About this Recording
8.557287 - MILHAUD, D.: Creation du monde (La) / Le Boeuf sur le toit / Suite provencale
English  French  German 

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974)
La Création du monde • Le Boeuf sur le toit • Suite provençale

Few twentieth century composers were anywhere nearly as prolific as Darius Milhaud, whose listed works stretch to 443 opus numbers produced over a period of 63 years. Yet despite this lifelong activity, Milhaud’s posthumous reputation rests largely on those works written at the end of the First World War and during the early 1920s, when his imaginative and undogmatic approach to composition resulted in music exemplified by three of the pieces included here.

It was while serving as secretary to Paul Claudel at the French legation in Rio de Janeiro that Milhaud came into contact with the Brazilian popular music that was to inform many of his works over the next decade. A prime example is Le Boeuf sur le toit, composed in 1919 as background music for a silent film, but which found success as a ballet to a scenario by Jean Cocteau with decor by Raoul Dufy. Not that ‘a bull on the roof’ features in the ballet: indeed, there is no narrative action as such, rather a diverse sequence of episodes, given an over-all structure by the Brazilian tune that functions as a refrain during an ingenious traversal of all twelve major keys and several minor keys too. The lively opening theme thus recurs at regular intervals, between which emerge various subsidiary ideas, including a syncopated melody for strings, an elegant one for woodwind and a gaudy one for trumpets, such as go on to become lengthier episodes. Chief among these are a rhapsodic passage for strings, and one with evident Latin-American overtones. Near the close of the ballet, the salient ideas are drawn together in a boisterous coda. The music is permeated by polytonal inflections that are a common feature of Milhaud’s music in this period, giving it unexpected harmonic twists, while ensuring that the work’s melodic and rhythmic appeal are never in doubt.

A tour by Dyagilev’s Ballets Russes to Brazil, during the course of which Nijinsky danced in public for the last time, was the catalyst towards Milhaud composing the music for the ballet L’Homme et son désir during 1917 and 1918. The allegorical scenario, derived from a story by Paul Claudel, takes place in a primeval Amazonian forest and draws on such symbolism as a Janus-faced Moon, the creatures of the forest and the liberation of Man by a phantom Woman representing Love and Death. As choreographed by Jean Borlin, the piece left a mixed impression at its Paris première by the Ballets Suédois on 6th June 1921, but the music, with four wordless singers, solo wind and strings, and a vast percussion section, won praise for its polytonal and polyrhythmic subtlety, as well as its spatial ingenuity, and for a time was seen as the composer’s most radical and influential work. Over pulsating percussion, strings and woodwind build a dense polyphony, the four solo voices adding a haunting layer of their own. Next comes a ritualistic section for harp and drums, then a ruminative passage for strings and a fleet, Stravinskian scherzo. Unaccompanied percussion, including a whip and whistle, take the foreground in a threatening crescendo, curtailed by an insouciant flute melody. The work reaches a central stasis, from where harp and percussion lead off with livelier music. A raucous passage with trumpets precedes one where ostinati on woodwind and strings are pitted against vocal chanting which, interrupted by double bass, effects the main climax. A calmer section evolves almost as a ‘slow blues’, the voices dropping out until only the soprano remains. The brief percussive coda refers to the opening music and, in so doing, brings the work full circle.

A not dissimilar scenario is employed in the ballet that Milhaud composed after his return to France at the end of the decade. Jazz as an idiom had been coming into its own in classical music as part of a reaction against German culture in general, and when Milhaud heard an American big-band in London during 1920, he had the idea of transferring its rhythms and timbres to a chamber context. A subsequent visit to New York’s Harlem district provided him with an African myth as the basis for a ballet depicting the creation of the world, scored for seventeen players, with a solo rôle for alto saxophone. Given a rough ride at its 1923 Paris première by the Ballets Suédois, La Création du monde was soon regarded as a seminal musical and cultural synthesis, and has long been the composer’s most played work. The moody opening highlights saxophone against modally-inflected strings, in a soulful melody which will influence the course of the work. Lively outbursts on brass and percussion presage a section where wind and brass engage in syncopated discourse over percussion, then, over pulsating basses, clarinets return to the opening music, now on flutes with the syncopated idea on cello. This blossoms into a lyrical woodwind melody, before strings lead off with a boisterous idea which takes hold of the whole ensemble. The lyrical melody resumes in more elaborate scoring, before the clarinet enters with a perky theme answered by the plaintive strains of oboe. A solo horn adds its contribution as the main ideas are superimposed in a riot of rhythmic energy, then the oboe enters to bring about a quiet and tranquil coda, the creation of the world having been achieved.

Although he wrote a sequence of six ‘little symphonies’ during 1917-22, Milhaud did not attempt a symphony proper until 1939. Much of his orchestral work from the era comprises suites from incidental and film music. One of these is the Suite provençale, drawn from music to Valmy-Baisse’s 1936 play Bertran de Born, which makes extensive use of old Provençal melodies. After a brief, celebratory Animé, the Très modéré sounds a more reflective note. A folksy Modéré follows, its rhapsodic gait contrasted with a rumbustious Vif. A further Modéré has an ominous quality, then, after a lively Vif, the Lent brings an expressive climax in its languorous melancholy. A final Vif features a ‘fife and drum’ idea, taken up by various sections of the orchestra in a rondo which reaches a vigorous conclusion.

Richard Whitehouse


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