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Jewish String Quartets

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Jewish String Quartets


Darius Milhaud

(1892-1974), one of the 20th century's most prolificcomposers, with an opera comprising nearly 450 works, belongs historically tothe coterie of French intellectuals and composers who, loosely bonded by theirinitial embrace of Jean Cocteau's antisentimental aesthetic ideas, as well asby their allegiance to composer Erik Satie's spiritual-musical tutelage, wereknown as Les Six. That group also included Francis Poulenc, ArthurHonegger, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey. But Milhaudbelongs as well to the significant number of European Jewish emigre

composers who took refuge in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s fromthe 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-establishedJewish family of the Comtat Venaissin -- a secluded region of Provence -- with rootstraceable there at least to the 15th century. On his father's side, Milhaud'sJewish lineage was thus neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi (i.e., stemming neither frommedieval German-Rhineland nor from pre-16th-century Spanish/Iberian Jewry), butrather, specifically Proven?ºal -- dating to Jewish settlement in that part of southernFrance as early as the first centuries of the Common Era. His paternalgreat-grandfather, Joseph Milhaud, was one of the founders of the synagogue atAix, and he wrote exegetical works on the Torah and conducted the census ofJews who had returned to France after the Revolution.

Like its Ashkenazi and Sephardi counterparts, Proven?ºal Jewryhad a distinct musical tradition that developed over many centuries. Milhaud'smother, however, was partly Sephardi on her father's side. This may have lent anadditional perspective to his internalized Jewish musical sensibilities. Bothparents came from middle-class families who had been engaged successfully in respectedbusiness enterprises for generations, and both were musicians as well. Dariusbegan violin studies at the age of seven and began composing even as a child.

In 1909 he commenced studies at the Paris Conservatoire, where one of histeachers, Xavier Leroux, immediately recognized that his student had discovereda harmonic language of his own. His other teachers included Vincent d'Indy,Paul Dukas, and Andre Gedalge, whom Milhaud later credited as his greatestinfluence.

In his memoirs Milhaud wrote that when he first began tocompose, he was already aware of the path of Impressionism, which he viewed asthe end of an artistic current whose mawkishness he found unappealing. Hebecame profoundly affected as a composer by literature, as well as by Satie'scommitment to a concept of artistic totality, exploring and including the variousart forms in complementary expression. From 1917 to 1919 Milhaud held asecretarial post at the French Consular Mission in Brazil, where he developed aninterest in native folk rhythms and ethnic music traditions. He later appliedthese influences to some of his pieces, and his first two ballet scores drewdirectly upon the Brazilian experience.

In the 1920s Milhaud began his association with Cocteau,whose seminal aesthetic attack on the contemporary direction of "serious"music and its high-flown "romantic bombast" made a significant impressionon him. Encouraged by Satie and his own musical models, Milhaud -- together withthe other composers who formed Les Six -- embraced aspects of thisaesthetic 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 aprevious era: la clarite -- clarity. For Milhaud, perhaps more so than forthe others of his circle, Satie's love of the music hall, the circus, and otherunelevated forms of entertainment was in tune with his own adoption of popular material --Frenchfolksong, Latin American dance rhythms, Jewish secular and sacred melodies, andone of his most important discoveries: jazz.

Milhaud first encountered jazz in London in the early 1920s,and he visited Harlem dance halls when he made a concert tour of the United States in 1922-23. He was instantly engaged by the syncopated rhythms, theimprovisatory freedom, the authentic character, and even the purity of themusic, and he created a bit of a stir when he was quoted as saying that jazz was"the American music" -- according it the same validity asclassical repertoire. Thereafter he turned to jazz elements for his works onquite a few occasions. Later he was quoted as observing that jazz could only havesprung from the experience of an oppressed people. After the installation ofthe Nazi puppet Vichy regime in France and his escape to America as a Jewish refugee -- as well as the German murder of more than twenty of hiscousins -- that can only have had additional significance for him. It is noaccident that, notwithstanding several prewar Jewish-related works, it was inhis American period and afterward that he turned even more frequently to hisJewish roots for musical sources.

In 1940, Milhaud's one-act opera Medee (to a text by hiswife, Madeleine) had just reached the stage of the Paris Opera when the Germaninvasion 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 itwas time to leave with their son while they still could. The Chicago Symphonyhad invited him to conduct a new work it had commissioned, and that invitation enabledhim to receive exit visas from the consulate in Marseilles for himself and hisfamily. Their friend, the French-Jewish conductor Pierre Monteux, then conductingthe San Francisco Symphony, organized a teaching position for Milhaud at Mills College in nearby Oakland, California, and beginning in 1951, for 20 years, he alsotaught every summer at the Aspen Music School and Festival. He is known to havecautioned his students -- who included such subsequently celebrated musicians asDave Brubeck, William Bolcom, Simon Sargon, and Peter Schickele -- against whathe called "overdevelopment" as a pretension to the profound. "Itis false," he told students, "that the profundity of a work proceeds directlyfrom the boredom it inspires."Milhaud is often perceived as the champion of polytonality.

Although he neither invented that harmonic technique and language nor was thefirst to employ it, he found ingenious ways to make use of its potential.

Perhaps because he so clearly understood its possibilities, it became theharmonic vocabulary most commonly associated with his music. In the 1920s, however,Milhaud was considered a revolutionary and an enfant terrible of themusic world. Yet his actual approach owed more to the French composer Charles Koechlinthan to Satie, and it built upon a particular concept of polytonality derivedfrom Stravinsky's early ballets. Ultimately Milhaud believed not in revolution,but in the development and extension of tradition. "Every work is not morethan a link in a chain," he postulated, "and new ideas or techniquesonly add to a complete past, a musical culture, without which no invention hasany validity."Milhaud's personal Judaism as well as his family heritageinformed a substantial number of his compositions, beginning with his Po?¿mesJuifs (1916) and followed by several prewar pieces with overt Jewish titlesand content. But it was in his later Jewish works that he relied frequently andspecifically on the Proven?ºal liturgical tr
Disc: 1
String Quartet in C minor
1 No. 1: Modere
2 No. 2: Anime
3 No. 3: Modere
4 I. Meditation
5 II. Dance
6 I. Grave
7 II. Lament and Prayer
8 Kol Nidre
9 I. Allegretto
10 II. Adagio
11 III. Allegro
12 IV. Allegro con fuoco
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