In 1752 it was reported in the General Advertiser that "George Frederick Handel, Esq., the celebrated Composer of Musick, was seized a few days ago with a Paralytick Disorder in his Head, which has deprived him of Sight." About 10 weeks later Handel was "couch'd by William Bromfield, Esq.," who was surgeon to the princess of Wales. The couching helped very little, and for the remaining 6 1/2 years of his life Handel was almost completely blind.
One of the greater ironies in history is the fact that in 1758 Handel, hoping for some relief from his blindness traveled to Tunbridge Wells to be operated on by one John Taylor Sr., an eye specialist who had, by one of those inexplicable quirks of fate, operated on Johann Sebastian Bach eight years earlier. Handel and Bach, the two greatest musical geniuses of their time, both born in Germany, never met. Yet somehow this quack, Taylor, worked on both of them.
There is some question about whether an operation actually took place, but there is no question that Taylor was the man who, eight years before, had been as unsuccessful in his operation on Bach as he proved to be in trying to alleviate Handel's blindness.
It is no wonder then that Handel, in his later years, could listen withouth tears to the deeply moving aria he wrote in 1742 for the blind hero of his oratorio, "Samson." The aria begins, in its adaptation of Milton's verses, "Total eclipse! No sun. No moon." Handel's listeners likewise were moved. "Samson" was given in England 53 times during Handel's lifetime, 30 of the performances under his own direction. The last several of these, in Convent Garden, were done in Handel's last years.
The mighty oratorio should be thought of as a dramatic entertainment (as Handel did) rather than a Biblical "sacred" affair. It will be sung next Saturday night in the Kennedy Center's final presentation in the Handel Festival. The title role will be snug by Nicolai Gedda, whose English enunciation is one of the singular pleasures on any vocal stage these days. To him will go the honor of singing the very first aria ever written for what was called, in Handel's time, a "tenore de forza," a voice which would today be assigned the most powerful dramatic roles. this is the aria in which Samson lets out all his outraged anger against God, singing, "Why does the God of Israel sleep?"
Gedda will be joined by soprano Lorna Hayward as Delilah, who is Samson's wife in this version of the story. This is not the case in the Biblical narrative from which it is taken. At one point in the proceedings, according to the libretto, she appears, "bedecked and gay, sailing like a stately ship."
Ezio Flagello will have the pleasure of singing one of Handel's most famous bass arias, "Honor and arms," as he takes on the role of Harapha, a giant not found in Milton but a welcome addition to the libretto drawn up for Handel by Newburgh Hamilton. Micah, Sampson's best friend, will be sung by Marian Paunova, with David Clatworthy as Manoah, Samson's father, who gives his son what-for for falling for Dalilahs seductive persuasions.
Just as there is an Isralite woman in Handel's "Judas Maccabeus," sung recently in the Handel Festival, so there is one in "Samson." These unnamed characters often get some of the juiciest moments in the score. Next Saturday June Anderson, in the somewhat ambiguous assignment, will be responsible for one of the greatest and most hair-raising Handel arias, "Let the bright seraphim," with its grand trumpet obbligato, and the invitation to ascend all the way up to a high d in cadenza.
If you are into Handel choruses, "Samson" has some of the most popular and finest: Act One closes with "Then 'round about the starry throne," which is magnificent. And the final chorus forms a double whammy, coming as it does right after the soprano's "bright seraphim," in the stunning "Let their celestial concerts all unite."
In view of the undying popularity of "Messiah," it is interesting to see just how Handel's oratorios stacked up in sheer numbers of performances during his lifetime. The Top Six went like this: "Acis and Galatea," 71; "Messiah," 69; "Judas Maccabeus" and "Alexander's Feast," 54 each; and "Esther" and "Samson," 53 apiece. That is a total of 354 performances of those six works, with Handel conducting 174 of them.
Washington, like the rest of the world of music, is gearing up for the approaching 300th anniversary of Bach and Handel and Scarlatti, all coming in 1985. The performances of these oratorios of Handel, now being heard in the annual festivals, are unparalleled opportunities of coming to know better these great works.