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A Lost Masterpiece of Opera Returns, Kind of


At first, Rameau hotly pursued a reluctant Voltaire, who protested in a letter, “I don’t believe I have the talent to write lyrics.” Even after being convinced, Voltaire still dragged his feet, and his work on the text was temporarily derailed when he had to flee Paris for the countryside after the 1734 publication of his dangerously progressive “Lettres Philosophiques.”

“Rameau rants, Rameau claims that I’ve cut his throat, that I treat him like a Philistine,” Voltaire complained as the composer demanded an allegorical prologue (then standard in opera) and other adjustments to soften the libretto’s modernizing impulses. Voltaire, for his part, pressured Rameau to break with French convention and write more Italian-type arias: “I want ‘Samson’ to be in the new style,” he wrote.

A year after they started, the piece was well enough along to be previewed in a private concert performance. It was dicey, though, to produce stage works on sacred themes in a Catholic country, and the word from the censors was no. Rameau, to Voltaire’s chagrin, grew distracted by other projects, including the sprawling opera-ballet “Les Indes Galantes,” in which he might have included some of the music he had just written for “Samson.” (Composers of that era were great self-recyclers.)

Voltaire finally finished the text in 1736, but the censors rejected it again. Rameau was by then onto his next opera, “Castor et Pollux,” for which he likely also borrowed from “Samson.” His work with Voltaire seemed to be over, and a few years later he took a pass on the writer’s new libretto, “Pandore.”

But in 1745, Rameau contributed an hour of incidental music to a lightweight play by Voltaire celebrating the marriage of the king’s son. The same year, the two men produced — with less acrimony than had become their norm — “Le Temple de la Gloire,” an allegorical commemoration of a French military victory.

But, at least for Voltaire, these pieces paled in comparison to “Samson,” which he said contained sounds both “awe-inspiring and graceful”: “I dare to think that, in spite of a weak text, it was Rameau’s masterpiece.”

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