MILHAUD: La Creation du monde / Le Boeuf sur le toit / Suite provencale
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Darius Milhaud (1892-1974)
La Creation du monde Le Boeuf sur le toit Suite proven?ºale
Few twentieth century composers were anywherenearly as prolific as Darius Milhaud, whose listed worksstretch to 443 opus numbers produced over a period of63 years. Yet despite this lifelong activity, Milhaud'sposthumous reputation rests largely on those workswritten at the end of the First World War and during theearly 1920s, when his imaginative and undogmaticapproach to composition resulted in music exemplifiedby three of the pieces included here.
It was while serving as secretary to Paul Claudel atthe French legation in Rio de Janeiro that Milhaud cameinto contact with the Brazilian popular music that was toinform many of his works over the next decade. Aprime example is Le Boeuf sur le toit, composed in 1919as background music for a silent film, but which foundsuccess as a ballet to a scenario by Jean Cocteau withdecor by Raoul Dufy. Not that 'a bull on the roof'features in the ballet: indeed, there is no narrative actionas such, rather a diverse sequence of episodes, given anover-all structure by the Brazilian tune that functions asa refrain during an ingenious traversal of all twelvemajor keys and several minor keys too. The livelyopening theme thus recurs at regular intervals, betweenwhich emerge various subsidiary ideas, including asyncopated melody for strings, an elegant one forwoodwind and a gaudy one for trumpets, such as go onto become lengthier episodes. Chief among these are arhapsodic passage for strings, and one with evidentLatin-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 area common feature of Milhaud's music in this period,giving it unexpected harmonic twists, while ensuringthat the work's melodic and rhythmic appeal are neverin doubt.
A tour by Dyagilev's Ballets Russes to Brazil,during the course of which Nijinsky danced in publicfor the last time, was the catalyst towards Milhaudcomposing the music for the ballet L'Homme et sondesir during 1917 and 1918. The allegorical scenario,derived from a story by Paul Claudel, takes place in aprimeval Amazonian forest and draws on suchsymbolism as a Janus-faced Moon, the creatures of theforest and the liberation of Man by a phantom Womanrepresenting Love and Death. As choreographed byJean Borlin, the piece left a mixed impression at itsParis premi?¿re by the Ballets Suedois on 6th June 1921,but the music, with four wordless singers, solo wind andstrings, and a vast percussion section, won praise for itspolytonal and polyrhythmic subtlety, as well as itsspatial ingenuity, and for a time was seen as thecomposer's most radical and influential work. Overpulsating percussion, strings and woodwind build adense polyphony, the four solo voices adding a hauntinglayer of their own. Next comes a ritualistic section forharp and drums, then a ruminative passage for stringsand a fleet, Stravinskian scherzo. Unaccompaniedpercussion, including a whip and whistle, take theforeground in a threatening crescendo, curtailed by aninsouciant flute melody. The work reaches a centralstasis, from where harp and percussion lead off withlivelier music. A raucous passage with trumpetsprecedes one where ostinati on woodwind and stringsare pitted against vocal chanting which, interrupted bydouble bass, effects the main climax. A calmer sectionevolves almost as a 'slow blues', the voices droppingout until only the soprano remains. The brief percussivecoda refers to the opening music and, in so doing, bringsthe work full circle.
A not dissimilar scenario is employed in the balletthat Milhaud composed after his return to France at theend of the decade. Jazz as an idiom had been cominginto its own in classical music as part of a reactionagainst German culture in general, and when Milhaudheard an American big-band in London during 1920, hehad the idea of transferring its rhythms and timbres to achamber context. A subsequent visit to New York'sHarlem district provided him with an African myth asthe basis for a ballet depicting the creation of the world,scored for seventeen players, with a solo r??le for altosaxophone. Given a rough ride at its 1923 Parispremi?¿re by the Ballets Suedois, La Creation du mondewas soon regarded as a seminal musical and culturalsynthesis, and has long been the composer's mostplayed work. The moody opening highlights saxophoneagainst modally-inflected strings, in a soulful melodywhich will influence the course of the work. Livelyoutbursts on brass and percussion presage a sectionwhere wind and brass engage in syncopated discourseover percussion, then, over pulsating basses, clarinetsreturn to the opening music, now on flutes with thesyncopated idea on cello. This blossoms into a lyricalwoodwind melody, before strings lead off with aboisterous idea which takes hold of the whole ensemble.
The lyrical melody resumes in more elaborate scoring,before the clarinet enters with a perky theme answeredby the plaintive strains of oboe. A solo horn adds itscontribution as the main ideas are superimposed in a riotof rhythmic energy, then the oboe enters to bring abouta quiet and tranquil coda, the creation of the worldhaving been achieved.
Although he wrote a sequence of six 'littlesymphonies' during 1917-22, Milhaud did not attempt asymphony proper until 1939. Much of his orchestralwork from the era comprises suites from incidental andfilm music. One of these is the Suite proven?ºale, drawnfrom music to Valmy-Baisse's 1936 play Bertran deBorn, which makes extensive use of old Proven?ºalmelodies. After a brief, celebratory Anime, the Tr?¿smodere sounds a more reflective note. A folksy Moderefollows, its rhapsodic gait contrasted with arumbustious Vif. A further Modere has an ominousquality, then, after a lively Vif, the Lent brings anexpressive climax in its languorous melancholy. A finalVif features a 'fife and drum' idea, taken up by varioussections of the orchestra in a rondo which reaches avigorous conclusion.Richard Whitehouse