Saint-Saëns was born in Paris, France, on 9 October 1835. His father, a government clerk, died three months after his birth. He was raised by his mother, Clémence, and her aunt, Charlotte Masson, who moved in. His aunt introduced Saint-Saëns to the piano, and began giving him lessons on the instrument. His first composition, a little piece for the piano dated 22 March 1839, is now kept in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Saint-Saëns's precocity was not limited to music. He learned to read and write by the age of three, and had some mastery of Latin by the age of seven. To say that he was gifted would be a redundancy.
In the late 1840s, Saint-Saëns entered the Conservatoire de Paris, where he studied organ and composition.
Even though Camille Saint- Saëns composed a dozen operas, his only work of this genre to have survived is Samson et Dalila. Samson et Delila is a grand opera in three acts and four scenes by Saint- Saëns to a French libretto by Fedinand Lemaire was first performed on 2 December 1877.
The opera is based on the Biblical tale of Samson et Delila found in Chapter 16 of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament. It is the only opera by Saint-Saëns that is regularly performed. The second act love scene in Delilah's tent is one of the set pieces that define French opera. Two of Delilah's arias are particularly well known: "Printemps qui commence" and "Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix" ("My heart opens itself to your voice", also known as "Softly awakes my heart"), the latter of which is one of the most popular recital pieces in the mezzo-soprano/contralto repertoire.
Saint-Saëns first gained interest in the account of Samson and Delilah when he heard Rameau’s opera, based on Voltaire’s libretto on the topic, had failed. Viewed as a sacrilegious transformation of biblical scripture, theater managers avoided it as box-office poison. Upon hearing mention of the project, Franz Liszt saw the value of the work and backed and encouraged its completion. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war thwarted the timely completion of the project, requiring a total of eight years to finish.
Even though Saint-Saëns was considerably influenced by masters of the operas such as Wagner, Offenbach, Gounod, none of his other operas came close to achieving the level of fame and prestige experienced by Samson et Dalila.
Attracted to the purity of music, Saint-Saëns refused to recognize the emotional and sensual possibilities of his work. One of the brightest jewels of French opera which demonstrates Saint-Saëns’ compositional capabilities can be heard in the attached clip.