Sunday, April 06, 2008

Milhaud: Quartets, part three

FROM NOTES WITHOUT MUSIC, Darius Milhaud's memoir (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953):
On September 27, 1915, as I was going across the Place de Villiers, I felt an exceedingly acute physical pang, which lasted several seconds. I immediately thought of Leo and feared that some disaster had befallen him. Later I was to learn that I had felt this pain at the very moment of his death. It was at the height of an offensive in Champagne; he had been wounded, but though no longer able to handle a rifle, he refused to be evacuated, so that he might take part in the attack with his comrades. He was mown down by the German machine guns at the head of his company while encouraging his men. His family sent me a copy of his will; he had left me his diary. He had deposited it, together with my letters, in an old wooden chest, an eighteenth-century sailor's trunk; I added the letters I had received from him. Subsequently Dr. Latil [Léo's father] had a selection of his letters and extracts from his diary published by Plon. This supreme testimony of his pure Christian faith and spirit of self-sacrifice was singled out for mention by Barres on account of the nobility of its thought. While I was in Brazil I had a hundred copies of Leo's poems privately printed. A few months after his death, I wrote my Third String Quartet, dedicated to his memory. This consists of two very slow movements, in the second of which I introduced a soprano voice singing a page from Leo's diary, ending: "What is this longing for death, and which death does it mean?" This sentence had haunted my imagination ever since I had read it.
Milhaud's Third Quartet, op. 32, is indeed a very slow, very elegiac piece, and an extraordinary one for its form. The opening movement, Très lent, is slow indeed, in the Quatuor Arcana recording lasting just over seventeen minutes; the second movement, also marked Très lent, runs over seven minutes. The second movement is unusual for including the soprano voice: Arnold Schoenberg had done the same in his Second Quartet, completed in 1910; I've read somewhere that Milhaud hadn't known of that piece when he wrote his Third, but he says nothing about it in Notes Without Music.
  • i: Très lent : The quartet opens in the lower strings, in low range; when the violins enter they too are low-pitched. The meter is a very slow six-eight, a funereal barcarolle whose overlapping imitations convey slow, regretful, and inexorable motion; yet this is no lamentation: the mood is dignified, sorrowful, but not plaintive. And the music is curiously consonant in spite of considerable use of minor seconds, not always arising as passing discords in a contrapuntal texture.
         Two-thirds of the way through the movement there's a subtle shift of mood, as if regret gives way to resignation: but from there the two moods alternate, and the movement ends — at least in the Arcana recording — in an ineffably slow, quiet, section whose use of harmonics in the violins, over the low-pitched cello, bring Morton Feldman and even John Cage to mind.
  • ii: Très lent (Poème de Latil) : The voice enters soon, after a short, extremely quiet introduction in the strings, floating out of their texture in a melodic but measured recitative, reminiscent of the quiet declamation Erik Satie used a few months later in his Socrate, and similar to that of Milhaud's own Les Choephores , completed just before this quartet was begun.

  • THE FOURTH QUARTET, Op. 48, is a very different matter, composed in Rio de Janeiro where Milhaud was posted in 1917 to serve as secretary to the poet Paul Claudel, who had been appointed Minister to Brazil. Milhaud was now twenty-five; his compositional technique had fully developed (partly from intense personal study of harmonic possibilities, partly through sheer quantity of product and lessons learned from repeated hearings of most of his music); and he was intrigued by the new sounds of this exotic country. After the five-movement Second Quartet, and the unique Third composed of its two very slow movements, the Fourth returns to a more conventional form: two quick movements, quite short, surrounding a longer slow one. But the headings of these movements suggest that life and death are still on Milhaud's mind:
  • i: Vif : Dancelike and rustic, but giving way toward slower, more pensive moods.
  • ii:Funèbre : The mood of the opening movement of the Third Quartet, somewhat more hectoring in the lower strings' march, lightened occasionally by high harmonics in the violins, but often insistently returning to the funeral. (It is possible this movement was composed during the horrors of the Spanish flu epidemic, when, in Milhaud's words,
    …four thousand deaths were recorded daily. The authorities were overwhelmed. In the hospitals the dead were removed from the beds before they were cold, in order to make way for the dying. The supply of coffins gave out, and you constantly saw cartloads of corpses that were thrown into common graves in the cemeteries.
  • iii: Trés animé : Barely two minutes long, moving forward over a nervous ostinato in the lower strings, this finale doesn't really lighten the mood. It's nervous and intense, ending almost abruptly. The Fourth Quartet may be formally a return to tradition, but it concludes in quite a self-aware manner Milhaud's string-quartet survey of the wartime years.
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