Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) was the French composer of such famous works as Carnival of the Animals, the opera Samson et Delila, Danse Macabre, and the Organ Symphony. He was a child prodigy who became France’s most renowned composer. Late in life, he traveled to all corners of the world.
Bacchanale comes from his 1877 opera Samson et Delila, which is based on the Biblical story of those 2 characters. In both the opera and the Bible, Samson is a leader of the Israelites, who are in the midst of a revolt against their malevolent rulers, the Philistines. The Philistines want to bring him down, so they send one of their own, a woman named Delila, to seduce him and discover the source of his extreme physical strength. It turns out that secret is his long hair, which binds him in a vow to God. But Samson does not let that secret slip easily: he misleads Delila several times before finally revealing the true secret. Yet when that is done, Delila shaves his hair while he sleeps, allowing the Philistines to capture and blind him. After years of forced labor at their hands, Samson winds up in the temple of Dagon, one of the Philistine deities, in Gaza. There, he prays to God to restore his strength, and he pulls down the central columns of the temple, killing himself and all of the Philistines inside. Each version of the story has its nuances (e.g., the Bible says Samson killed 1000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass!) so it’s worth your time to investigate both. The Bacchanale occurs in Act III of the opera, just before Samson is led into the temple of Dagon. It is a depraved dance performed by the priests of Dagon. Saint-Saens loved “exotic” sounds, so he used an exceptionally exotic sounding scale for a good chunk of the piece: it contains two one-and-a-half step gaps (from the 2nd to 3rd steps and the 6th to 7th steps). While that does heighten the exoticness of the piece, it is not authentic to any world musical tradition.
And a more conventional (though admittedly harder to see) staging from the Paris Opera in 1978:
For something a little different, Gustavo Dudamel leads the Berlin Philharmonic in Bacchanale. He plays a little fast and loose with tempo, but it’s really a thrilling version!
Here’s the band version done by a Japanese middle school. As I’ve come to expect from young Japanese bands, they knock it out of the park: this is the only band version on YouTube that’s any good at all, and I looked at a couple dozen!
Some extra program notes on Bacchanale from the Immaculata Symphony
Did you know that the Bible is fully online? Here’s the Samson and Delilah story in full, from the Book of Judges.