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.


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