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.

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