Few operas have so romantic a history as Samson et Dalila. To tell it in detail here would take too long; but there are certain facts which came out recently in Jean Bonnerot's revised biography of Saint-Saëns that ought, I feel, to be related as preface to my own remarks on the work.
Was it originally intended to be an opera or an oratorio? That question, which has so often puzzled people, cannot even now be answered in a sentence. It goes back to the year 1867, when the subject was suggested to the composer by a friend who greatly admired the Samson of Voltaire, already set to music by Rameau, but never performed at the Paris Opera owing to religious opposition. Saint-Saëns jumped at the idea, and asked a young poet, Ferdinand Lemaire, to prepare an entirely new text based upon Judges XVI, which he proposed to treat as an oratorio. 'An oratorio!' exclaimed Lemaire, 'why not make an opera of it?' And after some persuasion the musician agreed.
Together they arranged the plan of the story, and as soon as the libretto was delivered Saint-Saëns set to work upon it with his customary enthusiasm. But it is important to note that he did not begin at the beginning. He started with the second act; and the initial impulse of his creative genius was directed to the setting of the love duet for the hero and heroine, whereof the particular gem is 'Mon cœur s'ouvre a ta voix'.
Soon it became known that he was writing a Biblical opera. His more intimate friends did not relish the idea and sought to discourage him. He played over portions of the second act to them at a soirée at which Anton Rubinstein was among the guests. They admired the music but still set their faces against the project. A little later he tried his 'fragments' on another circle of friends, and with much the same result. That settled it; he put his score aside and determined not to persevere with Samson in any form.
Six years elapsed before he took it up again. With feverish haste he completed his second act, wrote the first, and sketched the third. It was no longer an opera, but an oratorio to be called simply Dalila; and it was still far from finished when, in March, 1875, the first act was performed at one of the Châtelet concerts under Colonne. The real encouragement, prior to this, however, had come from the famous Singer Mme Viardot-Garcia (the sister of Malibran and Manuel Garcia), who had given as a surprise a private stage performance of the second act, at the little theatre in her garden at Croissy, on August 20, 1874. On that occasion Mme Viardot herself sustained the role of Dalila, and it was from her lips that the heautiful melody of 'Mon cœur s'ouvre a ta voix' was first heard; which was only fitting, seeing that Saint-Saëns actually wrote the whole part for the great mezzo-contralto, and ultimately dedicated to her the work itself when he put his finishing touches to it in January, 1876.
But neither as opera nor as oratorio did any manager want Samson. Halanzier, the powerful director of the Opera, who was present at Croissy, had stealthily slipped away before the end and would have nothing to do with it. He had no use for Biblical opera, especially when composed by a 'downright Wagnerian and a devoted partisan of Music of the Future' [sic].
Thus, in spite of Mme Viardot's influence, Samson et Dalila was not destined to see the light first in its composer's native country. It was actually first performed on the stage in Germany, at Weimar, under the auspices of Liszt, on December 2, 1877. It took 15 years more to find its way to Paris; two years, that is to say, after it had been produced for the first time in France at Rouen. The reception in each case was enthusiastic in the extreme. But what of London? There we were still indulging the innocent prejudices and habits of the Victorian era. Samson might be acceptable enough as a Biblical opera on the continent; hither it could only be allowed to journey in the guise of an oratorio; and it was so given for the first time at a Covent Garden concert on September 25, 1893, under the direction of Frederic Cowen.
Never shall I forget that performance; it was a wonder the work ever survived it. Neither of the French singers engaged for the title-roles was present to sustain it. The Dalila (Elena Sanz) had rehearsed the duet with Samson (Lafarge), with Saint-Saëns himself at the piano, in my studio at Temple Chambers. That was early in the preceding week. Then suddenly, two or three days before the concert – for some reason that could never be ascertained – Saint-Saëns went off to Paris, accompanied by his tenor. Mme Sanz followed to fetch them back, but, like them, failed to return. In this dreadful extremity the manager, Mr Farley Sinkins, engaged two English singers (Miss Edith Miller and Mr Bernard Lane) to do the best they could with two heavy, unstudied parts at 24 hours' notice; and under these trying conditions (with that fine artist Eugène Oudin as the High Priest) was Samson et Dalila introduced in oratorio fashion to a British audience. Only 16 years later, in 1909, was it transferred to the Covent Garden boards in its proper operatic form and given nine times before crowded houses during that one season. It is now a popular item in every operatic repertoire.
From what I have said it will be seen that 'Mon cœur s'ouvre a ta voix' was practically the first number of this work that Camille Saint-Saëns put on paper. He began with the duet of which it is not only the principal feature but the indubitable gem. (The air, 'Amour, viens aider,' although it precedes the duet, was written at a later period.)
It should be observed that 'Mon cœur s'ouvre a ta voix' is largely built up both in its exquisite refrain, 'Verse-moi l'ivresse', and in the accompaniment to the second verse, upon a descending chromatic passage of six notes, obviously intended to typify Dalila's deceitful nature, the false smiles and sinuous, serpentine movements that lure poor Samson to his ruin. Upon this insinuating theme much of the music of the whole duet is cleverly based. Saint-Saëns, who is so often sneered at by the 'highbrows' of today, was one of the ablest and most original musicians that France has ever owned. Greatly as he admired Wagner, he never imitated him or his methods, and was extremely reticent in his use of the leitmotif.
It was that famous conductor and pianist, Hans von Bülow, who, when Samson was done at Hamburg in 1882, declared that 'Saint-Saëns was the solitary contemporary musician who had contrived to draw useful hints from Wagner's theories, without allowing himself to be upset by them.' And how wonderfully he always wrote for the human voice! Like his intimate friend Gounod, he took a leaf in this respect from the rare example of Mozart. The reason for the universal popularity of 'Softly awakes my heart', as the English version has it, apart from the suave elegance and sustained beauty of its melody, lies in the scope afforded by every phrase for the perfect display of the voice, the richness and texture of the tone, the purity and charm of delivery, the mastery of breath-control, and, finally, the pervading sense of that elusive quality which we call style. It is, therefore, an exacting piece to sing.
The supreme art of Pauline Viardot-Garcia must have made it sound very marvellous. I know that Elena Sanz did so, though I heard her only in a room. The contraltos and mezzo-sopranos of today who have recorded it on the gramophone do not, I am bound to say, impress me as having the peculiar gift for conveying its message as a tremendous love-appeal, something overwhelmingly passionate and irresistibly seductive. For the most part they imbue it with an air of doleful misery and tearful upbraiding, rather than a promise of joy; and this, being fundamentally wrong, upsets the poetic musical values of the whole piece. It is a way that contraltos have.
I sat by the master's side in a box at Covent Garden at the performance of Samson et Dalila given as part of the London Jubilee Festival (which I had the honour to organise), in June, 1913, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of his artistic career. The Dalila on that occasion was Mme Kirkby Lunn, whose fine voice was then, perhaps, at its very best. He was particularly pleased with her rendering of 'Mon cœur s'ouvre a ta voix' and exclaimed as she finished it, 'Quelle excellente artiste!' She did not hurry the tempo then as she did when recording it, for the ostensible prupose of squeezing both verses into one side of the disc. It is rather a scramble, but otherwise a good record. The tone is pure and characteristic, the French accent excellent.