The history of this opera, which now keenly engages interest, is curious. The subject was taken up by M. Saint-Saëns before the Franco-Prussian war, and the score was completed in 1872. But there was no performance until 1877, and then at Weimar. Afterwards it was given in the German cities, including Hamburg. Not until 1890, at Rouen, was the work recognised in the composers native country. After that it quickly ran through the musical centers of Europe. Since it was given at the Paris Opera in 1892, it has never been absent from the repertory. Up to 1906 it had been played no fewer than 227 times. Its popularity is none the less with the management by reason of its comparative shortness, which allows it to be used as a "curtain raiser" for a three-act ballet, a distinction it shares with "Rigoletto," "Freischütz," and even "La Favorita." In England it was heard twice in concert form before it was staged at Covent Garden in April 1909, the work having been vetoed because of the British prejudice that scriptural subjects are unfitted for stage representation.
"Samson and Delilah" is in three Acts, and the libretto has so faithfully followed the Bible story that there is no need to outline the text. The music of the first Act is in the solid and dignified style of the oratorio, suggestive of Handel and Bach; in the second Act the chief feature is the rich, passionate colouring; while in the third no one can fail to remark that Oriental flavour, displayed mainly in rhythm and interval, which is so characteristic of the composer. There are many lovely melodies in the work, and the orchestration is remarkably fine.
Charles Camille Saint-Saëns is one of the most distinguished of modern French composers. Wagner spoke of him as "the greatest living French composer," and Gounod constantly expressed his admiration of his wonderful gifts, remarking that he could write at will a work in the style of Rossini, of Verdi, of Schumann, or of Wagner. He was born in 1835, and had notable successes in the double character of composer and player. He was an accomplished organist, and as a pianist was once thought to rival Liszt. They say that at Bayreuth, when Saint-Saëns was at the height of his Wagner enthusiasm, he sat one evening at the piano, in the presence of a large company of the worlds musical notables, and played from the orchestral score one of the Acts of "Parsifal," and also from the score of the "Nibelungen." The former work was then unknown, and his arranging and reading were at first glance. Saint-Saëns was a pupil of Halévy and Gounod at the Paris Conservatoire. He was no stranger to England, having paid several visits to London, and played in the chief provincial cities. His cantata "The Lyre and the Harp" was written expressly for the Birmingham festival in 1879. He died in 1922.