CamilleSaint-Saens (1835-1921): Samson et Dalila
"It ispossible to be as much of a musician as Saint-Saens; it is impossible to bemore of one!\
Franz Liszt 1866
In 1867Saint-Saens began work on a new oratorio; the famous biblical story of Hebrewsand Philistines, of love and betrayal, seemed to offer fine musical opportunitiesand it was not until his ideas were well developed that he was persuadedinstead to turn the oratorio into an opera. Even then work continued only spasmodically,and it was 1875 before a concert version of Act I alone was given in Paris, to considerable critical disfavour. When it wascompleted the following year, the only musician to acclaim the new opera was thecomposer Franz Liszt, who immediately arranged for the world premiere to bestaged at Weimar in Germany. Apathy still rampant in France, it was not performed there until 1890(in Rouen) and in 1892 it finally reached the Paris Opera, where, as if by wayof apology for its earlier neglect, it was presented over five hundred timesduring the following thirty years. Thank goodness the composer lived longenough to see its well-deserved success in his native city Concert performancesin New York (1892) and London (1893 at Covent Garden) followed, and beforelong fully staged performances were given in many of the world's major operahouses.
Saint-Saensstudied at the Paris Conservatoire from the age of thirteen. He showedprodigious virtuosity as a keyboard player, probably to the detriment of hisearly development as a composer; despite the disappointment of failing to winthe coveted Prix de Rome, by the age of thirty he had many successfulcompositions to his credit. Sacred works, songs, orchestral, chamber and instrumentalmusic all appealed to his talent, confirming the truth of his own bons mots
that he could create music ''as an apple tree creates apples". Among thebest loved of his compositions are five piano concertos, three symphonies (No,3, with its important part for organ has achieved an enthusiastic followingin recent years), small scale instrumental pieces (including Danse Macabre)and Le Carnaval des Animaux. But these are just a tiny part of hisenergetic output.
By naturetemperamental and impulsive, at the age of 39 Saint-Saens married a young womanhalf his age, with disastrous emotional results. After their separation hebecame something of a recluse, but enjoyed loyal friendships with a closecircle, including Gabriel Faure and his family. Continuing to compose, he alsofound fulfilment in travel and writing books and articles on a wide range oftopics. Interests including astronomy, philosophy, fine arts and acoustics allabsorbed him into a generous old age.
Saint-Saens diedin Algiers, a venerable 86-year-old, having composedthirteen operas but known to posterity for only one - the initially rejected,but finally triumphant, Samson et Dalila.
What of his otheroperas, which have failed to survive in public favour? His first attempt at thegenre in 1865 was Le timbre d'argent (first performed in 1877); laterexamples include the historical subjects of Etienne Marcel (1879), HenryVIII (1883) and Prosetpine (1887). His three last operas werecomposed for Garnier's delightful Grand Theatre in Monte Carlo; the single-act Helene (1904) was a vehiclefor Nellie Melba, who spent time with the composer during the production. Inher autobiography Melodies and Memories (Hamish Hamilton, 1925) sherecalled.
Saint-Saenswas one of the most amazingly youthful old men I have ever met, and he wasstill writing music of a vigour and freshness that he never surpassed. We usedto trot about Monte Carlo together, he,usually rather taciturn but sometimes letting loose a volley of observations onmusic, opera and life in general... I saw him once at a dinner party beingapproached by a very effusive woman who was anxious to get him to come to herhouse. 'Cher maitre', she said coaxingly, 'will younot dine with me one evening next week?' 'I have no time" said Saint-Saens,brusquely. 'But could you not be very nice just for me?' she persisted. 'Idon't want to be nice to you' he snapped. And there the matter ended.
For all its"vigour and freshness" Helene has survived no longer than any of theother operas. His last attempt was Dejanire, a tragedie Iyrique
in four acts, first performed in 1911, but it, too, soon disappeared.
So it is on Samsonet Dalila that Saint-Saens's reputation as an operatic composer rests.
Never a great musical innovator, he belonged to an influential group of Frenchcomposers who flourished during the second half of the nineteenth century,among them Berlioz, Gounod, Bizet, Faure, Lalo and Massenet. This opera welldemonstrates his ability to create an atmosphere; much of the music has a"perfumed" quality which lends a potent exoticism to Dalila's and thePhilistines' music The Bacchanale from Act IIIalso presents a most vivid sound picture, one of the most memorable balletsequences in any opera.
A quality whichSaint-Saens's music also portrays most strikingly is heroism. Samson's greatoutbursts, notably the broken pride of the third act prison scene, are amongthe finest music for dramatic tenor in any French opera of the period. Withsuch a developed sense of theatre, Saint-Saens had no need to be a greater innovator.
This recording ofSamson et Dalila from 1946 was the first commercial version made on 78sand includes, (as few subsequent recorded versions have done), a full Frenchcast and conductor backed by the forces of the National Opera in Paris. That, surely, would have pleased even the irascibleSaint-Saens.
Acts I and III are set in Gaza and Act II inthe Valley of Sorek during Old Testament times.
After a brieforchestral introduction, the curtain rises on a group of Hebrews kneeling inprayer for deliverance from their Philistine conquerors ( Dieu! Dieud'IsraeI!). One among them, Samson, rises and calls for courage in theirfight for freedom ( Arretez, o mes freres!). Inspired by hisleadership, the Hebrews determine to follow Samson, calling on Jehovah for guidance.
(Ah! Le souffle du Seigneur).
(Governor) of Gaza, tries to silence Samson and asserts hisbelief that the great god Dagon can compare with no other ( Quidonc eleve ici la voix?). Incensed, Samson rails against him and is attackedby Abimelech, who is himself mortally wounded. In the confusion Samson and theHebrews escape, evading the worst of