September 19, 2017

What the ending of Samson and Delilah tells us

I know I said I was done with posts about Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah, but I took a few days off, the production's opening night in Norfolk is just ten days away, our next show is not here until late November, and........

..........there's more to say.

Dagon. His temple? Rubble.
I wish to focus on the end of the opera. (SPOILER ALERT: Samson knocks down the Philistines' temple of Dagon, it crushes everyone and they all die. Including, possibly, random orchestra members.)

How do we characterize this ending? It's a bit simplistic to say that opera endings are either happy or tragic, but they tend to skew one way or the other. In fact, it will be fascinating, in coming posts, to consider the supposedly "happy" ending of Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West - that happens to be a problematic ending.

But back to Samson. On the one hand, if we could interview Samson moments after he pushed those pillars, just before everything went black, he would pronounce himself highly satisfied. "Hey", he might affirm, "I atoned for my weakness, I punished that evil wench Delilah, I salvaged something from the series of bad decisions I made, and I accomplished God's will: freeing the Israelites. What's wrong with that? I'm good. Bye, now."

So - happy? Because Justice was done?

Compare this finale to that of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Like Delilah, the Don richly deserves the fate in store for him. He's a liar, a seducer and a murderer, and he's unrepentant about all of it. Cue the demons, cue the flames, drag his worthless carcass down to Hades.

BUT - that's not the end of the opera! There follows an epilogue in which the other principal characters assemble to reflect on what has happened. Now freed from Giovanni's villainy, they plan their individual futures and remind us in the audience that bad people always get what's coming to them. They say all of this happily! Da Ponte's libretto has them assert "ripetiam allegramente l'antichissima canzon" (We HAPPILY repeat this old, old song").

Never mind that Mozart's genius has screwed with us, manipulating into liking Giovanni more than we should, and making us mindful that, in spite of everything, we miss him. Officially, this epilogue firmly places the opera's ending in the hippy-hoppy-happy category.

With Mozart in mind, I find it a bit troubling that Saint-Saëns did NOT append a similar epilogue to Samson. Wouldn't it have been natural to end the opera with a scene of the now-liberated Hebrew people rejoicing at the end of their enslavement? For an opera that often sounds like an oratorio anyway, why not conclude with a joyful chorus in which everyone agrees that, while ol' Samson may have let them down in the past, he sure did step up and do the right thing in the end.

YAY, SAMSON! We're FREE! No more bad times, no more enslavement - it's MILK & HONEY, BABY!

But that doesn't happen. No epilogue to tell us that we just saw a happy ending.

And that strikes me as significant.

For one thing, consider the Israeli people. If you know anything about the Old Testament, or Jewish history, this was far from the end of hard times for God's chosen people. The saga of the Hebrews is one of pendulum swings from extremes of being in Jehovah's favor to being persecuted.

Heck, the nations surrounding modern-day Israel STILL wouldn't mind if they were wiped off the face of the earth.

So Samson's final act functions as his redemption, but it's FAR from guaranteeing his compatriots a blissful future. And, pardon me, but I find nothing intrinsically "happy" in the deaths of three thousand people (that stat is courtesy of the Book of Judges), even if they were slave masters worshiping a false idol. They were human beings.

The opera ends in violence; only the swift dropping of the curtain spares us the sight of the dead and dying. There's no one left to sing about what just happened; the Hebrew people, we gather, sneak away from Gaza to an uncertain status.

I'm calling it: the ending is tragic. Justice? Yes. Happy? No.

September 10, 2017

How my stage career nearly began as The Friendly Eagle

There, but for the grace of God....
After five posts on Samson and Delilah, I'm not quite ready to plunge into a series of essays on Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West, coming to Virginia in late November. Soon, but first a short break.

In the meantime, allow me to relate a really weird performing-arts-related memory from my early days in Virginia. It's a tale of how my career on the stage nearly got off to a TRULY unlikely start.

I've been fortunate enough to be cast in some memorably great roles: Mozart's Count Almaviva; Sondheim's Sweeney Todd; Rossini's Don Magnifico; Mecham's Tartuffe; and others. But today I will describe the role that wasn't to be:

The Friendly Eagle.

It was 1976. I had just completed my Master's in piano from Indiana University's School of Music. My parents had retired from Evanston Illinois to Williamsburg, so I traveled there to spend the summer and figure out an answer to the existential question "NOW WHAT?"

The immediate problem was the matter of a summer job. Williamsburg is a tourist town, so it's not that difficult to find work in the summer months. I hit the bricks, filling out applications here and there, and working the phones as well.

One of those phone calls was to the gigantic theme park off Route 60: Busch Gardens. Spread over some 380 acres of heavily-wooded land near the James River in James City County, the park is known for spectacular roller coasters and draws up to three million visitors a year.

A return phone call brought good news: I had an interview for employment! Yay! I was given the building and room number where I was to report. I wore a freshly-pressed shirt and sharply-creased trousers and made my way to the enormous complex with a parking lot so large that shuttle busses conveyed the public from its farthest reaches to the gate.

I anticipated a typical interview en route to a job pushing a broom or making hamburgers. Arriving at the appointed place at the appointed time, I joined a group of five or six other aspiring employees, all of us unsure what was happening. Was this going to be a group interview??

Suddenly, the door burst open and in strode a man of beefy physique. Heavily tanned, he wore a Hawaiian shirt open at the chest. Heavy gold chains hung around his thick neck. He had the air of a Hollywood producer; all that was missing was a pair of sun glasses. He launched into his spiel:

"Good morning, people, how are we doing this fine sunny morning?" he boomed, all extroverted hail-fellow-well-met. With astounding energy, he continued: "Here at The Old Country (that's what the park was called back then) we're looking for real PEOPLE PERSONS. Is each of you a people person? How about you, Glenn? (He seemed to know our names.)

I allowed as to how yes, I was a people person.

"I could tell that by looking at you, Glenn, good for you. Now folks, this here audition we're about to begin..."

Audition? For a fast-food job? What?

"...this here audition will give you a chance to show your ability to think fast and really get into character."

Get into character? WHAT WAS HAPPENING?

He locked eyes with me. "Glenn, here's what I want you to do, my friend. What would it look like if you were an egg frying in a pan? Ready? Aaaaand... GO!"

Improv. We were all going to do improve to get our summer jobs.

I resisted the urge to say aloud what I was thinking, namely: "There's been a mistake. I just want to push a broom or flip burgers." But an inner voice warned against rocking the boat, so the following little scene ensued:

I lay down on the floor, flat on my back, with my arms outstretched, as if the "white" of my "egg" had spread out on the skillet that was the carpeting. Awkwardly, I began flopping around, vaguely simulating my concept of the egg bubbling over what was obviously too high a temperature for a properly-cooked egg. It lasted about ten seconds.

Ten incredibly long, incredibly lame seconds.

"Okay, GLENN!" boomed Cecil B. DeMille encouragingly. I was done. I could leave. "Oh well", I thought, "there's always McDonald's". I left the park, still not knowing what the HELL that had all been about.

The next day, the phone rang. I'd been hired! And then I learned what the job entailed. In those days, the park had costumed characters who wandered the grounds. greeting children, patting them on the head and posing for pictures. My character: the "Friendly Eagle". The photo above will give you an idea of the nature of the "role" in which I had been "cast". Wow - an ACTING GIG!

Kind of.

Did I take the job? Are you crazy? Would YOU spend an eight-hour shift wearing an eagle costume in the 100-degree heat and humidity of a southeastern Virginia summer? That's a ticket to suffering on a scale hitherto unknown to me; I'd led a pretty sheltered life.

Instead I got a job as a security guard at another tourist trap in the village of Lightfoot; a huge outdoor mall known as the Williamsburg Pottery.

Some pretty good stories about that job, actually, but not for this blog because it lacked even the tangential connection to "performing arts" that I'm pretending was found in the Friendly Eagle.

Somehow, I doubt that James Levine ever went through things like this.........

September 4, 2017

Samson: when history blurs with mythology

"Dying Hercules", by Samuel Morse
Yes, the same guy who invented Morse code!
This is hardly the platform in which to engage in religious debate, so let's don't, okay? That said, what are we to make of the Old Testament in general, and the story of Samson in the Book of Judges in particular?

Or, to get right to the point, is Samson; the leader of the Hebrews against the Philistines; the man who defeated an army by himself with a jawbone as his weapon; who killed a lion with his bare hands; who was betrayed by Delilah and taken into captivity; who destroyed the Temple of Dagon by pushing to pillars; ............ he a historical person? Was he real?

That's a broad and complex question for a single post, but I'll try to shed some light, based on research I've been doing.

First off, we must take into account that ancient biographical writings do not conform to our modern notion of a "biography"; that is, a completely accurate narration of every aspect of the subject's life, whether flattering or not, and supported by documentary evidence - letters, records, and the like.

If history could be condensed into a single year, that concept of biography would have been present only since, say, 11:50 PM on December 31. For centuries, biographies were written with agendas in mind other than a factual, warts-and-all accounting. Lives of religious figures were written to attract new believers; lives of kings, emperors and the like were created to be a glorious commemoration.  A king's biography was unlikely to mention that he beat his mistress or burned a rival at the stake without a trial.

The first example of a "modern" biography involving diligent research and documentary elements was The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell, published in 1791. While more rigorous in its pursuit of honest narration, it still reflects the overall purpose of presenting its subject as a "great man". The "great man" agenda has become less prevalent as the decades have rolled on, though throwback tributary biographies still pop up. White-washed laudatory biographies of political candidates, hastily assembled and published on the cheap, are a notable example.

So - about Samson?

Samson is classified as one of the "judges" of the ancient Israelites. The term is distinct from a "king"; the monarchal era of Hebrew history began with the anointing of King David, estimated to have happened around 1055 B.C. A judge, for the purposes of the Old Testament, is not a courtroom figure, but rather a military figure; a champion to lead the Hebrews out of whatever bondage they were suffering at any given time. Samson is reckoned to have been active from 1154-1124 B.C.

It's certainly the case that no punches are pulled in the Book of Judges when it comes to including unflattering details of his life. He certainly comes across as a "bad boy": he's rash and impetuous; he's violent; he consorts with prostitutes; he gives into temptation, allowing his sacred vows to be broken; he's a hot mess.

But again, there is an agenda at work in this portrait, one which utilizes Samson's flaws to make a point. It's a point made time and time again in the Old Testament in the stories of Moses, David the shepherd boy, Jonah, and many others. And the point is this: God uses weak, imperfect and unlikely people to enact His will. Stories like Jonah the Reluctant Prophet, Moses the Inarticulate Leader, David the Underdog Giant-killer and Samson the Morally Corrupt Hero are intended to inspire readers (supposedly ordinary themselves) to realize "I, too, can accomplish great things if I have faith!"

Some Jewish scholars have argued for Samson's historical existence; others accept his story as myth. Rabbinic literature identifies him as "Bedin", indicating he was descended from the tribe of Dan. The name "Samson" appears to be symbolic, as it literally means "Sun", indicating he had a god-like status.

I learned that the Talmud contains an attempt to identify an historical Samson, providing the name of his mother and other family members. But most people of the Talmudic period are said to have though of Samson as a mythic figure. Here's why:
  • Rabbinical literature offers details not found in the Bible, including that Samson, though he had lame feet, could go from one city to another in a single stride; that his strength was such that he could lift two mountains and rub them together like two clumps of dirt; that when he was thirsty, God would cause a waterfall to spring out of his teeth; and so on.
  • Many of Samson's exploits sound suspiciously similar to Heracles, a corresponding hero of Greek Mythology (or Hercules, as he's also called). As one example, Heracles' feats also included killing a lion, apparently a required test of aspiring super-heroes.
  • Like Samson, Heracles was betrayed by a woman. In his case, it was Deianira.
  • Both Heracles and Samson may have their literary roots in the Mesopotamian figure Enkidu.
Opera lovers will possibly make the connection with Siegmund and Siegfried, the demi-gods of Norse mythology. Replace Samson's donkey jawbone with Siegmunds sword Nothung and we've got a close kinship there.

In more modern times, literary supermen are not lacking: Paul Bunyan may not be a religious figure, but his mighty axe is a fair stand-in for the jawbone. You can probably think of your own candidates, even excluding the vast galaxy of X-men, Superman, Batman, Wolverine, Spider-Man, Iron Man and the rest of the cartoonish versions. Modern mythology has turned commercial, Faithful Readers!

Bottom line: in reading books of "ancient wisdom", it's important to separate "truth" from "facts". The "wisdom" of "ancient wisdom" has to do with imparting life-lessons, not teaching literal history. What does Samson teach us? Or, in the larger view, what does the Old Testament want to tell us? As mentioned above, it's that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary achievements and that "bad" people and "weak" people can be responsible for the cause of Goodness and Justice in spite of themselves.

.......Perhaps I should say "in spite of ourselves". Not a bad lesson. Thanks, Samson!

August 27, 2017

Samson and Delilah: Saint-Saëns' musical symbol of destruction.

Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah is a tale documenting destruction, downfall and ruin. It happens that two parallel destructive forces are depicted: the title hero's downfall at the hand of his nemesis Delilah, and the ultimate downfall of Samson's captors, the Philistine population of Gaza.
Samson destroys the Temple of Dagon
By Philip Galle - Public Domain,

Saint-Saëns was not blind to these twin themes in the familiar Bible story from the Book of Judges, themes that were retained in Ferdinand Lemaire's libretto. Demonstrating his grasp of one of the most important skills required of an opera composer (namely: the ability to use musical materials to help narrate action as well as comment on it), the composer devised a way to represent the concept of "downfall" in purely musical terms, with a motif that was both easily recognizable and graphically descriptive.

The motif in question is a descending chromatic scale. Not always the exact same scale; the important thing is that, either in the orchestra or in a vocal line, one hears a descending chromatic line when a character is plotting or enacting destruction. (For those not experts at music terms, a "descending chromatic scale" is what you get if you start on any note on a keyboard instrument and start playing all the keys to the left, in order, including white and black keys.)

The "downfall motive" (as I'll refer to it) first occurs early in Act 1. At this point, the Hebrew people are in bondage to the Philistines and their collective morale is pretty low. Samson has been trying to rally their fighting spirit, but they aren't having any. Abimelech, a bureaucrat of Gaza, then makes a dumb mistake: he makes fun of the Hebrew God and His apparent weakness. This gives Samson a psychological edge: now he has a specific person to blame for his people's troubles; a common enemy; someone on whom they can focus their anger and frustration.

Condemning Abimelech's blasphemy, Samson boldly predicts that God will strike down the Philistines. With each phrase, the brass of the orchestra repeat this descending chromatic phrase, our "downfall motive":

Heard in performance, these phrases are incredibly stirring; the sort of thing that can raise gooseflesh in the listener.

Near the end of the first Act, Delilah sings that she cannot enjoy the pleasures of spring unless she has Samson's love; this is the famous aria "Printemps qui commence". At the moment when she claims to be moved to tears at the memory of their past love, there is an outpouring of passionate melody in the strings:
But the motion of the phrase reveals the "downfall motive", thus indicating a subtext at odds with Delilah's outward expressions of love: she is already plotting against him.

Act 2 brings the "downfall motive" to the forefront of the musical texture; this is the act of Samson's betrayal at Delilah's hands, and the motive is found frequently.

For example, the brief orchestral prelude is built on a newly propulsive version of the "downfall motive"; repeated sextuplets create a hypnotic effect:
The motive takes two contrasting but complementary forms in Delilah's justly famous solo "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix". The second verse uses the sextuplets above throughout to create an exotic billowing effect; one imagines Samson literally dizzy with desire.

The other use of the "downfall motive" in the aria occurs in the refrain at the words "Ah! réponds à ma tendresse" as Delilah's melodic line slides down the now-familiar descending chromatic scale, the apotheosis of her deceit and plotting:

In Act 3, this refrain returns in a cruelly mocking parody. Delilah's treachery has caused Samson's strength to weaken, resulting in his return to Gaza as a prisoner of the Philistines. Blinded and bound, he is led into the temple of Dagon where his captors make him an object of ridicule. Delilah in particular, now with no reason to continue her false pretenses of love, subjects Samson to an up-tempo, savagely mocking version, a display of naked contempt perfectly depicted in musical terms.

The cheapness of this parody reminds me of the final movement of Hector Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, in which the famous idée fixe, previously heard as a heartfelt and lyrical melody, is similarly transformed into a vulgar parody that stinks of the circus. As Berlioz' work pre-dates Samson and Delilah by more than thirty years, it's possible that Saint-Saëns had the earlier work in mind as he contemplated how to manipulate his "downfall motive".

The motive makes a final, climactic appearance in the opera's closing moments. Samson, having positioned himself between the two pillars that support the temple, calls on God for his strength to return. The low brass, in thrilling fashion, bring back the first example of the motive to signal the imminent destruction of Gaza.

August 20, 2017

Political operas: the Samson & Les Miz connection

Camille Saint-Saëns began working on Samson and Delilah in 1867. Considering he was one of Europe's most celebrated musicians and the opera's status as a repertoire staple, it's performance history had an odd, counter-intuitive beginning. Consider:
  • It's first performance was not until ten years later when Franz Liszt agreed to mount the world premiere in 1877. And even stranger still,
  • The opera was not heard in Saint-Saëns' home country of France until 1890!
What could account for this highly "meh" reception for a dignified, beautiful, well-crafted stage work? Various factors contributed. For one thing, Biblical subjects were not in vogue in opera houses of that generation, considered somewhat improper. For another, there was a built-in prejudice against Saint-Saëns' career as a virtuoso pianist; musicians are always subject to type-casting. "You can't write operas - you play concertos!", etc.

But I think there was a larger cloud hanging over this opera, one that made the Paris Opera reluctant to bring it to its audiences. France, in the second half of the nineteenth century, was still suffering post-traumatic stress resulting from not one, but two revolutions. And the rebellion depicted in Samson - that of an oppressed people rising up against their oppressors - was too uncomfortably close to the circumstances of both revolutions.

As I'll demonstrate later in this post, this era of French history not only led to the creation of the mega-hit warhorse of music theater Les Miserables, but a case can be made that there are echoes of Samson and Delilah  in one of the iconic choruses of Les Miz.

Here's a brief recap of the background history.

The first uprising happened in 1830 in a revolt known as the "Three Glorious Days". King Charles X of the House of Bourbon had taken a series of steps to empower the elite and keep the masses at bay, including:
  • abolishing the free press;
  • instituting the death penalty for any citizen criticizing the Eucharist;
  • taking away voting rights from all but a small percentage of the populace; and
  • dissolving Parliament.
By July of 1830, working-class Parisians had had enough and took to the streets. Protests quickly escalated into full-scale riots. Citizens were fired upon; twenty-seven were killed the first day. The outlook for the king deteriorated quickly over the following two days. Charles, after a six-year reign marked by plummeting popularity, was forced to abdicate the throne and escape to exile in England.

A provisional government named Charles' cousin Louis-Philippe of the House of Orleans as successor to the throne.

Louis-Phillipe led a moderately liberal government. He was supported by the “financial aristocracy”; bankers, stock exchange magnates, railroad barons, owners of coal mines, iron ore mines, and forests and all landowners associated with them. This elitism resulted in the disenfranchisement of much of the middle and working classes. By 1848 only about one percent of the population held the franchise. Even though France had a free press and trial by jury, only landholders were permitted to vote, which alienated the petty bourgeoisie (i.e. small businessmen) and even the industrial bourgeoisie from the government.

Louis Philippe was viewed as generally indifferent to the needs of society, especially to those members of the middle class who were excluded from the political arena. Alexis de Tocqueville had observed, "We are sleeping together in a volcano. ... A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon."

Lacking the property qualifications to vote, the lower classes were about to erupt in revolt. The year 1846 saw a financial crisis and bad harvests, and the following year brought economic depression. A poor railroad system hindered aid efforts, and the Peasant rebellions that resulted were forcefully crushed. Perhaps a third of Paris was on the dole. "Dangerous" writers proliferated such as Louis Blanc ("The right to work") and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon ("Property is theft!").

Things came to a head in February. The Prime Minister resigned, causing a large group of citizens to converge on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; soldiers were dispatched to control them. When one soldier's gun fired, apparently by accident, a riot ensued. Dozens of Parisians were killed. An angry mob set fires and descended on the Palace. Louis-Phillipe, like Charles before him, fled for his life.

Now consider the plot line of Samson and Delilah through the prism of all this civil unrest stemming from discontent lower classes. France, within the lifetimes of most potential audience members, had endured two revolts. The opera depicts two uprisings: the death of Abimélech spurs the Hebrews to rebellion in Act 1, and Samson's self-sacrifice in Act 3 constitutes a one-man revolution.

The spectacle of Samson, bound and toiling at the Philistines' mill at the start of Act 3 was too vivid a symbol of the continual working-class discontent in France. What's more, political commentators often cited Samson's story in summarizing conditions in the country. Edgar Quinet, a writer and historian, described the French populace as a “blinded giant”, who “in the darkness would overturn the columns on which society rested and bury itself in the debris”.

Other writers noted a tendency among the working class to find a charism atic leader; a hero to emerge and begin a new era of liberty. For leaders fearful of more revolution, the obvious parallel in a mighty champion like Samson emerging to inspire his down-trodden countrymen was a dangerous image.

Now to consider the interesting connections between Samson  and Les Miz.

The musical deals with the aftermath of the events of July, 1830. With Charles long gone, Louis-Phillipe was already well past the "honeymoon" stage of his reign; his popularity had evaporated as the people again felt chaffed by bad harvests, food shortages and high inflation. Revolutionaries opposed to the new monarchy took to the streets in an uprising known as the "June Rebellion". This is the scene depicted by Victor Hugo in his novel Les Miserables, with insurrectionists erecting barricades in the streets of Paris.

But the roughly 3000 street fighters were no match for the National Guard and the French army, a combined force of some 60,000. The rebellion ended after heavy gunfire, resulting in nearly 1000 casualties.

One of the truly stirring moments in Claude-Michel Schonberg's musical is the spirited chorus "Do you hear the people sing", sung by a valiant group of citizens manning the barricades. You can hear it at this link. Pay particular attention at about 0:54 when the anthem becomes more energetic.

What I find fascinating is that there is a VERY comparable chorus in Act 1 of Saint-Saëns' opera. It's the moment when Samson sings "Israel! Break your chains"; the enslaved Hebrew chorus joins with him. Listen to this recording with tenor Richard Cassilly.

I don't know about you, but the similarity between the two choruses is striking, to say the least. Did Schonberg have Samson specifically in mind, or is this simply a case of comparable dramatic situations inspiring similar musical manifestations? Your guess is as good as mine.

And finally, let us consider our own political climate in the twenty-first century. It is perhaps a sign of how far opera has fallen from being an influential force in society to what many consider an elitist entertainment that Saint-Saëns' opera no longer inspires fear in circles of power. It's ironic, because what politician these days fails to pander to "ordinary working men and women", painting them as needing a champion to provide jobs, working wages, and a chicken in every pot? And why do they do this? Because American working men and women, according to polls, feel they've been forgotten. They're angry. They're frustrated.

If they were to listen to Samson and Delilah, they just might find a kindred voice speaking to them.

August 10, 2017

Delilah and Saint-Saëns' dysfunctional relationships with women

The issues in opera composers' personal lives generally find a way of insinuating themselves into their stage works. Familiar cases in point:
  • Puccini, consigned to a loveless marriage with a difficult woman, created ultra-feminine female roles, falling in love with each like Pygmalion with his sculpture.
  • Verdi, who tragically lost both of his young children to illness, wrote several operas in which a parent causes the death of a child.
  • And Wagner - hoo-boy... don't get me started...
Augusta Holmes: not lacking in admirers
You may not have thought that Camille Saint-Saëns belongs in this category of working out his demons through his art, but Samson and Delilah demonstrates the extreme likelihood that he truly does. I believe it's no coincidence that in his most popular and enduring opera, Saint-Saëns chose the story of a strong, powerful woman who uses feminine wiles and sexuality to cause the downfall of a hero. Delilah not only causes Samson to lose his fearsome, God-given strength, but once he's in captivity she taunts him, humiliates him and degrades him before meeting her final fate.

Now let's meet the women who exerted profound influence on the life of Camille Saint-Saëns.

The composer's father died when Saint-Saëns was three months old. His health was so delicate that his mother Clémence sent him away to be raised by a nurse for the next two years. There was none of the crucial bonding experience between an infant and its parents. Thus, we're already on an unhealthy track for a well-balanced attitude.

Once returned to his mother's care, the household was joined by Saint-Saëns' widowed great aunt Charlotte; the child never had a male role model. Charlotte gave the boy his first piano lessons, but it was Clémence who fostered a neurotic relationship with women.

Saint-Saëns lived with his mother until her death, when the composer was in his fifties. Theirs was a love-hate relationship; Clémence was capable of unbelievable harshness in her interactions with her son. Saint-Saëns, of course, was a brilliant keyboard virtuoso from childhood until the end of his life, performing with equal skill on the organ and the piano. On one occasion, a joint recital was planned with the great Franz Liszt. Saint-Saëns confessed to his mother that he was feeling nervous about the event. Here's how Clémence responded in a letter:

I found your letter upon my return from Mass. You make me ill with your fears. I used to think you are a man; you are merely a coward. I treat you with contempt. I believed I had brought up a man. I have raised up only a girl of degenerative stock. Play as you ought to play: an artist of great talent. Either you play well, or I will renounce you as my child.


On another occasion, Saint-Saëns made the mistake of confessing to her some trepidation about an upcoming performance of Samson and Delilah. Again, Clémence responded with a verbal castration:

One fine day you will feel strong like a man. You have come into the world to make music. Then do so!

This iron grip on her son's psyche extended to his social life as well, including his attempts at meaningful relationships with the opposite sex. No woman could possibly measure up to Clémence's standards, and in any case, she was more interested in Camille's contacts in high society and intellectual circles than in romance.

Clémence was the ultimate needy mother, pushing the ultimate guilt-trip on Camille at all times. Here's another excerpt from a letter she sent him while he was away on a concert tour:

I begin to find your travels a little lengthy. When you are not present my brain suffers a little; I have so little time to live… my years seem to pass more quickly than others. I have a need to see you.

At the time of that letter, Camille Saint-Saëns was fifty-two years old; he was in the habit of writing to her daily.

With this background, it should come as no surprise that the composer's single marriage was appallingly dysfunctional and short-lived, marred by tragedy. Many were surprised when, at the age of forty, Saint-Saëns married Marie-Laure Truffot, a girl of nineteen who was his pupil. Clémence, unsurprisingly, was not pleased; what's worse, the new bride found that her hostile mother-in-law would continue to live with the couple.

And then a catastrophe happened.

While Marie-Laure was dressing to go out, her two-year-old son was playing near an open window of their second-floor apartment. He fell to his death. (The couple's other son also died in infancy.) Clémence held the child's mother completely responsible, making life unendurable. Saint-Saëns took his mother's side. In the end, shockingly, the composer did not divorce his wife; he simply abandoned her.

He never married again.

There was one other woman who played a role in forming Saint-Saëns' relationships with women: her name was Augusta Holmes. Camille met her when he was thirty and Augusta was twenty. She was an Irish woman born in France. Quite the glamorous figure, she had a mane of beautiful red hair. She sang; she played the piano; she attracted a devoted circle of artists, musicians and intellectuals.

Saint-Saëns was smitten.

Recalling evenings in Augusta's salon, he described them as
“orgies of youth, art, music and poetry. We were all of us in love with her; literary men, painters, musicians, any of us would have been honored to have had her as a wife.

Summoning his nerve, the shy and sexually inexperienced Saint-Saëns poured out his feelings in a series of poems, love letters and proposals of marriage. But the young pianist-composer was far from the most eligible admirer in Augusta's circle, which included Liszt (quite the ladies' man), Wagner (again, don't get me started), Rossini and other luminaries.

Bottom line: Augusta Holmes shot Saint-Saëns down, pricking the balloon of his hopes and his ego. (NOTE: as an post-script to the affaire Augusta, the composer Cesar Franck was also infatuated with Holmes. Though he was a married man, his Piano Quintet, a work of great eroticism, was dedicated to her. As it happens, it fell to Saint-Saëns to perform at the world premiere. He was so annoyed by the passionate nature of this musical tribute to Augusta that, at the final notes, he rose from the piano and stalked off the stage without acknowledging applause, taking no bows.)

Let's consider the unfortunate Marie-Laure as a victim of Saint-Saëns' dysfunction, not the cause. There is no doubt that it was the scorn of Augusta and the cruel domination of Clémence that wreaked havoc on any chance he might have ever had of a well-adjusted image of Womankind. Both women, in their way, managed to enslave, dominate and emasculate Camille; it just happens that Holmes did it to several men, whereas his mother aimed her poison only at her son.

Which brings us to Delilah.

Can you see it already? Do you see that this character neatly embodies the seminal personality traits of both the women who fascinated/tortured Saint-Saëns? Like the mother, Delilah emasculated Samson (the "mighty hero"... typical composer self-image, right?) and made him miserable, unable to break free. But like Augusta, Delilah uses sexuality to tempt Samson and then - the key point! - in the final scene she shoots him down with taunting insults.

Now get a load of this: Camille Saint-Saëns often appeared at parties in drag. Thus decked out, he would use his falsetto voice to imitate famous prima donnas, with maliciously precise impersonations of their quirks and the out-of-tune high notes. It got laughs every time.

Psychologist Kenneth Ring has summarized Saint-Saëns' crippling misogyny:

“Saint-Saëns spent much of his musical life dealing with thematic material that stemmed from his deep fear of women – a fear that was originally engendered by the humiliating control his mother exerted over his life and that was later compounded by the rejection he received from the only woman he ever truly loved. In time, the devastating effects of this treatment caused a fusion of images in which the strength of the former was conjoined with the seduction of the latter, forming SS’s basic and ineradicable woman complex, which only served to deepen his antipathy toward women in general."

And here's one final observation: this misogyny was not limited to the opera Samson and Delilah. Here are some thumbnail summaries of other of Saint-Saëns' works in the same vein:
  • His first opera Le Timbre d’Argent  is about a man ruined by the seductive power of a woman. Conrad (the hero) is betrothed to another, but infatuated by a dancer. His passion causes the death of two close friends and the dancer rejects him in the end.
  • His symphonic poem Le Rouet d’Omphale is the story of how Hercules becomes enslaved to the sexual charms of a woman who humiliates him by making him dress like a woman.
  • His opera Phryne is about a courtesan who subjects a foolish old magistrate to ridicule when he becomes infatuated with her
  • Another opera: Hélène (about Helen of Troy) Saint-Saëns described as “temptation triumphant, the irresistible attraction of forbidden fruit.”
  • His last opera, completed at age 75: Déjanire; again, it is about Hercules brought down through the wiles of a woman, his jealous wife in this case.
I assume, Faithful Reader, that you get the picture. Camille Saint-Saëns was a gifted man; a true intellectual; a composer with a gift for urbane, well-structured music of Gallic taste and eternal melodic appeal; that's his legacy. The legacy of his mother, on the other hand, was emotional chaos and a series of failed relationships with women; relationships that left bitter traces in his art.

August 6, 2017

Samson and Delilah and the "Seductive '70's"

Samson and Delilah by Guercino (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg)
About the title to this post – I’m talking about the 1870’s, specifically. Within the period from 1870 to 1877, three operas, each long since standard-repertoire staples, had their first performances. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, this trio is connected by the inclusion of scenes that are remarkable for both their similarities and the shocking effect they surely had on audiences of a century and a half ago.

The three: Aida (1870), Carmen (18750 and Virginia Opera’s opening production of the 2017-2018 season, Samson and Delilah (1877).
The point of commonality: in each opera, there is a scene in which a woman seduces a man into betraying his military duty, with disastrous consequences.

Weird, huh?

In 2017 we’ve long since become jaded to the femme fatale, wiggling her hips and making helpless men putty in her hands. A thousand movies and ten thousand TV shows have made her a familiar figure. But in the 1870’s? Theatrical audiences were used to the male characters doing all the seducing. From Don Giovanni (yeah, yeah, he had a pretty bad day in Mozart’s opera, but still – that catalogue had a buncha names in it, right?) to Edgardo to nerdy Nemorino to the Duke of Mantua, it was always the guys puttin’ on the moves on women who fell for their schtick.

But the Ethiopian princess, the wanton gypsy and the Philistine priestess brought us a whole new ballgame in the seduction department. Suddenly, it was the tenor’s turn to do some schtick-fallin’, ignoring any number of warning bells.

·         AIDA, unlike her sistren, is an unwilling seductress. She is guilted into manipulating her lover Radames by her father, who piles up the images of tortured countrymen to spur her into action. Her boyfriend is pretty much Caesar, Patton and Napoleon all rolled into one in the annals of Egyptian generals. When Aida tempts him into running away with her with romantic images of Ethiopia, she isn’t spinning a web of lies so much as describing a fantasy she desperately wants for both of them – in my opinion, anyway. Of course, Radames gets all excited and blurts out military strategy and it all goes to crap in a hurry. Aida experiences no satisfaction because she loves her victim.

·         CARMEN has no such patriotic issues motivating her seduction when she turns her attention to poor Don José. José actually suffers the indignity of TWO seductions! In the “Seguidilla” Carmen’s goals are simpler than Aida’s, and extremely short-term. She’s been arrested, she’s on her way to jail, and she doesn’t wanna. Also, her lizard-brain took note of José’s studied indifference during her exhibition in the “Habanera” earlier; she regards him as a challenge. Plus the whole “let-me-go” thing. Like Radames, José is betraying his duty to the army by giving in to Carmen, but it’s a very small-scale version of treason. Misdemeanor instead of felony, you might say. It’s in Act 2 that – doggone it! – he falls for it again; and this time, the stakes are higher. She seduces him right into desertion, a far bigger deal. José wasn’t executed for letting her go in Act 1, it was just a matter of a few months in the brig. But in the end, though the final curtain deprives us of seeing it, we know an execution is coming after all, just as it did for Radames. The other difference from Aida: Carmen is a sociopath: she feels nothing authentic for her victim; he’s a means to an end.

·         DELILAH also chooses a military leader to toy with: the Hebrew who uses donkey jaw-bones as his Weapon Of Mass Destruction: Samson. Like Aida, Delilah’s goal is to make the hero betray his countrymen; to allow an enemy state to rise up with the opportunity for victory. Like, Aida, Delilah is essentially a spy; unlike Aida, she is quite gung-ho about the assignment. Serious question: we never learn which side came out on top after Radames’s treason; did Egypt remain dominant, or did Ethiopia have a comeback? We sure do know how it turned out for the nation of Israel: they went right back into slavery, like a rebellious kid being sent to his room after staying out all night – at least until Samson pulled a super-strength rabbit out of his hat in Act 3.

But here’s what makes Delilah unique: she actively hates her victim; her seduction, replete with passionate declarations of “amour” is as phony as an eleven-dollar bill. Aida loves Radames; Carmen is interested in José in the moment of his seduction and for the duration of his usefulness to her. But when Delilah is free to say what she really means, she isn’t shy about expressing her complete loathing of him. And, importantly, the audience is fully aware of this animus PRIOR to her famous “My heart at thy feet” aria. Had there ever been this extent of female treachery before? Had a woman made love to a man with pure, unapologetic hatred for him in previous opera history?

Three female leads; three sexually-charged, red-hot seductions (okay, four, since Carmen did two); three soldier-boys whose moral fiber and military discipline turned to mush. So alike, yet with dramatically interesting nuances – and all within a handful of years.

In a future post, we’ll learn something about Camille Saint-Saëns’ real-life interactions with women in his private life that may shed light on his choice of Delilah for a portrait in music. Those interactions were……………………… complicated. Stay tuned!