Friday, April 04, 2008

Milhaud: Quartets, part two

SINCE BEGINNING THIS SURVEY of Darius Milhaud's string quartets a few days ago, I ran across the full text of his memoir Notes Without Music online — but where, I can't say; I copied the text to my computer but clipped the online reference. Before, I was relying on liner notes to the Cybelle LP recordings and my ears; now I'll be adding things found in the memoir. To begin with, in 1904, when Milhaud was twelve years old and already a good violinist, he was asked to join his violin teacher, a professional cellist who taught at the conservatory in Aix-en-Provence, and a local carpenter who played viola, to read through quartets. The next year, 1905, they studied the Debussy Quartet, which resounds throughout Milhaud's first, composed seven years later in 1912.
That year at L'Enclos I finished my first string quartet. When I played it over with the Bruguier Quartet, only my beloved teacher understood what I was trying to say. His wife could not help blurting out: "It sounds just like Arab music!" and Segalas, the carpenter violinist, declared with his heavy Marseille accent: "Good God! This is hot stuff!"
[Notes Without Music, p. 34]
The First Quartet was performed in 1913 in Paris, on a contemporary-music concert:
I played in it, with Robert Soetens, Robert Siohan, and Felix Delgrange. After the concert, at the Salle Pleyel, while I was putting my instrument away and gazing at the old programs adorning the walls of the foyer, bearing witness to so many glorious performances and famous visits one of them even referred to a concert given by Chopin and Mendelssohn I was jerked out of my reverie by a gentleman with a white mustache and goatee who said to me: "I am Jacques Durand, I should like to publish your quartet. Come to see me tomorrow." Next day I signed my first contract.
[Notes Without Music, p. 47. And yet this quartet is not Opus 1, but op. 5.]
And at this point I refer you back to my last post, about that First Quartet, and now get on with it.

Milhaud compose a string quartet every other year from his First, in 1912, to his Sixth, in 1922; and he delayed only three years before getting to the Seventh, in 1925. But the three quartets that followed the First were special. They were composed during the First World War, a terrible irruption into la vie quotidienne in France (and elsewhere); they were composed in the deceptive quiet days before the German march on Paris, during the bleakest days, and during the last months, when the composer himself was safely (and fascinatedly) away from the action in Rio de Janeiro. And they reveal, I think, an absorbing change, within Milhaud's approach to the composition of music, from the fairly derivative, surely influenced youthful work in the First, through a series of intensely and revealingly personal statements in music composed for this most perfect of musical media, the string quartet, poised between the completely soloistic and personal world of the solo sonata and the quite public and audience-oriented world of the Symphony.

In the Second Quartet, op. 18, Milhaud celebrates his friend Léo Latil, and their mutual friendship. There's a friendship here that's hardly understood these days, nearly a century later, when we look for sexual "coding" everywhere. Let Milhaud describe his friend:
Leo… attended the Catholic school [recall that Milhaud was a Jew] and also studied music under Bruguier. We became firm friends. He worshipped music and admired my early efforts with passionate conviction; he made me share his admiration for Maurice de Guerin, and we loved to discover contemporary poets together. I think Leo would probably have become a country priest. The infinite tenderness in his gaze betrayed a tendency to melancholy and a tormented sense of anxiety. He kept a diary that was one long lamenta tion in which spiritual weariness and painfully intense reli gious feeling, dominated ever by a deep spirit of sacrifice and absolute resignation, were interwoven with a passionate love of nature, of flowers, and of the exquisite blue lines of the horizon at Aix. He was a dreamer, in love with solitary brooding, but he accepted my presence. We often went for walks together; he would always take the same direction, toward the Étang de Berre, west of the town, where the softly curving hills merge into the immensity of the plain, on the edge of which stood Cezanne's property, Jas de Bouffan, with its famous row of poplars gently suffused with the colors of the setting sun. We never wearied of walking along between the fields of wheat, blue-green in spring, bordered with almond trees in bloom, dwarf oaks, and pines, through exquisite landscapes, some of which, like the Chateau de l'Horloge, evoked historical memories : according to Chateaubriand, it was in this solid, roomy farmhouse that Napoleon spent the night on his return from Elba. Sometimes we went as far as Malvalat, the Latils' estate near Granettes, a village that took its name from the painter Granet, who lived there; one of his pictures, representing the death of his wife, hangs on a wall of its little chapel…
I quote at length for more reasons than one. First, to display Milhaud's fine prose style. Second, to underline the significance of landscape to his sensibility: the awareness of humanity in its natural context, in the environment, has much to do with the effectiveness, the persuasiveness of his music. Third, of course, to attempt to convey the quality of the friendship between these two boys, alert to Nature, aware of their intelligence and sensitivity, open to their world.


I haven't looked into it in any depth, but it strikes me there's a theme running through French music from Rameau and Couperin down to Satie (and, of course, through Satie to Virgil Thomson). Of course there were German baroque composers who depicted; and Schubert, I think, and Schumann and Alban Berg, certainly, took pleasure (and inspiration) from translating their impressions of friends and lovers into musical terms. But the durable tradition of musical portraiture is, I think, French; and Milhaud took to it readily: in 1914, after Léo had already been mobilized into the war, while Milhaud was waiting
to receive notice calling me up, I remained in Aix and … started on my Second String Quartet. Léo was stationed at Briançon in the Chasseurs Alpins. He looked on the war as a mission, a solution to his personal problems, and got himself sent to the front as soon as he could. Gradually the first bad news filtered through to us: Alberic Magnard shot by the Germans and his house burned down; my cousin Daniel Palm killed before Lunéville his parents were notified the very day their youngest daughter, Suzanne, was repatri ated from Germany, where she had been spending her vacation perfecting her German. When Etienne was called up with the 1915 class, Madeleine and I went with him in the streetcar as far as Pont de l'Arc, the first stop after Aix. We came back on foot along the little river, dark with shadows and lined with richly hued trees. It was the first autumn I had spent in Aix since 1908.

By the next year, 1915, Milhaud had completed the Second Quartet, whose five movements can be taken as a portrait of his friend Léo. It's an engaging piece, open and winning; you'd hardly suspect a war was on.

  • i: Modérément animé -Très animé : Lively, meaning full of life: animé , as so many of Milhaud's quartet movements would be marked; animated. And there's much busy-work here, expressive of the energy and constant outward-looking curiosity these boys must have had in common. Sweetness, too. Nothing terribly original, or worked-out: Milhaud depends on lyricism and symmetry; perhaps a record of the innocence of his boyhood — the movement ends in a slower, appreciative moment…
  • ii: Très lent Something prescient here? The rhythm, in the lower strings, is somewhat dirgelike. Très lent is a marking — stipulating not so much tempo as mentalité, state of mind — that will recur often among the quartets to come. I could speculate about the extent to which Milhaud, pastoral, Provençal, was prescient in a Surrealist way avant la lettre, sensitive, through his sensitivity to the present moment and locale, to what is to come. So many things I wish I'd had the wits to ask him!
  • iii: Très vif Complete innocence, again: a record of those rambles together through the "softly curving hills," the garrigue surrounding Aix-en-Provence. Busy and uncaring: but the four instruments divide cannily the business of this musical energy, even if there is a bit of repetitiveness…
  • iv: Souple et sans hâte, assez animé et graçieux Supple; without haste; rather animated, and graceful. Enough said.
  • v: Très rythmé: Pure energy and intentionality; direction always forward. But the close, suddenly, is slower, reflective. Again, there's a presentiment here: I'll continue with this in a day or two.

    Be advised: Milhaud's Third Quartet is an amazing leap, looking forward to Morton Feldman.
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