Monday, April 07, 2008

Milhaud: Quartets, part four

AFTER THE TERRIBLE BRAZILIAN WINTER — terrible for the thousands of deaths from influenza — came the joy of the Armistice, Nov. 11, ending World War I. Paul Claudel was sent to Washington on a mission; Milhaud went with him. The voyage was on a German vessel that had been sabotaged before its capture, and Milhaud describes a hilarious trip in his memoir Notes Without Music: the trip took eight weeks, and introduced Milhaud, who composed the entire time, to backwoods towns (and their dance and music) in Brazil and the West Indies. After a brief stay in New York he finally reached Paris again, and it was there and then that he composed one if his best-known scores, Le Bœuf sur le tôit, a collage of a number of Brazilian popular tunes. (The piece and its origins are discussed in a fascinating article by Daniella Thompson, "The Bœuf Chronicles.")

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:
  • i: Chantant : Much more so than anywhere in the four earlier quartets, Milhaud writes polytonal music here, each instrument in its own key, but the music is so clearly outlined and the instruments kept so far apart in terms of high-to-low voicing, that the result is quite clear, at the same time both "modern" in its discord and "classical" in its balance and clarity. (very polyphonic, fugal)
  • ii: Vif et léger : frisky but compulsive, in a Schoenberggy rhythm, punctuated at key articulation points by heavy repeated chords.
  • iii: Lent : here the slower tempo displays intricacies already present in earlier movements. Introspective, the music suggests the studio more often than is usually the case chez Milhaud, and as the movement unfolds the expression is always more innig.
  • iv: Trés animé : heavy, rhythmic, busily imitative, the finale returns to the mood of the opening movement, thus making this the most conventional of Milhaud's quartets to date in point of form, however progressive it undoubtedly is in terms of its harmonic language.


  • 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:
  • i: Souple et animé : opening in a rustic, lyrical solo in the viola, Milhaud immediately announces he is done with the German intellectuality of the previous quartet. The movement's barely two and a half minutes long, fresh in spite of the dark colors of viola and cello, placid in spite of the constant motion and overlapping contrapuntal lines.
  • ii: Très lent : like the preceding movement, this individuates the four instruments, at first assigning quite different kinds of music to cello, viola, and violins, with slow ostinati, trills, simultaneous discords, and altered timbres (pizzicato, sul tasto, harmonics) occasionally suggesting Milhaud had listened carefully to Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914) — without, however, leaning on them in the least.
  • iii: Très vif et rythmé : Five-beat rhythm, unusual for Milhaud (I wonder if he demonstrated this to his best-known student, Dave Brubeck, whose "Take Five" sounds occasionally derivative of it). And even shorter than the first movement, making this one of Milhaud's most concise pieces to date — a quality that no doubt infuenced those critics who found such music somehow less consequential: a pity.


  • 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
  • i: Modérément animé : The close of the opening section recalls the Brazilian rhythms of Le Bœuf sur le tôit, and the center section, in its slower tempo, fades out on a nostalgic note, unwilling to allow the conventional return to the opening tempo.
  • ii: Doux et sans hâte : The first appearance in his quartets of a trademark Milhaud mood, one I always think of as Domestic, somehow expressing simplicity, tenderness, douceur. (Also the first appearance of doux as a descriptive heading, and looking forward to the more sugary, more excitable sweetnesses that would come ten or fifteen years later in the music of Olivier Messiaën.)
  • iii: Lent : The mood of the second movement continues, in a different musical language, a berceuse or lullaby, not inappropriate to honeymoon sickbed, perhaps.
  • iv: Vif e gai : Frisky, again, like the second movement of the Fifth, but entirely Mediterranean to my ear in spite of an occasional irruption from Stravinsky's pungent chordal imagination, or Schoenberg's Germanic cerebration.


  • 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.

    2 comments:

    brett said...

    Thanks for the excellent explication of the MIlhaud quartets. Now I need to find some recordings! Any recommendations?
    Oh, and while Milhaud certainly influenced his pupil Brubeck (who named one of his sons Darius), Take Five was actually written by Brubeck's great partner and alto player, Paul Desmond.

    Charles Shere said...

    Thanks. Yes, of course: and the embarrassing thing is, I knew very well it was Desmond, not Brubeck. Oh well: the likeness is there nonetheless.

    As to recordings, well, the Parisii Quartet collection, formerly available as an inexpensive box on the Naive label (distributed by Naxos?) is no longer available, and I don't know why. I'm listening to an "integral" recording by French musicians, the Quatour Arcana for the most part, on LPs bought at Ebay from a fellow in Nice, as explained in the first installment of this blogelogue.