Such pieces did not distract him completely from more "serious" composition, and in 1920, shortly after finishing Le Bœuf sur le tôit he composed his Fifth Quartet, Op. 64:
Milhaud dedicated this Fifth Quartet to Arnold Schoenberg, of all people; I don't know what Schoenberg may have thought of it, but he writes interestingly about Milhaud in a letter to Zemlinsky:
…as to the 'insignificant' Milhaud. I don't agree. Milhaud strikes me as the most important representative of the contemporary movement in all Latin countries: polytonality. Whether I like him is not to the point. But I consider him very talented.Arnold Schoenberg: Letters (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965, p. 80)
(Between the Fifth and Sixth Quartets Milhaud found time for, among other things, rehearsing (25 rehearsals!) and conducting the French premiere of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire: Schoenberg had reason to "consider him talented." Not long after, Alma Mahler suggested a double performance in Vienna, with Schoenberg conducting a performance with the Sprechstimme in the original German, Milhaud conducting the same instrumentalists — different vocalist — in the French translation he had had prepared.)
Two years later, in the spring of 1922 — there had been a new string quartet every other year for a decade — Milhaud composed the Sixth Quartet, op. 77:
Milhaud dedicated the Sixth, appropriately, to his friend and fellow-member of the celebrated "Les Six" "modern" French composers Poulenc, and the contrast between this concise, lyrical, Gallic quartet and its predecessor couldn't be more marked.
It would be not two but three years before Milhaud would get to the Seventh Quartet, op. 87, which he wrote while on extended honeymoon with his bride (and cousin) Madeleine. They had taken ship via Naples, Malta, Athens, and Constantinople to Lebanon, where Milhaud fell so ill with amoebic dysentery they to give up their planned visit to Palestine. He recovered in Cairo, and planned to settle for a while with friends in a castle in Balsorano, a ruined village in the Abruzzi, but
I fell ill again during my stay in Balsorano. The peasant woman who brought me my meals carried up on her head all the furniture we required for our installation. She would come near my bed every day with a murmur of: "Speriamo, speriamo!" It was then that I began to write my Seventh Quartet. For us it will always be bound up with our memories of that journey. As soon as I felt a little better, my friends drove us to Rome, where we were to take the train for Paris. When we stopped at a little village to fill up with gasoline, we saw a lot of ancient bottles in the window of a cafe. Our collector's fever made us buy the lot: Garibaldis, Queens of Italy, Angels, Clocks, and Acrobats. When we got to the Hotel Flora, we had them all taken up to our room, to the great dismay of the porter. He was somewhat mollified when we offered him the contents of the bottles. He soon returned with a large empty vase, into which he poured all the contents of the bottles, regardless of the type of liqueur they contained. "This will be a treat for the kids," he said with a smile.I quote this at some length, from Notes Without Music (whose online presence I have found again), because the overlapping moods, emotions, locales, languages, and sensibilities seem to me to illuminate, somewhat, the otherwise sometimes bewildering overlappings in Milhaud's music. I have quoted at greater length, in fact, you might complain, than this quite brief quartet itself can convey.
Quartet 7, op. 87, 1925
Milhaud dedicated the Seventh to the Pro Arte Quartet, who no doubt played its premiere not long after its composition. Interestingly, he had heard them play quartets by Anton Webern in Vienna; he had found them "grippingly interesting." Perhaps they influenced, or at any rate confirmed, Milhaud's tendency toward conciseness in these string quartets of 1922 and 1925.
Milhaud had composed seven quartets in thirteen years; he was now thirty-two years old. For whatever reason, he was not to return to the medium for another seven years.