Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Samson and Delilah

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About the scene and clip:
Three performers sing an abridged version of the whole song about Samson and Delilah. One student (Hyeji) plays the melody on the violin, while the two other students sing the song in Latin, taking the various parts. Though reading the words and melody, they also act out the scene to the degree possible, using a scarf and a classroom chair as props.

About the work:
This famous Latin song, preserved in several medieval manuscripts, tells the Bible story of Samson and Delilah (Judges chapter 16 of the Old Testament). The song begins with the chorus’s lament over the humiliation and imprisonment of the great warrior Samson by the Philistines, and the paradox of the conquered conqueror. Samson then tells the story of his love for Delilah: how he had loved the beautiful Philistine maiden, and how she betrayed his love, getting him to tell her the secret of his great strength, which was his long hair. Delilah speaks twice: first we hear her persuade him to tell her his secret; later she mockingly calls the Philistines to cut off his hair and capture him. Samson then tells how—when his hair was again grown long and he had recovered his strength—he was able to avenge himself on his enemies by pulling the great building down on top of them all. The song ends with the chorus’s praise of Samson: “Samson sit in gloria” (“may Samson be glorified”).

About the genre:
The Medieval Latin song “Samson dux fortissime” can be understood and classified in several ways. It is a lament, or “planctus,” in honor of Samson. It is also a “lai” (but of a type different from the narrative lais by Marie de France); a musical “lai” is a lengthy song in which each pair of stanzas has a distinctive poetic structure, different from the other pairs: thus, such features as melodic shape, line lengths and rhyme patterns, and the number of lines in the stanza typically differ from pair to pair. “Samson dux fortissime” can also be seen as a sort of biblical “ballad”: a song that tells a story.

About the edition/translation:
This famous medieval Latin song has often been edited; one edition is The Oxford Book of Medieval Latin Verse, ed. F.J.E. Raby, Oxford, Clarendon, 1959, “The Lament of Samson,” pp. 428-433. An edition of the Latin song with an English translation by Peter Dronke is also available in the booklet that accompanies the CD “Visions from the Book” by Sequentia; this CD provides a beautiful recording of the entire song.

About the performer/ensemble:
Kim Kass is a Drama student in the CAP21 Studio at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (2007). Hyeji Lim has studied violin for many years, and is beginning a Music major in the College of Arts and Science at New York University (2007). Nick Spangler is a Drama student in the CAP21 Studio at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (2007).

About the production:
This performance was created for “Medieval Song,” an undergraduate course taught by Profs. Timmie (E.B.) Vitz and Edward Roesner at New York University in spring 2007. The performance took place in the classroom. Chris Looram did the videography.