraying Samson’s pathos. The main theological argument that will come to the forefront as the sequence unfolds rests on a hermeneutic principle derived from Augustine, where observation of the material world offers insight into the relation between the creation narrative and Samson’s particular narrative (and suffering). Ultimately the accompagnato and chorus, through reference to the creation narrative, will show how Providence (in light of the material body) reveals the purpose of the individual (and all created life) as the servant of God.
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Eckerson, Sara E.
"The Material of the Servant: Theology and Hermeneutics in Handel’s Samson,"
Yale Journal of Music & Religion:
2, Article 1.