In 1894 Carl Nielsen wrote from Berlin to his wife about a painting that had impressed him. It was by Piero del Pollaiuolo and depicted David just after having slain Goliath. Whether or not this was the direct inspiration of this opera, by 1896 Nielsen had worked out the basic shape and ideas for the project and engaged dramatist Einar Christiansen as his librettist. The main character of the opera is Saul, the aging king of Israel who seeks his power and popularity being eclipsed by that of the popular young hero David. The story is faithful to the Biblical account, except for inventing a lovely romantic subplot between David and Saul's daughter Michal.
Musically Nielsen shows remarkable independence. European opera at this time was deeply affected by the style and technique of Richard Wagner (at least among composers of younger generations). Saul and David is the first major opera to establish a new idiom that is not dependant on Wagnerism. Due to the Biblical subject, the chorus is treated in an oratorio-like style. Even while portraying the Israelite people it tends to remain detached and proclamatory. Nielsen does not use the Leitmotiv (Leading Motive) technique of Wagner.
The opera begins immediately with a tense scene preceding the first battle with the Philistines. Saul has a military advantage, but is frustrated to see it wasted because he is forced to await a ritual blessing from the prophet Samuel. This leads to an argument between the temporal and religious leaders, with Samuel prophesying the taking of the kingdom away from him. To soothe Saul, his courtiers introduce the musical shepherd lad to sing to the King. A friendship begins between David and Saul, and with Saul's son Jonathan, and a love arises between David and Michal. Act 2 begins with the slaying of Goliath, the rise of David's popularity, and the resulting royal jealousy. Saul nearly kills David by hurling his spear at him. David escapes. Act 3 begins with a calm orchestral prelude (often played as a concert item). Samuel appears and reminds the King that David is now the anointed. This provokes Saul; David and Michal escape to safety. In Act 4 Saul calls on the Witch of Endor for advise. She conjures the ghost of Samuel, who prophesies only grief and downfall for Saul. In battle, Jonathan is killed and the despairing Saul takes his own life. With a choral song of "Glory to God" David becomes King.
The rehearsals were long and arduous. Art imitated life: The singer playing Saul got jealous with the David, and actually aimed the spear at him. Fortunately it only tore some scenery. The performances were sold out, and the audiences were highly enthusiastic. Even though the theater management was able to raise prices for the second performance, and this too sold out, they found that they could make more money with cheaper operas, such as "Pagliacci" and an opera by Herold, and ended the run after the two showings. Nielsen was deeply disappointed. He went back to being, so far as management was concerned, just another rank and file member of their orchestra's second violins. Saul and David has gone on to become an important part of the auxiliary international repertory, and Saul is regarded one of the showcase roles for a bass-baritone.