“Immortal Harps”: Milton and musical morality in Handel’s Samson
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Concluding paragraphs: "If Handel’s contemporary James Harris is correct in observing that music and poetry “can never be so powerful singly, as when they are properly united,”152 and that Handel’s “Genius… being itself far the sublimest and most universal now known, has justly placed him without an Equal, or a Second,”153 then Handel has—either purposely or inadvertently— rendered the poetry of the Philistines, already elevated through their source in Milton, even more “powerful” and “sublime.” The first act features a festive anthem, complete with trumpets, chorus, and a victory celebration; this is a standard sort of scene for Handelian oratorio. But upon closer investigation, the anthem, that paragon of Anglican musical worship, is being applied to a pagan deity. The scene becomes even more troubling with the addition of Milton’s psalm text, formally perfect for pious religious observances but here twisted out of context to elevate Dagon. Dalila, too, poses a moral-musical threat. She retains many characteristics of Italian opera, and although these align with the immoral tendencies of her character, Handel ensures that the audience seriously listens to her through his vocally-oriented musical setting. These scenes render it doubtful whether Samson is a worthy moral substitute for Italian opera or a worthy use of the edifying textual and musical potential of oratorio. However, Handel leaves musical hints to guide us: the Philistine anthem is ritualistic and less complex than its Anglican analogue would be, and Dalila could be interpreted as a harmless operatic parody in the line of Kitty Clive’s English farce roles. These musical traces of vice nonetheless do not diminish the time spent on the Philistines in Samson’s musical structure or their deep alliance with music and music-making up until the oratorio’s final scene. The Philistines, in Handel’s and Hamilton’s rendering, deserve to be heard, and deserve to be heard as humans. The Israelites, when they regain musical control, must do so quite forcefully, employing the same trumpets and festive music as their enemies, and existing in a parallel state to that of their pagan antagonists at the beginning of the work. The Israelite festival has brought the oratorio full circle; although the concluding Israelite “Grand Chorus” is more impressive in scale than that of the Philistines, echoes of the Philistine festival still ring in the listener’s memory through Handel’s exultant D Major setting of the last chorus and the resonance of Milton’s musical words in this final scene with their first appearance in the parallel celebration of Act I. The Israelites have won, but they eventually find themselves dependent on the same human “voice and verse” they had to silence in order to be victorious."