Saint-Saëns: Danse Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila

CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS

BORN: October 9, 1835. Paris, France

DIED: December 16, 1921. Algiers, Algeria

COMPOSED: 1867 to 1876

WORLD PREMIERE: (of the full opera) December 2, 1877. Eduard Lassen conducted at the Grossherzogliches Theater in Weimar, Germany

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1917. Alfred Hertz led at a Pops concert at the Cort Theatre. MOST RECENT—July 2007. James Gaffigan conducted at a summer concert at Dolores Park

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, castanets, bass drum, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 7 mins

French composer Camille Saint-Saëns lived a long life and enjoyed a long career. His operatic masterpiece Samson et Dalila was first staged in 1877. You know the plot if you’re up on your Bible, or if you’ve seen Cecil B. DeMille’s 1950 epic film Samson and Delilah. Saint-Saëns’s opera adheres to the original story. Samson is the would-be liberator of the Israelites from the snares of the evil Philistines. The beautiful Philistine maiden Dalila, rejected by Samson, has sworn vengeance on him. She discovers that the secret of Samson’s power lies in his hair (celebrities ever after would note this) and manages to practice her barbering skills on him, rendering him helpless. He is blinded and put on display in the Philistine temple. His prayer for one last surge of strength is granted and he dislodges the temple pillars, bringing the roof down on the godless crowd. Moments earlier that crowd, now silent, had gathered to witness Samson’s humiliation and had delighted in the Bacchanale. Taking its name from Bacchus, mythological god of wine and fertility, a bacchanale is a dance that puts a premium on sensuality and abandon. Saint-Saëns’s Bacchnale opens with a twisting melody that could charm a snake from its basket. This is followed by a passage that begins as though it might have come from a nineteenth-century Parisian dance hall. These elements alternate until the appearance of a lovely tune, full of longing; but the music hall and snake-charmer music have the final words.