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.

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