Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Darius Milhaud: the string quartets (1)

A FEW WEEKS AGO I ran across a lucky find on Ebay: the complete Milhaud quartets, on six LPs, recorded by two French string quartets. (Of course what I'd really like to have is the integral edition performed by the Quatuor Parisii, released some time ago on CDs on the Naive label, but I can't find a copy for love nor money.)

Yesterday a package arrived, a foam-plastic slab with the LPs carefully packed inside. Curiously, the LPs were in their protective envelopes but outside their jackets; each jacket with its LPs was sealed in its own heavy plastic envelope. I think perhaps the LPs are new and were never repackaged for retail on their being received from the factory. The sound engineering is dated, to say the least, and some recordings appear to be monaural: but what a joy to hear this music — it reminds me that the true descending priorities of music-listening are
  • Composer
  • Composition
  • Performance
  • Sound (whether live acoustics or recorded engineering)
  • and it's interesting to think whether such scales apply to the reading of books, or the viewing of paintings or sculpture.

    In any case, to the matter at hand, the Milhaud quartets. Ever since the dawn of the string quartet we've been accustomed to think of them as cycles: within European concert music, the string quartet is one of the major cordilleras; within the oeuvre of every composer who has dealt with the form — and that includes most of the most significant — his own cycle of quartets is another major range. So through the history of post-Baroque European concert music we have Haydn, Mozart, B**th*v*n, Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak, Milhaud, Schoenberg, Bartok, Shostakovich; apologies to those I've forgotten; this is blog, not book.

    (There is of course a fascinating category of European composers with only one quartet to their credit: Puccini, SIbelius, Debussy, Ravel, Berg, Lutoslawski; apologies to those I've forgotten; this is blog, not book. And note I'm not considering extraEuropean composers at the moment: if I were, Carter's name would be prominent in the previous paragraph, and Cage's in this one.)

    Of those great "cordilleras," I suppose the Milhaud is the most neglected, certainly the most unjustly neglected. In 1920, twenty-eight years old, when he had composed his fifth quartet, he told a journalist (for Le Coq Parisien) that he wanted to compose eighteen quartets (one more than Beethoven had managed); in 1951 he completed the eighteenth, quoting his first quartet in its closing measures, and noting on the manuscript "eighteen quartets, as promised." It's an impressive sequence of quartets, whatever you think of the implied competition with B**th*v*n. It was his very facility that led to Milhaud's neglect, I think; people forget that facility does not inevitably equate with the facile. Mozart, Picasso, and Henry James were blessed with facility, leading to impressive quantity which rarely slip when quality is considered, whatever the benchmark.

    Milhaud's own a attitude to chamber music, as a medium:
    C'est une forme, le quatuor surtout, qui porte à exprimer le plus profond de soi, et avec des moyens limités à quatre archets… C'est à la fois une discipline intellectuelle et le creuset de l'émotion la plus intense…

    [It's a form, the quartet above all, that induces expression of the innermost of one's self, and with means limited to only four bows… it's at the same time an intellectual discipline and the crucible of the most intense emotion…]

    But to the matter at hand. I've listened so far to three or four of these performances, in the course of digitizing them for my iPod, in the order in which they appear on the LPs — presumably an order determined by durations and, perhaps, a kind of logic that prefers to ignore chronological sequence. I prefer to consider them here, however, in the order in which they were composed: it's fascinating to hear the "development" (by no means logical or necessarily even linear) of Milhaud's interests in the forty-one years he spent on the medium.

    The First Quartet, op. 5, was composed in 1912, at the age of twenty. It's dedicated "to the memory of Paul Cézanne," Milhaud's older concitoyen from Aix-en-Provence

  • The first movement, Rythmique, opens with a simple unison declaration, lively and forthright, brisk and open, occasionally letting up for more lyrical phrases. There's a reference to the opening of the Debussy quartet: the best way to confront influence is to face it openly. A central episode in a slower tempo transforms the declaration into a speculation, expanding on motifs from the basic themes; then a three-beat march heavily gives way to a waltzlike return to the opening theme.
  • The second movement, Intime, contenu, lyrical and graceful, on muted strings, continues the Debussy mood in a supple , plein-aire piece — so often French music, and Milhaud especially, seems to evoke the out-of-doors, where German music sings of the studio.
  • The original third movement, Grave, soutenu, is not recorded: in the revised corrected edition of his quartets Milhaud let it stand, but specified that it was there only "pour mémoire," as a memory.
  • The finale, Vif, très rythmé, is unfortunately perhaps the least persuasive movement of the quartet, a bit repetitive and, in the present performance, hectoring — but, again in a center section, giving way to a more reflective, graceful voice.

  • Not bad for a first quartet by a twenty-year-old from the provinces working in the shadow of such giants as Debussy and Ravel; and still a pleasant thing to hear today. To composers and string-players much of its effect lies in its skill: Milhaud played in a quartet himself in his youth, and clearly knew the conversational and contrapuntal nature of the medium as well as the fluencies of the instruments. But even more pleasurable in this First Quartet is its role of Janus to the seventeen that followed. I'll write next of the three remarkable quartets that came next, composed during the First World War, and beginning Milhaud's fascinating and complex development of a style that unites personal expression, response to friendships and poetry, and technical discovery.

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