Samson and Delilah

Camille Saint-Saëns and Samson and Delilah

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was an amazingly well-rounded musician with opera composition being only minor part of a life of teaching, performing, conducting and theoretical writing. He began his career as a pianist but was also a virtuoso organist, spending twenty years at the console of the great organ at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris. He had an early intense interest in the music of Wagner (playing the scores of Lohengrin and Tristan for the German master during a visit to Paris), and was taught at the Paris Conservatoire by Fromenthal Halévy, a major player in 19th century French opera. Patronage and the friendship of Charles Gounod and the singer Pauline Viardot helped him get his foot in the stage door and he eventually penned twelve operas, the best known of which is Samson et Dalila. 

Much to his consternation (and to that of his public who delighted in his music), he never won the coveted Prix de Rome, the French national prize for composition. But sketches for operatic projects and his reputation as a symphonist eventually convinced Leon Carvalho, intendant of the Théâtre Lyrique,to offer him a libretto for possible production. This first work (Le timbre d’argent) was to remain unperformed for many years and the proposed production never occurred. He began work on his second complete work for the stage, Samson et Dalila, in 1867 but his intention was to set the biblical text as an oratorio, essentially a sacred concert piece for soloists, chorus and orchestra. He was convinced to set it as an opera thanks to his librettist, Ferdinand Lemaire (a distant relation), and he began the composition process with Dalila’s music in the second act. At a musical evening with friends a mezzo-soprano sang “Amour, viens aider!” and “Mon coeur s’ouvre á ta voix” with the composer at the piano. The performance didn’t seem to impress anyone in attendance and instead his friends and colleagues warned him of the uphill struggle necessary to mount a biblically-themed work for the stage, something that never sat well with Parisian audiences.

Saint-Saëns put the work away. But on a concert tour of Weimar he rekindled his old friendship with Franz Liszt, a great supporter of new music, who showed interest in Samson to the point of promising a Weimar production. It was only after the composition of a third opera, however (La princesse jaune), that Saint-Saëns finally felt confident enough to renew work on the score.  He eventually finished it in 1876. As promised, Liszt personally arranged for production of the opera at Weimar in 1877 under the baton of Eduard Lassen who was to replace Liszt as the music director there. A second German production (Hamburg) followed in 1882 and the work finally reached his home country at Rouen in 1890. The Paris Opéra mounted Samson in 1892 with a sumptuous production at the Palais Garnier. With that, Samson achieved a repertory status throughout the world as an excellent example of mid-19th century French Romanticism.

The Libretto and Source of Saint-Saëns Samson and Delilah

The story of Samson can be found, of course, in the Bible, the book of Judges, chapters 13 through 16.The tale which is dramatized in Saint-Saëns opera is found in the last chapter, dealing with the Philistine’s attempt through Delilah to find the source of his strength.As with most of the more memorable biblical tales, however, the ‘back story’ is quite as interesting as the part that is most often related to us.The first three chapters deal with Samson’s birth (a promise made through an angel of God to a woman who is thought to be sterile, thereby impressing upon the people of Judah the significance of his place in salvation history), Samson’s attempt to marry a Philistine woman (with tragic results for her, her family and her people) and the more familiar tale of Samson’s vengeance on the Philistine’s with the jawbone of an ass (setting up an impressive list of feats that could only be considered possible through a man of God).  After establishing Samson’s strength and special qualities as ‘set apart from birth by God’, the biblical authors introduce Delilah, a woman with whom he has fallen in love, and who is induced by Philistine leaders to discover what it is that makes him so physically strong (for her efforts, Delilah is offered ‘eleven hundred shekels of silver’, about 28 pounds, from each of the rulers of the Philistines).Samson deceives her three times with false information until, protesting that he doesn’t truly love her, he gives in and tells her that the answer is to be found in the fact that his hair has never been shorn, an outward sign of his ‘chosen’ status among the people of Judah as a ‘Nazirite’, meaning one consecrated to God.The Nazirite vow (related in the Bible’s book of Numbers, 6:1-21) binds a person to three outward signs of sacred consecration: not to take wine (because wine is a product of the vine which symbolizes a settled existence rather than a nomadic one), never to cut the hair and to never have contact with the dead.Samuel and John the Baptist are other examples of characters in the Bible who seemingly took a Nazirite vow, and St. Paul was known to occasionally turn to the vow for temporary periods in his life as a form of purification.(Although Jesus is often called ‘Nazarene’ in the New Testament, there is no root connection between ‘Nazarene’ and ‘Nazirite’).

The libretto for the opera was written by Ferdinand Lemaire, a native of Martinique, a Creole, and a relative of Saint Saëns by marriage to one of his cousins.The composer was fond of the young man who was something of a poet, showing his affection by setting two of Lemaire’s poems to music (“Souvenance” and “Tristesse” for voice and piano).Although Saint-Saëns had originally intended Samson to be an oratorio based on Voltaire’s libretto for Rameau (1733, although the opera itself was abandoned and never performed), Lemaire was convinced that the subject and the text were worthy of operatic treatment.According to the composer himself, “A young relative of mine had married a charming young man who wrote verse on the side.I realized that he was gifted and had in fact a real talent.I asked him to work with me on an oratorio on a biblical subject.‘An oratorio!’, he said, ‘no, let’s make it an opera!’, and he began to dig through the Bible while I outlined the plan of the work, even sketching scenes, and leaving him only the versification to do.”  Under the composer’s guidance, Lemaire was able to achieve a libretto that has aspects of both the originally conceived oratorio and something close to opera, although the dramatic action in this beautiful work is somewhat limited.

The libretto concentrates on chapter 16 of Judges, ignoring the three instances of Samson’s attempt to throw Delilah off from understanding the source of his strength.Another more important difference exists in the two versions of the story: unlike the biblical Delilah our operatic character turns down the monetary rewards offered by the Philistines out of sheer patriotism and simply to prove the superiority of her seductive charms.This makes Delilah, along with her music, closer to the world of opera than to the world of oratorio.

The Music of Saint-Saëns Samson and Delilah

Although Samson et Dalila is unmistakably French in its atmosphere, melodic contour and sometimes exotic instrumentation, it often harks back to the oratorio world of Mendelssohn and Handel. This is what Saint-Saëns originally had in mind after all, and the opening sections of Acts I and III involving Samson and the Hebrew chorus certainly have more of that ‘feel’. The opening chorus has been compared to Mendelssohn’s Elijah (“Dieu! Dieu d’Israël!”, “Lord! God of Israel!”) with its blossoming into a fugue at the words “Nous avons vu nos cites renversées” (“We have seen our cities overthrown”). Further, the opening of Act III in the prison at Gaza is reminiscent of the opening of Bach’s St. John’s Passion. The Bach and Mendelssohn models are certainly pieces of music that Saint-Saëns would have been familiar with through his extensive work in church music.

Musicologists and opera lovers have been involved in the ‘oratorio vs. opera’ argument since the work’s first public performances and the touches of the arcane in the structure of the above scenes certainly moves listeners in the former direction (parts of these scenes could even be considered taking the form of a tableau vivant). The fact that there is a limited amount of dramatic action in an opera where the characters essentially ‘stand and sing’ and the two-dimensional quality of the characterization of the male personae in the opera does not help. Neither does the fact that Saint-Saëns chose a biblical subject, the normative literary source for all oratorios. But it is Delilah and she alone who moves this work to be seriously considered an opera. She is three-dimensional, a character of depth whose motivations are more psychological than an oratorio-bound biblical character would normally be allowed.

Delilah’s music also makes a strong argument for Samson as opera. It is fluid, lush, romantic and brilliantly orchestrated with a touch of fantasy and worldly sensuality. Delilah’s music is, in other words, ‘French’!  If at the beginning of Acts I and III Saint-Saëns harkens back to the style of Bach and Handel, every moment Delilah is onstage the score glows with a French sensibility. The very choice of the mezzo timbre for her depiction sets her aside from her old German and Italian oratorio counterparts like Judith, Esther or Mary Magdelene and communicates a certain eroticism that would only be at home on the opera stage. Consider “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix”, the most famous excerpt from the work and Delilah’s main aria. The vocal line at the climax of the aria (“Ah! Réponds à ma tendresse”, “Ah! Respond to my tenderness”) is highly chromatic, spiraling downward like the tendrils of a tropical plant. It is, in fact, closely related to Carmen’s habanera and provides much the same dramatic purpose: the seduction of the leading man.

No one can deny the debt that Samson et Dalila owes to the earlier spectacle of Meyerbeer’s operas, the melodic delight of Gounod’s operas or the innovative orchestral textures of Bizet, Saint-Saëns contemporary. But it is the character of Delilah, this biblical femme fatale, who we have to thank for lifting this work from the comparatively static world of oratorio to the world of opera.

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