|About this Recording
8.660349-51 - MILHAUD, D.: Orestie d'Eschyle (L') (L. Phillips, Dempson, Outlaw, Delphis, University of Michigan Choirs and Symphony Orchestra, K. Kiesler)
Darius Milhaud (1892–1974)
Libretto by Paul Claudel
Clytemnestra, Ghost of Clytemnestra – Lori Phillips, Soprano
Orestes – Dan Kempson, Baritone
Apollo – Sidney Outlaw, Baritone
Leader of the Slave Women – Sophie Delphis, Speaker
Athena, A Slave Woman – Brenda Rae, Soprano
Pythia, Oracle of Apollo’s Temple at Delphi – Julianna Di Giacomo, Soprano
Electra – Kristin Eder, Mezzo-soprano
Elders – Men of the Chorus
Slave women of The Choéphori (Les Choéphores) – Women of the Chorus
The Assembled People of Athens – Choruses
Furies – Women of the Chorus
Darius Milhaud was an important member of the musical avant-garde in early 20th-century Paris. Provençal and Jewish by birth, he maintained these and numerous other identities in his music and his life. A lifelong interest in classical mythology and drama, a wide knowledge of French music history, and his utilization of modern theoretical trends all played a role in the composition of his early trilogy, L’Orestie. These complex works draw from Milhaud’s numerous identities and interests in a dramatic, rhythmic expression of Aeschylus’s classic story.
Milhaud’s lifelong collaboration with the Catholic poet Paul Claudel played a critical role in the composer’s operatic style. The collaboration resulted in many of Milhaud’s best-known works, including the Orestie trilogy and Christophe Colomb (1930). The style developed by Milhaud and Claudel was influenced prominently by Claudel’s belief that every element of a dramatic work, including music, should exist to serve the poetry. The Orestie trilogy displays this attention to the text through the expressive, syncopated rhythm of the vocal parts.
Musically, Milhaud saw himself as part of a great French tradition which extended back from Satie and Debussy to Bizet and even to Couperin. Among his contemporaries, Milhaud associated most strongly with the fellow members of Les Six (Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Tailleferre), a group of composers loosely associated with Jean Cocteau in the 1920s in an effort to forge a new French modernist musical aesthetic during the interwar period.
Despite his integration into the French tradition, Milhaud prominently incorporated other national styles into his own. In a life-changing experience in 1917, Milhaud and Claudel travelled to Brazil on a diplomatic mission. After his diplomatic service, Milhaud began to incorporate Brazilian folk music into his compositions, most famously in the 1919 ballet Le boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof), but also seen here in Les Euménides. As a composer already drawn to rhythmic expression, Milhaud was particularly interested in the rhythmic complexity of Brazilian music.
In addition to innovative rhythmic elements, the Orestie trilogy exhibits complex harmonic techniques, particularly polytonality, in which Milhaud layered two or more harmonic areas simultaneously. Milhaud’s use of polytonality is particularly clear in the finale of Les Euménides, which is structured around repeated polytonal patterns. Although this polytonality may sound dissonant, Milhaud believed that it gave him more varied ways of expressing sweetness in addition to violence.
Because the three parts of the Orestie trilogy were written over a 10-year period, each work has a distinct style. In L’Agamemnon, written when Milhaud was only 21, the rhythm of the vocal parts is used to express the drama of the poetry, while in Les Choéphores and especially in Les Euménides, the drama is furthered by spoken sections and an increasingly complex harmonic language. The trilogy, taken as a whole, provides a glimpse into the interaction between modern and traditional, as well as between the French and the foreign, which characterized the music of early 20th-century Paris.
It should be emphasized that the trilogy is not a series of operas. In L’Agamemnon Cocteau requested music only for the scene following Agamemnon’s murder in a staged version of the play, and only certain parts of Les Choéphores were set to music for a similar use. Only Les Euménides was fully composed and staged later, as an opera directed by Milhaud’s wife Madeleine.
In 2004, a package with three impressively oversized scores arrived in my studio with this note from the publisher: “Sent at the request of William Bolcom.” They revealed Milhaud’s setting of Claudel’s French translation of Aeschylus’ Oresteian tragedy, packed with powerful music and words, several roles for principal singers, and multiple choruses. There were also the somewhat unusual occurrences of rhythmically notated dramatic speaking, and the distribution of one role, the goddess Athena, to a trio of singers. As the three hand-delivered scores constituted the three acts of just the final component in the trilogy, Les Euménides, I could only guess the magnitude of the entire piece.
L’Agamemnon’s fairly customary turn-of-the-century orchestra is expanded in Les Choéphores with the quite uncustomary supplement of 15 percussionists. Les Choéphores requires substantial speaking parts for the chorus and the leader of the slave women. In Les Euménides, Milhaud enriches the palette still further by adding two quartets: one of saxophones and one of saxhorns—19th-century valved brass instruments once common in military bands but that almost never join an orchestra or accompany a choir.
The music is often as tightly woven and magnificently shaded as a tapestry. Musical threads of 3, 7, and 11 beats (or 4, 5, 3, and 9 beats) intertwine. The texture of this audible fabric is made expressive and variegated by weaving differently coloured or “pitched” threads into mini or sub-tapestries that occur simultaneously in different keys. What at first sounds dissonant, self-competing, and dense, over time becomes familiar language, much as a new dialect of jazz or “world music.” (Milhaud and Claudel had the transformative experience of a two-year visit to Brazil, where they researched and transcribed folk music).
Milhaud’s trilogy after Aeschylus has, for me, reopened and broadened the rich realm of Greek mythology. The themes of passion and jealousy, violence and revenge, prudence and propriety still resound within us and in our world. Topics of sexual and gender parity, family relationships, balance of power, and influence in a world of haves and have-nots, not to mention loyalty, steadfastness, allegiance, obedience to those in power, and the economic and social stratification of society—all continue to vex us and show how deeply our human nature connects us to our predecessors. They remind us how far—for all our progress—we still have to go.
The musical preparation of the concert and the recording required many long hours of correcting engraving and printing errors in the scores and orchestra parts, filling in passages missing from the vocal scores, finding unusual instruments, and determining which percussion sounds Milhaud might have known or used at the time.
We know and understand many Milhaud matters, yet there are still some enigmas and peculiarities. While the first part was written in 1913, and all the separate works were premièred shortly after they were completed, the vocal scores used by soloists and choral singers each have a statement about the first performance of the complete trilogy in 1927. However, they also state that the three pieces were performed in different venues on different dates: Les Choéphores on 8 March, L’Agamemnon on 14 April, and Les Euménides on 27 November.
This performance of L’Orestie was imbued with significance, as it celebrated the centennial of Hill Auditorium, the great hall that has been home to thousands, of performances given by the extraordinary students who have been mentored and taught by the dedicated faculty of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and led by my current conducting colleagues and our predecessors. This recording also celebrates the benevolence, spirit, and genius of William Bolcom, the distinguished and brilliant composer and Professor Emeritus who studied with Darius Milhaud, and invited me and others to bring his vision of a performance at the University of Michigan, and this recording, into reality.
I studied with Darius Milhaud at Aspen, California, and Paris between 1957 and 1960. In the midst of my Conservatoire years, he played a recording of the trilogy, L’Orestie, using the great poet and playwright Paul Claudel’s translation of the Orestia of Aeschylus, at a group lesson at his house. It blew me out of the ballpark. Its power and savagery and profundity would have a deep effect on me.
L’Orestie inspired me to finish my Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which I’d been sketching since 1956; buying time to do this was a primary reason for our moving to Ann Arbor, where the work’s first American performance would be realized in 1984—shortly after the Stuttgart Opera première earlier that year—by the University of Michigan School of Music. I am proud that our School of Music, Theatre & Dance has seen fit to repeat my magnum opus in 2004, and doubly proud that—nine years to the day of that 4 April performance!—it has faced the enormous challenge of presenting and recording my mentor and friend Darius Milhaud’s magnum opus L’Orestie. It is a magnificent tribute to the great work it is.
Before L’Orestie Begins
Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus wage war on Troy after Paris of Troy has eloped with Menelaus’ wife Helen. To rule in his stead, Agamemnon leaves behind Clytemnestra. Before sailing to Troy, Agamemnon, whose fleet is wind bound because the goddess Artemis is angry, offers his daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice to Artemis.
There is a sentiment of unease; the people of Argos are angry over the 10-year Trojan War and the lives lost in battle for the sake of exacting revenge on Troy for the abduction of Helen. In Agamemnon’s absence, Clytemnestra took his cousin Aegisthus as her “husband” and co-ruler, to the dismay of the people. King Agamemnon returns at the conclusion of the war with his war prize Cassandra, daughter of Troy, who predicts her own death and the impending tragedies that will befall the House of Argos. At Agamemnon’s return, Clytemnestra, furious for the betrayals, dupes him into taking a bath. She traps him, using his robe as a net, and stabs him to death.
Clytemnestra has just killed Agamemnon. The Elders (Agamemnon’s counsellors) mourn his death and confront Clytemnestra. She justifies her actions by recounting Agamemnon’s murder of her first husband, and the sacrificial slaughter of their own daughter, Iphigenia. Clytemnestra hopes that by killing Agamemnon, she has stopped “the curse of blood revenge” of the House of Tantalus.
Orestes returns from exile to avenge the death of his father (Agamemnon). He is greeted and supported by Electra, his youngest sister, and the slave women who support him in his efforts to take revenge on Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
The Prophetess finds Orestes, covered in blood and surrounded by sleeping Furies, at the temple of Delphi. Clytemnestra incites the Furies to wake and take revenge for her murder. Apollo tells Orestes to escape to Athena’s temple in Athens. The Furies wake and follow in pursuit.
Athena is called upon to decide the fate of Orestes and whether he will suffer the wrath of the Furies or be forgiven for his deed.
Athena holds a grand trial (the first of its kind) where Orestes is called to testify and Apollo is a witness for the defence. The Furies want Orestes’ death as vengeance for his murder of Clytemnestra. The jury is made up of chosen men of Athens. Athena’s ballot acquits Orestes and spares him from death on the grounds that he was justified because the mother is not a true parent, only a vessel for the seed of the father. Athena then persuades the ancient Furies to give up their anger at Athens and be worshipped as benevolent and constructive forces for good.
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