Darkness and Light: Handel's Rhetorical Vocal Writing in the English Oratorio Samson

Paul McMahon


In his study of Handel’s dramatic oratorio Samson (HWV 57), Winton Dean alludes to darkness and light as multi-hued poetical and spiritual elements perpetuating the narrative. Literature contextualised by rhetorical ideology, the aesthetic notion of the affections in which the composer sought to arouse and manipulate the emotions of the listener, and contemporary scholarship pertaining to Baroque performance practice offers scant evidence investigating Handel’s adaptation of rhetorical principles. This article surveys the composer’s manuscript sources, observing through a performative lens the depiction of darkness and light apparent within Handel’s rhetorical inventio.
In Act One, Samson’s despair at his state of blindness is poignantly expressed through the aria ‘Total Eclipse!’, in which melodic contouring, tacet accompaniment (dispositio), and notated rests (elocutio) promote transparency of the text. Handel’s choral setting of the text ‘O first created beam’ creates a similarly translucent vocal texture. The composer’s musico-dramatic structures offer the singer opportunities for declamatory, modulated delivery (actio), while two cadenzas notated in the score provide evidence of rhetorical decoratio within contrasting aria and recitativo accompagnato movements. In the final aria and chorus, the endless blaze of light created by a burning row of bright seraphim signifies the praise of God, while alluding to the redemption of Samson’s honour.
This article highlights the expressive rhetorical practices evident within one of the eighteenth-century’s finest English oratorios through an examination of the composer’s artistic response to poetical stimulus, while reflecting upon tangible pathways framing an expressive, rhetorically based vocal interpretation of the work.


Handel; Samson; rhetoric; affect; Baroque performance practice

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ISSN: 1836-8336