Saint-Saëns’ Bacchanale from “Samson et Dalila”
Notes by TŌN flutist Jordan Arbus
Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns was a prolific French composer of the Romantic era; his most famous works include his tone poem Danse Macabre, the humorous suite Carnival of the Animals, and his Symphony No. 3, Organ, which gained some popularity in pop culture by the use of one of its main themes in the song “If I Had Words” by Scottish singer Scott Fitzgerald in 1977.
Saint-Saëns was a very educated and skilled musician; he composed 16 operas in total, but Samson et Dalila was the only one that remained popular and made it to the standard repertoire. Berlioz said about Saint-Saëns, “He knows everything but lacks inexperience.” Samson et Dalila reached the stage for the first time in Weimar, Germany, in 1877. Surprisingly, no performance was given in France until 1890, perhaps due to the hostility of the Third French Republic regime towards religion.
This Bacchanale is located in the third act of the opera and depicts the celebration of the victory of the Philistines over the Hebrews. It’s an ecstatic dance historically performed by priestesses and dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine and feast in the Antique Roman civilization. The piece is based on an organic mixture made of Middle Eastern and European aesthetics. After an exotic introduction played by the solo oboe, the music gets very energetic and furious, and its rhythmic character is reinforced by the intensive use of percussion playing a famous rhythmic pattern notably featured in the William Tell Overture by Rossini, where it is meant to render the gallop of a horse. At some point, it calms down and takes a completely different turn to let us hear a waltz in the purest Romantic tradition. The exotic then rhythmic sections eventually push back in, and the piece ends on a triumphant blend of these two themes.