Monday, October 01, 2012

Darius Milhaud

Eastside Road, October 1, 2012—
FOUR AND A HALF years ago I abandoned a project here, a little survey of the eighteen string quartets composed by the 20th-century French composer Darius Milhaud. Just one of a number of half-finished — or, more often, let's be frank, half-begun — projects around here. The Drafts folder in this blogging application (MarsEdit, if you want to know) contains a couple of dozen abandoned posts, and perhaps ten times that many never even make it to the Drafts category. Oh well.

Milhaud was French, Provençal, Aixois, and Jewish, strong of mind and temperament, brisk and alert — deceptively so, for he was confined to a wheelchair for nearly his last thirty years, the victim of brutal arthritis.

Born in 1892, his life coincided with Modernism; but he studied at the Paris Conservatory, where he received solid grounding in conventional harmony and counterpoint. He was greatly influenced by exotic materials, though: from 1917 to 1919 he was in Rio de Janeiro, where he served as secretary to the French Ambassador; in Harlem in 1922, he was overwhelmed by the jazz he heard there.

Milhaud is famous for his polytonal counterpoint. His 14th and 15th string quartets, which though of equal lengths are otherwise quite different from one another, can be played simultaneously as an octet, whose effect is again very different from either of the quartets.

In 1940 he emigrated to the United States, fleeing Nazi-occupied France. He found refuge at Mills College in Oakland, where he joined the music faculty, remaining until 1971, teaching alternate years after his 1947 return to France.

I met Milhaud once or twice, though I can't say we ever had a proper conversation. I participated in a television interview with him on the occasion of his retirement from Mills College — that was in 1970, I think. I recall very little of the interview, conducted principally by Bill Triest, recorded on film, and probably now lost.

In 1995 the Class of 1945 of Mills College established the Darius Milhaud Performance Endowment to mark its fiftieth Class Reunion, and the college continues to produce annual concerts of Milhaud's music. Milhaud was nothing if not fecund: his opus list comprises 443 titles. Further, he composed for every medium, including a number of interestingly configured chamber ensembles. Further than that, his œuvre is remarkably consistent. You get the feeling, listening to his music, that his hand slid effortlessly across the paper, his pen leaving quantities of notes in its wake, each in the right place, though none in a place you'd have predicted.
Last Friday we heard the most recent of these concerts, with faculty, alumnae and alumni, and students of Mills College performing four compositions and excerpts from four others. I was particularly impressed with the relatively early Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, and Piano, op. 47, composed in Brazil in 1918.

What an interesting piece! It opens with a typical Milhaud pastorale: marked "Tranquil," it begins with a foursquare tune over a droning accompaniment; but in a couple of minutes the three wind instruments begin each to go his own way, staking out aural personalities that will become more sharply individuated as the piece proceeds.

I've read somewhere that Milhaud did not care for the music of Maurice Ravel, preferring that of Debussy: but this opening movement occasionally brings the Ravel of L'Enfant et les sortilèges to mind; clearly each composer processes the influence of Debussy, Ravel perhaps in a more urbane manner, Milhaud — here, at least — in a more pastoral vein.

The second movement, "Joyeux," is busier, full of trills and roulades; even the middle section, with longer note-values in the theme, seems driven, until at the end a quieter, darker element seems to wander past, sucking the energy away. Then comes an amazing two minutes, the third movement, "Emporté," a dense exercise in discord. (Milhaud's "tempo" markings are often interestingly idiomatic: this one is best translated "Carried away."

Polytonal in the extreme, each instrument takes the texture of the movement into his own key in a joyous cacophony that suggests not Ravel but the Rova Saxophone Quartet.

If the opening movement was a pastorale, the finale, "Douloureux," is a nocturne, the steady piano's rhythms occasionally suggesting a funeral march, though the sinuous chromatic voice-leading also pays tribute, I think, to the close dark Brazilian night. (And to Milhaud's best-known piece, La Création du monde.)

Looking back over the eighteen minutes of so of the piece you have the feeling you've been somewhere, a meaningful event of some kind has taken place; you're not sure what it was, what it means, but it has substance and purpose, and things are not what they were before you heard it.

I've typed the preceding six paragraphs while listening to the recording of the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, and Piano by the Ensemble Polytonaal (Channel Classics CCS 13998, available at iTunes); and it's a pleasant recording, a useful reminder of the effect of the piece. But what we heard at Mills on Friday was more intense, stronger, edgier. It was driven, you might say, by the piano work of Lois Brandwynne, who never held back, even when touching the softest of notes (those at the ends of the outside movements, for example).

There was more than power in this performance: there was also a great deal of intelligence, of the sort that can only come from performers who know a wide repertory, and somehow let its sounds, probably subconsciously rather than intentionally, speak through the piece at hand. So I heard Stravinsky, Ives, and Messaien in this performance, not only (or not so much) because Milhaud's instrumentation, rhythms, and aural imagination suggests similar qualities in those other composers, but because their sounds are in these instruments, the instruments being played by these musicians.
There were other fine moments on the program. Cheryl Seltzer plunged into the marvelous Trois Rag-Caprices, op. 78, of 1922, with the dry muscle, the romance, and the nervous precision Milhaud asks for directly in the indications at the head of the three movements. The Wong sisters, Betty and Shirley, found and transmitted the simple pleasure contained in piano transcriptions of occasional pieces: a scherzo and waltz from Les Songes, arranged from workaday ballet accompaniments, and the "Modéré" from Scaramouche, characteristically saucy and Gallic.

Lesser moments, because of weaker performances, I suppose, in the Élégie for cello and piano; seven movements from the piano suite La muse ménagère; and three songs from Rêves. But how nice to hear songs by Darius Milhaud! I've been too much bent toward instrumental chamber music; studying the French chanson, say from Debussy through Milhaud, would be as rewarding as concentrating on the stupendous 20th-century cordillera of string-quartet masterworks.

The Milhaud concert ended with the Suite for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano, op. 157b, from 1936. Again, a suite arranged from occasional pieces, incidental music for the play Le Voyageur sans bagages, by Jean Anouilh. The Suite was composed almost twenty years later than the Sonata that had opened the concert program, and perhaps for that reason too, and not only because of its occasional nature, it seems less impactful, less historic. I don't know the nature of Anouilh's play; its title suggests something blithe*. The four movements — Vif et gai; Animé; Vif; Modéré, Vif — often sound, especially the quicker ones, like music for a travelogue, one taking us to America as seen by the French. (It's a reminder that Milhaud was commissioned at some point to write an orchestral A Frenchman in New York, to respond to Gershwin's An American in Paris.)

The Suite was played, beautifully, by Tom Rose (clarinet), Christina Stanley (violin), and Betty Woo (piano); and the nature of the occasion was underlined by the observation, in Tom Rose's intelligent program note, that the Suite was played at a dinner tribute to the composer, forty years ago or so, by Rose, Woo, and the late (and lamented) Nathan Rubin. Christina Stanley was a worthy successor to Rubin: the entire evening was a testament to the endurance of music, which overcomes the mortality of its makers.

The Milhaud quartet survey, as far as it got:
Part 1: Introduction, and Quartet No. 1, Op. 5

Part 2
: Quartet No. 2, op. 18

Part 3: Quartets No. 3, op. 32; no. 4, op. 48

Part 4: Quartets No. 5, op. 64; no. 6, op. 77; no. 7, op. 87
*Since writing that, I've looked it up. Boy was I wrong. What was Milhaud thinking of?


Curtis Faville said...


One of my great loves.

Ned Rorem described him as a Mediterranean composer, as opposed to the more portentous north, with its overcast brooding and glowering storms.

I had wanted to write about his Four Seasons--on my all-time list of great works--but couldn't find an online performance recording link--one of my unfinished drafts (like yours).

But I did do one on the Saudades here--

--not a bad take, I think.

I love to play those pieces of Milhaud's I can finger on the keyboard. His polytonality makes playing it a difficult game.

I wish I'd known enough at the time to attend some of his concerts. A man bursting with musical ideas!

Unknown said...

Some time ago I purchased the CD set of the Milhaud quartets along with the set of the complete symphonies. While I knew this man's music I had not been familiar with his works in these genres. Wonderful music that deserves more hearings.
If you get a chance to continue that survey of the quartets I would be eager to read your take on these great quartets.
While you're at it you might note that there are similarly neglected works in these same forms by Heitor Villa-Lobos that could use a proper exegesis...that is, when you have time.

Charles Shere said...

I'll try to get back to the quartets. One of the problems, of course, was feeling daunted in the face of the 14th and 15th, which are true masterpieces. Also the feeling that the listening notes were getting repetitive. But a lot of time has gone by; maybe my hearing has changed too.

The symphonies… maybe them, too, at some point. RIght now though Stravinsky has been speaking to me more persuasively.

Villa-Lobos? I've never been attracted; my deficiency, no doubt; another deficiency to be addressed…

Alyssa E. said...

A pleasant read, about an oft ignored and underrated composer! I love that you ask "Boy was I wrong. What was Milhaud thinking of?" because I found your blog as I begin my own research into that very question. I've played the Suite and absolutely loved it, but all I've ever read about its origins is "Suite 157b, derived from incidental music for Anouilh's Le voyageur sans bagage," score, no analysis of how it was derived, no further hints as to its origins. Your suggestion of the quicker movements sounding like a travelogue has given me something new to think about, as I read the play and try to figure out how on earth the music relates to it, if at all.