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8.559409 - MILHAUD: Service Sacre

DARIUS MILHAUD (1892–1974)
Service Sacré, pour le samedi matin — Sabbath Morning Service (1947)
avec prières additionelles pour le vendredi soir
(with additional prayers for Friday evening) (1949–1950)


DARIUS MILHAUD (1892–1974), one of the 20th century's most prolific composers, belongs historically to the coterie of French musical intellectuals and composers who, loosely bonded by their initial embrace of Jean Cocteau's aesthetic ideas and their allegiance to composer Eric Satie's spiritual-musical tutelage, were known as Les Six. That group also included Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey. In an unrelated context, Milhaud belongs as well to the significant number of European Jewish émigré composers who took refuge in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s from the Fascist-inspired anti-Jewish persecution that emanated from Germany and culminated in the Holocaust.

Milhaud was born in Marseilles but grew up in Aix-en-Provence, which he regarded as his true ancestral city. His was a long-established Jewish family of the Comtat Venaissin — a secluded region of Provence — with roots traceable at least to the 15th century, and perhaps, as Milhaud wrote, even to the 10th century if not earlier. Fifteenth century documents with pontifical arms refer to a family "Milhaud from Carpentras."

Milhaud's paternal great-grandfather, Joseph Milhaud, was one of the founders of the synagogue at Aix, where he gave the inaugural address in 1840. He also wrote exegetical works on the Torah and conducted the census of Jews who had returned to France after the Revolution.

On his father's side, Milhaud's Jewish lineage was thus neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi (i.e., stemming neither from medieval German-Rhineland areas nor from pre-16th century Iberian Jewry), but rather, specifically Provençal, dating to Jewish settlement in that part of southern France as early as the first centuries of the Common Era. Like its Ashkenazi and Sephardi counterparts, Provençal Jewry had developed a distinct musical tradition. Milhaud's mother's family tradition, however, was partly Sephardi through her father. This may have lent an additional musical perspective to his internalized Jewish musical repertoire.

Milhaud's parents both came from middle-class families who had been engaged successfully in respected business enterprises for generations, and both were musicians as well. His father founded the Musical Society of Aix-en-Provence; his mother had studied voice in Paris. Darius began violin studies at the age of seven, encouraged by his cultured home atmosphere, and began composing even as a child. In 1909 he commenced studies at the Paris Conservatoire, where one of his teachers, Xavier Leroux, immediately recognized that his student had discovered a new harmonic language of his own. His other teachers included Vincent D'Indy, Paul Dukas (for orchestration), and André Gedalge, whom Milhaud later credited as his greatest influence.

In his memoirs Milhaud wrote that when he first began to compose, he was already aware of the path of Impressionism, which he viewed as the end of an artistic current whose mawkishness he found unappealing. He became profoundly affected as a composer by literature, as well as by Satie's commitment to a concept of artistic totality, exploring and including the various art forms in complementary expression. Anxious to avoid what he perceived to be the "mist of Symbolist poetry," he felt himself "saved" by some of the poets and playwrights then new to the literary scene, such as Francis Jammes (whom he called a "splash of cool water on my face"), Paul Claudel, and his close friend Léo Latil. Milhaud's first opera was a setting of Jammes's La Brebis égarée (composed between 1910 and 1915 but not performed until 1923); and between 1913 and 1922 he wrote several sets of incidental music to Claudel's works based on Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Protée, Les Choëphores, and Les Euménides. Milhaud's stylistic development and his evolved musical individuality have been traced in part to his association and collaborations with Claudel.

When the First World War began, Milhaud was still at the conservatory. Medically ineligible for military service, he worked for a while at the Foyer Franco-Belge, a hostel for refugees. When Léo Latil was killed in action on the Western Front in 1915, Milhaud wrote his third string quartet in memory of the poet, and he set Latil's words for dramatic soprano in the second of its two movements.

In 1917, Claudel, who was also a statesman, went to Brazil to take up a post at the French Consular Mission there, and he invited Milhaud to accompany him as his secretary for a two-year period. Apart from the music he had heard and sung in the synagogue in Aix as a youth, this was Milhaud's first experience with "ethnic" (i.e., non-Western or non–classically oriented) music. Later he would apply this developed interest in native folk rhythms and ethnic music traditions to some of his Jewish-oriented works, incorporating melodies from his own French-Jewish heritage. Meanwhile, his first two ballet scores drew directly upon the Brazilian experience: L'Homme et son désir, composed in Rio de Janeiro on a scenario by Claudel and inspired by the atmosphere of the tropical forests; and Le Beouf sur le toit (from the name of a samba he heard at the Rio carnival), which, along with his colorful dance suite, Saudades do Brasil, he wrote after his return to Paris.

In the 1920s Milhaud began his association with Jean Cocteau, who had published a seminal aesthetic attack on the contemporary direction of "serious" or "classical" music and its high-flown "romantic bombast." That publication immediately attracted elements of the Paris artistic avant-garde. Encouraged by Satie and his own musical models, a group of French composers including Milhaud embraced aspects of this aesthetic principle, especially with regard to simplicity, directness, avoidance of excess sentimentality, sounds related to nature and everyday life, and, perhaps above all, that attribute so prized by certain French poets of a previous era: la clarité —clarity. Milhaud's designation as one of Les Six — in fact, that very identification of such a group — is owed to Henri Collet's review of a concert at which Milhaud's fourth quartet was played, though the label itself became irrevocably attached only afterward. The designation, however, has been frequently dismissed by many critics and music historians as artificial. In reality, Les Six — the composers and their individual approaches — turned out to have little in common, and each eventually went his separate way. Nor did they ultimately constitute a "school" along the lines of the so-called Russian Five or the Second Viennese School — apart from being both French and contemporaries of one another. Initially, however, they did share a penchant for clarity and much of the overall unsentimental aesthetic promoted by both Cocteau and Satie; and with the exception of Honegger, all recognized the iconoclastic Satie as a type of patriarch. For Milhaud, in particular, Satie's love of the music hall, the circus, and other unelevated forms of entertainment was in tune with his own adoption of popular material — French folksong, Latin American dance rhythms, Jewish secular and sacred melodies, and one of the most important discoveries of his circle: jazz.

Milhaud first encountered jazz in London in the early 1920s, where he heard the Billy Arnold Jazz Band from New York, and then during his visits to Harlem dance halls when he made a concert tour of the United States in 1922–23. He was instantly engaged by its syncopated rhythms, improvisatory freedom of development, authentic character, and even purity. He created a bit of a stir when he was quoted as saying that jazz was "the American music," according it the same validity as classical repertoire. Though just on the brink, jazz had not quite attained full respectability for a segment of the American public in whose perception it attached narrowly to "Negro music." For some, it was still perceived in its early stages as being Mississippi River brothel music. As a Frenchman, Milhaud had no such automatic prejudices or negative associations (nor did Parisian audiences), and thereafter he turned to jazz elements for his works on quite a few occasions. His first product of this newfound source was another ballet score, La Creation du monde (1923), on a scenario by Blaise Cendrars. He was later quoted as observing that jazz could only have sprung from the experience of an oppressed people.

After Vichy and his escape to America as a Jewish refugee, as well as the German murder of more than twenty cousins, that can only have had additional significance for Milhaud. It is no accident that, notwithstanding several prewar Jewish-related works, it was in his American period and afterward that he turned even more frequently to his Jewish roots for musical sources.

After his return to Paris from that American tour, Milhaud wrote another opera on a text by Cocteau, La Pauvre Matelot (1926); three short operas that were all premiered in Germany; and his grand opera, Christophe Columb, also with a Claudel libretto, performed in Berlin in 1930 under Erich Kleiber's baton.

In 1929 Milhaud wrote the first of many film scores, which included music for Jean Renoir's Madame Bovary, and during the 1930s he wrote cello and piano concertos; orchestral works on folk themes, such as the Suite provençal and Le Carnaval de Londres; cantatas; chamber music; songs; and his first music for children. He also followed Edgar Varèse, one of the earliest composers to make use of the newly invented ondes martenot, in his incidental music for Andre de Richaud's play Le Château des papes (1932).

In 1940, Milhaud's one-act opera Médée (to a text by his wife, Madeleine) had just reached the stage of the Paris Opera, when the German invasion resulted quickly in France's surrender and the creation of the Vichy government. The occupation of Paris was a clear sign to Milhaud and his wife that it was time to leave with their son while they still could. The Chicago Symphony had invited him to conduct a new work it had commissioned, and that invitation enabled him to receive visas from the consulate in Marseilles for himself and his family. They made their way to neutral Portugal and to the United States. Their friend, the French-Jewish conductor Pierre Monteaux, then conducting the San Francisco Symphony, organized a teaching position for Milhaud at Mills College in nearby Oakland, California. There, while continuing to compose incessantly, he influenced a number of American composers, including Dave Brubeck, Peter Schickele, William Bolcom, and Simon Sargon. Beginning in 1951, Milhaud taught every summer at the Aspen Music School and Festival for twenty years. Though he returned to France two years after the end of the war to become a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, he continued to teach alternate years at Mills College. Milhaud is known to have cautioned his students against what he called "overdevelopment" as a pretension to the profound. "It is false," he told them, "that the profundity of a work proceeds directly from the boredom it inspires."

Over the course of six decades Milhaud produced a vast amount of music, with a catalogue of nearly 450 numbered works. His Provençal heritage is expressed in folkloristic terms in his overtly Jewish or Judaically related pieces. This heritage has been observed, on a broader level, in his overall approach to sonority, which commentators have associated by analogy with Cézanne's color palette. Tellingly, Milhaud's first quartet (1910) was dedicated to the painter's memory.

Milhaud is often perceived as the champion of polytonality. Though of course he neither invented the technique nor was the first to employ it, he consistently found ingenious ways to use its potential to the advantage of his expressive goals, and often to the service of melody. Perhaps because he so clearly understood its possibilities, it became the harmonic language most commonly associated with his music. In the 1920s, however, Milhaud was considered a revolutionary and an enfant terrible of music, and the modishness of the artists associated with Cocteau or the impresario Diaghilev (who, like Milhaud, could have been expected to reproduce a work with a title such as Cocktail pour chant et clarinettes) undoubtedly contributed to that reputation. Milhaud's actual approach, however, owed more to the French composer Charles Koechlin than to Satie, and it built upon a particular concept of polytonality derived from Stravinsky's early ballets. Ultimately Milhaud believed not in revolution, but in the development (and extension) of the tradition — in a sort of musical stare decisis where, as he postulated, "every work is not more than a link in a chain, and new ideas or techniques only add to a complete past, a musical culture, without which no invention has any validity." Indeed, whether or not he realized it, this respect for continuum was and is a manifestly Judaic concept — one that has proved indispensable to any reconciliation of Jewish identity with natural inclinations toward innovation and the demands of modernity.

Both Milhaud's personal Judaism and his heritage informed a number of his prewar works, beginning with his early Poèmes Juifs (1916), although these did not incorporate the Provençal tradition upon which he later relied. Between the end of the First World War and the French surrender to Germany, in 1940, he wrote three Psalm settings in French; Six Chants populaires Hébraiques; Hymn de sion Israel est vivant; Prières journalières à l'usage des Juifs du Comtat-Venaissin; Liturgie Comtadine; Cantate nuptiale; and two Palestinian-Hebrew song arrangements for an experimental and innovative compilation instigated by German-Jewish émigré musicologist Hans Nathan. After Milhaud's move to America, in 1940, his Jewish identity and roots became even more significant parts of his overall expressive range. In addition to the works recorded for the Milken Archive and in addition to his many general works, Milhaud's Judaically related pieces during a thirty-four-year period include Cain and Abel, for narrator, organ, and orchestra; Candelabre a sept branches; David, an opera written for the Israel Festival; Saul (incidental music); Trois psaumes de David; Cantate de Job; and Cantate de psaumes. His final work, Ani maamin (subtitled Un Chant perdu et retrouve), on a text by Elie Wiesel, received its premiere in 1975 at Carnegie Hall by the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the New York University Choral Arts Society, conducted by Lukas Foss, with soprano Roberta Peters and several narrators, including Wiesel.

Neil W. Levin




Even at the beginning of the 21st century, Milhaud's Service Sacré (for Sabbath morning) is considered one of only two cases where the Hebrew liturgy of an entire prayer service formed the basis of a large-scale unified work of universal "high art" expression by a composer of international stature in the general classical music world. (The other is Ernest Bloch's Avodath Hakodesh, which preceded Milhaud's.) Individual reactions may differ with regard to the relative success of those aspirations. Nonetheless, they were conceived as transcendent, even inclusive, humanistic works of universal spiritual experience, at the same time attempting to serve the more particularistic function of specifically Jewish worship — almost as if to attempt a resolution of two seeming contradictions, if indeed they are such. As had Bloch, Milhaud intended his service to speak to Jews engrossed in the act of prayer, but also, on another spiritual-artistic level, to general audiences of any faith or religious orientation — much in the way the communicative power of a Roman Catholic Mass setting by one of the great masters does not depend on the Roman Catholic or even Christian affiliation of its audience. Service Sacré is a work as much for serious concert experience, which implies some sense of communion, as it is for the liberal synagogue. In that sense, though less known than the Bloch service, it may be considered as much a part of the Western sacred classical choral-orchestral repertoire as it is of Jewish liturgical music.

The Service Sacré was not Milhaud's first foray into synagogue music. Apart from his prewar concert pieces based on Provençal and other Hebrew liturgical sources, he had set three individual prayers in 1944–45 for the special annual music services at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York: a bar'khu, a sh'ma yisrael, and a kaddish, premiered by the synagogue choir and Cantor David Putterman as part of Putterman's ambitious and visionary program of commissioning new liturgical music by established composers.

Service Sacré was commissioned in 1947 by Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, one of America's foremost Reform congregations, which had also commissioned Bloch's Avodath Hakodesh. Its cantor, Reuben Rinder, had established a reputation as an advocate of new and sophisticated music, especially after the considerable attention drawn by the Bloch service. It was he who spearheaded and guided this new commission and decided upon Milhaud, whom he had come to know on a social level. To fund the project, Cantor Rinder interested a donor-congregant, Mrs. E. S. Heller, whose sister-in-law had financed the Bloch work.

For his Service Sacré, Milhaud made a conscious decision to turn to the minhag Carpentras (Provençal rite) — the distinct liturgical tradition of the Jews of the Comtat Venaissin region — which had become nearly extinct in practice. Much of this tradition may predate both Ashkenazi and Sephardi-French Jewry, having originated independently and earlier in that region. Milhaud seized upon the commission as an opportunity to share a heritage virtually unknown to American Jewry and at the same time to explore the synagogue experience of his childhood and his own French-Jewish identity. Mme. Milhaud once recalled that whenever her husband felt inspired while immersed in a piece of music, "at a spiritual moment he would incorporate a fragment of the minhag Carpentras." For this overtly religious work, elements of the Provençal rite became a unifying aesthetic vehicle — not only structurally as thematic leitmotifs, but also emotionally on a personal plane. Actual tune references apply directly in some movements or prayers, while ostensibly free melodic invention occurs elsewhere. But there is a pervasive sonic aura about the work that gives the feeling of a very old underlying tradition, skillfully developed with 20th century techniques and refracted through polytonal and polyrhythmic prisms.

Service Sacré was conceived as a Sabbath morning service. It was written specifically according to the text versions and format of the Union Prayer Book, at that time the de facto "official" prayer book of the American Reform movement. However, in most Reform synagogues of that period, the formal "late" Friday evening service (i.e., at the same fixed post-dinner time each week, regardless of the actual time of sundown) was the primary Sabbath event. Many Reform congregations did not hold Saturday morning services on a regular basis, and in those that did, the congregation was far smaller than on Friday evenings. Therefore Milhaud added a few settings for the Sabbath eve liturgy, as a quasi-appendix, to broaden its potential usage. When the work was published in Paris in an organ version, Milhaud's subtitle "pour le samedi matin" was followed by the words "avec prières additionnelles pour le vendredi soir" (with additional prayers for Friday evening).

In addition to the baritone cantor solo, the score calls for a récitant — a dramatic speaker — for the English readings and spoken prayers (some of them based on liberal translations of the Hebrew) in the Union Prayer Book, rendered against orchestral interludes. In practice, this amounted to an agreed-upon usurpation of what would have been the rabbi's role in that typical classical Reform format. There was some precedent for this in the Bloch service, although it is much more limited there. Also, in some Reform congregations it was not uncommon for the organist to play softly under some of those eloquent English passages. But the genesis of this parameter in Milhaud's service — and especially its greater prominence — was an interesting additional circumstance. By that time, Cantor Rinder had developed vocal problems that limited full use of his singing voice and precluded his solo role in a work so important as Milhaud's. The extended role for récitant was created, therefore, in order to permit Rinder's participation in the premiere without his having to sing. At that premiere, in 1949, the cantorial solo part was sung by Edgar Jones, with the University of California (Berkeley) Chorus and the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Milhaud.

Because Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation was used exclusively in American Reform synagogues at that time and at least until the 1960s in most cases (as well as in virtually all Conservative and Orthodox ones, with the exception of specifically Sephardi synagogues), Milhaud had to accommodate the premiere performance to that factor and allow for it when constructing the settings. The Provençal practice, however, had always used the Sephardi pronunciation, or at least was much closer to it, and that was Milhaud's preferred rendition. In the published score, the Sephardi pronunciation, as recorded here, appears in the text underlay, with an Ashkenazi alternative given beneath it in smaller print (and with the spoken parts in both French and English).

We cannot know for certain to what extent Milhaud relied upon his memories of youthful synagogue and family experience for the traditional Provençal elements he incorporated, and to what extent, if any, he might have consulted any notated historical sources — especially Z'mirot yisrael k'minhag Carpentras: chants Hébraiques suivant le rite des Communautés Israelites de l'ancien Comtat-Venaissin (Hebrew Chants/Melodies According to the Rite of the Jewish Community of the Old Comtat Venaissin/Minhag Carpentras), compiled and edited by Messrs. Jules Salomon and Mardochee Crémieu. Several of the tunes in Service Sacré are indeed found therein, though not necessarily for the same texts, which confirms their authenticity.

Oreen Zeitlin's insightful discussion of such musical sources, contained in her master's thesis devoted to Milhaud's Service Sacré (Hebrew Union College, 1992), reveals far more than coincidence. The movements in the Sabbath morning sections that contain melodic material, phrases, or tune fragments found in the Crémieu collection — and therefore traceable directly to Provençal minhag Carpentras — are as follows:

  • Ma tovu — derived largely from phrases in the Crémieu Yom Kippur Torah service, especially for the text mi sheberakh, but also from phrases of shirat hayyam and ashrei therein.
  • Sh'ma yisrael.
  • K'dusha, whose theme, partly recapping that of Ma tovu here, Milhaud used in the Torah service sections as well. (In addition to phrases from the Provençal Yom Kippur Torah service, the material also appears to derive from a k'dusha for the mussaf service on Yom Kippur, as well as from a tune for el nora alila — all contained in Crémieu.)
  • The opening theme in the orchestra for Part II, under the récitant — resembling a version for the biblical text az yashir moshe, in Crémieu.
  • Adon olam, whose basic tune is probably the most audibly obvious Provençal quotation in the entire work (based on or incorporating melodic motifs found throughout Crémieu, as well as some found in the Torah cantillation according to the Marseilles tradition).
  • The principal melody in the L'kha dodi, in the Friday evening section, is also found in Crémieu in two wedding service texts: mi addir and barukh habba, as well as for b'rukhim attem, indicating that the tune was probably a long-established and ubiquitous part of minhag Carpentras.

In addition, the k'dusha reflects a psalmody of the hallel (hymns of praise, taken from Psalms) recitation for Passover, in turn derived from a chant known in Bayonne for az yashir moshe.

The Service Sacré premiere was received enthusiastically by the press. The San Francisco Chronicle thought it "extremely likely" that it would become part of the general choral literature, noting that "Milhaud has given his text universal artistic significance." The San Francisco Examiner referred to it as "ritual itself," as opposed to a dramatization of ritual. The outspoken and demanding composer Hugo Weisgall summed up its overall impression in terms of "serenity, light, joy and ease," which he noted approvingly as "all specifically and historically wedded to the Sabbath spirit." He described its musical unfolding curiously as "Gallo-Hassidic intimacy," by which he obviously meant (since he knew there was no actual Hassidic element whatsoever) simply an internal and personal communicative ecstasy.

Not all critics have felt that Service Sacré mediates the twin objectives of Jewish worship and universal experience as successfully as does Bloch's service, a comparison that has proved unavoidable. But the Musical Quarterly, for example, commented that, while for Jewish worshipers it is a "warming fire at the Father's hearth," it nonetheless "makes an outsider feel at home" in the synagogue. From everything we know, that was Milhaud's dual aspiration.

Neil W. Levin



[Editor's note: The following additional observations are drawn from edited excerpts from the Zeitlin thesis.]

One obvious feature of Service Sacré is the absence of key signatures, even though there are tonal centers that serve to "anchor" the tonality while leaving the composer free to fluctuate tonally without having to return to any given tonic. Milhaud frequently engages in abrupt and short modulations between flat and sharp keys or key centers, creating a sense of forward motion. Coloristic effects and changes are sometimes achieved here by juxtapositions of major and minor tonalities, reminiscent of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, while chord clusters in parallel motion call to mind Olivier Messiaen. In some sections Milhaud sets his melodic material modally, outside the confines of major-minor tonality, so that we find melodies or melodic fragments either based on or hinting at mixolydian, aeolian, Lydian, and Dorian modal scales. The juxtaposition of such modalities with polytonal accompaniment creates an impression of a blend of old and current — of the medieval with the 20th century. There is, however, no use of the specific Jewish "prayer modes" of Ashkenazi practice.

Some of the putative characteristics of "French nationalism" and French neo-Classicism are audible throughout. This is especially evident in the clarity facilitated by distinct delineations of sonorities in opposing registers, along with chordal usage not always for harmonic progression, but sometimes simply for coloration.

In general, the harmonic language of the orchestral accompaniment exhibits a certain degree of complexity. But the solo cantorial lines sometimes stand in contrast with their simpler, almost chantlike quality in many passages. Sometimes the cantorial lines are declamatory, sometimes chromatically melismatic, but much less florid than the virtuoso hazzanut often associated with Ashkenazi cantorial idioms, and generally stressing the chromatic aspect here. Cantor and choir never sing together in a truly integrated construction, contrapuntally or otherwise. The overall effect, rather, is one of responsorial relationship between the two. At the same time, the chorus is an equal partner, not an accompaniment to the cantor. Each movement is self-contained in style and tonality. Yet they work together in presenting a single unified statement.


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