Considerations of the Body in Handel’s Samson (HWV 57)
Centro de Estudos Comparatistas, Faculdade de Letras, Universidade de Lisboa
Considerations of the Body in Handel’s Samson (HWV 57): The Body in Performance and the Body at Absolute Distance
Dedalus 22-23 (2018-2019), pp. 137-161. Download PDF
George Frideric Handel’s Samson (HWV 57, 1743) is one of the composer’s oratorios based on a work of English literature, in this case John Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671). Milton did not intend the dramatic poem to be staged, as he explicitly states in the poem’s preface. Handel’s oratorio was performed in the manner of Handel’s oratorios of the period – that is, without scenery, costumes, or enactment. The oratorio’s autograph score, conducting score, and wordbook (1743A), nevertheless, provide description that suggests reflection on the narrative with material representation.
In the first scene of Act 1 of Handel’s Samson, Samson is described in the score as follows:
Samson blind and in chains
Chorus of the priests of Dagon, celebrating his festival at a distance
These indications appear in the score and in the wordbook (1743A) read by the audience with the exception of the “at a distance” qualification (which is contained uniquely in the score). Narrative content that occurs “at a distance” appears again at the conclusion of the oratorio, and the description appears in the score and in the wordbook (1743A). This initial description at the start of the oratorio, however, points to three different problems that illustrate the disunion between the body in performance and the dramatic (or narrative) content of music performed – namely, the dissolution of a direct relationship between the performing body and the oratorio’s narrative content: (1) Samson is blind and (2) in chains, and (3) there is a strong concept of bodies “at a distance.” The focus of our discussion will be on the physical impediments Handel is able to overcome in the oratorio when narrative content occurs “at a distance” from the singers onstage. This is especially relevant in consideration of how Handel’s oratorio performances did not portray action onstage in a normative (theatrical, or representational) way. Ultimately, we will determine how the materiality of the performing body dissolves within the notion of absolute distance in light of the content of Christian tragedy present in the Samson oratorio.
George Frideric Handel, John Milton, Hans-Georg Gadamer, oratorio, Samson, Samson Agonistes, absolute distance, aesthetics, tragedy
Sara Eckerson is currently a post-doctoral scholar at the Program in Literary Theory, University of Lisbon, and a researcher at the Centre for Comparative Studies, University of Lisbon. Her post-doctoral project explores Handel’s oratorios and their ability to inspire thought and narrative without an explicit visual production. Sara received her PhD from the Program in Literary Theory, at the Faculty of Letters, University of Lisbon, in 2016, with a dissertation on musical notation, expressive word cues, and Beethoven. She primarily studies the way performance practice, philosophy, and literature can bring new insights to musical meaning. Her academic interests include music history, musicology, hermeneutics, aesthetics, and the philosophy of music. She has published several articles on the philosophy of music, and essays of music criticism. Her most recent article, published in the Yale Journal of Music & Religion, is “The Material of the Servant: Theology and Hermeneutics in Handel’s Samson” (2018). Before coming to the University of Lisbon, Sara studied music and literature at New York University. She earned her B.A. from New York University in 2006.