On a theater stage in Weimar, Germany, a young mezzo-soprano was making her operatic debut. On this night in December 1877, she was portraying the biblical figure Delilah, mistress of the Israelite Samson. The opera was Samson and Delilah, a French opera being performed in German, debuting outside its home country.
In the audience that night was the opera’s creator, the French composer Camille Saint-Saens. Saint-Saens was an accomplished composer who wrote not only operas, but also ballets, sacred and secular choral works, and a great variety of orchestral pieces during his long lifetime. In fact, Saint-Saens originally conceived Samson as an oratorio. He had admired, from childhood, the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was a master of such vocal works as oratorios and cantatas.
Samson and Delilah is based on an Old Testament story from the Book of Judges. Though Saint-Saens published twelve operas, this was the only one that would be truly successful. In the composer’s native France, the opera had never been performed in full before 1877. Only the second act had been performed, in a private home, three years earlier. On this night in Weimar, the composer would see his opera triumph. After the second act, in which Delilah sings a flowing aria declaring her love for Samson, the audience called the composer to the stage to show its appreciation. At the opera’s conclusion, the audience again brought him onto the stage and decorated him with laurels.
Charles Camille Saint-Saens was very familiar with being on stage. Born in Paris on Oct. 9, 1835, he had been a child prodigy who showed immense talent when only a few years old. The young Camille composed a piano piece at the age of three. Taking music lessons and encouraged by his family, he progressed so rapidly that he performed his first public concert on the piano in 1846, before his 11th birthday.
As a teenager, Saint-Saens studied the organ and learned composition. As an adult, he promoted the works of many living composers while traveling, composing, writing articles about music, and teaching. He spent much time away from France during his life, visiting the United States, Egypt, and Algeria. His most famous works, besides Samson and Delilah, include The Carnival of the Animals (1886), for two pianos and orchestra, and the symphonic poem Danse Macabre (1877).
Although Saint-Saens was a successful composer, his home life was not a happy one. In 1875, he married a 19-year-old woman. The couple later had two children, but both children died at a young age. Saint-Saens blamed his wife for their deaths and abandoned her. He enjoyed the climate of Algeria and traveled there for the last time not long after his 86th birthday. Saint-Saens died in Algeria on Dec. 16, 1921.