CD liner notes for BVHaast CD 9905 (1999).
There is also a French version
Works by Darius Milhaud
(The Mondriaan Quartet, Irene Maessen and Stanley Hoogland)
Darius Milhaud knew very early on that music was his vocation, but initially he wanted to be a violinist. He
started violin lessons at the age of seven. He must have been a good pupil, because when he was twelve his
teacher, Léo Bruguier, invited him to join his string quartet. As a result Milhaud became familiar
with the string quartet repertoire at an early age. He never lost his love of chamber music. Of the 440 or so
works composed during a lifetime that lasted eighty-plus years, more than 70 were written for chamber groups
(not counting the many vocal works and pieces for solo piano). He also produced a number of chamber versions
of pieces originally written for larger groups. These include an arrangement of his best-known work, "La Création du Monde."
All music history books cite "La Création du Monde" as the first classical work to incorporate
elements borrowed from jazz, almost qualifying it for a place in the Guinness Book of Records. First and
foremost, however, it is superb music.
Milhaud was a widely traveled man and eagerly absorbed all the music he heard in foreign parts. During
the First World War he lived for a year in Brazil, as secretary to the poet-diplomat Paul Claudel, and
Latin-American music left traces throughout his oeuvre. It was not until 1920, however, that Milhaud first
became acquainted with jazz. At the time he was giving a series of concerts in England and happened to
attend a performance by the Billy Arnold band. In his autobiography, "Ma vie heureuse," he describes at
length how affected he was by this music, with its subtle timbres and syncopated melodies. He also relates
that he immediately had the idea of writing a piece based on jazz, but that he first wanted to familiarize
himself with the medium. The chance came two years later during a visit to America, where he wandered
extensively through Harlem.
"The music I heard there was completely different from anything I had heard before. For me it was a
genuine revelation. The melodic lines, underlined by the percussion, tumbled over each other in counterpoint,
in a breathless succession of broken and displaced rhythms.
[ ... ] This authentic music has its origin in the most hidden recesses of the black soul undoubtedly the
traces of Africa. I could not tear myself away, so bowled over by it was I."
The following year Milhaud was asked to write a new ballet for "Les Ballets Suédois" and seized the chance
to work his new impressions into a composition. The theme of "La Création du Monde," a story based on
African Creation myths, was suggested by the writer Blaise Cendrars. Following the example of an
orchestra he had heard in America, Milhaud wrote the piece for an ensemble of seventeen soloists: six
woodwinds, four brass, percussion, four strings, piano and, as the star of the piece, the saxophone. The
first performance took place on 25 October, 1923, with costumes and sets designed by the painter Fernand Léeger.
Three years later Milhaud arranged the music for piano quintet. This version cannot of course match the
dazzling colours of the original, but it is no less eloquent for that: the essence of the music lies in the
notes, not in the instrumentation.
With its broad melody, proceeding over undulating thirds, the Prélude is more neo-Baroque than
jazzy, although the frequent clashes between major and minor recall "blue notes", the interval halfway
between a major and a minor third which is so typical of jazz. This opening movement represents an
incantation by which the gods are invoked.
The Fugue which follows expresses the plants shooting up from the ground. The theme provides the jazz
ingredients, with its driving syncopation and finely crafted suggestion of "blue notes", and the whole
movement is a succinct and masterly fusion of the jazz and neo-classical idioms.
The Romance is inspired by the blues. At the end, with the return of the melody, the animals appear on
the scene, followed by the Man and the Woman.
The Scherzo is a ragtime, recalling Stravinsky who in his music, also used ragtime elements, for example
in "l'Histoire du Soldat."
The Finale begins with a sparkling, tumbling "dance of desires." In the ensuing "dance of fulfillment,"
with its brilliant, quasi-improvised climax, Milhaud cunningly interweaves fragments from the themes of the
preceding sections. Finally the music comes slowly to rest. The Creation is complete, and it is Spring.
"I want to write eighteen string quartets," Milhaud wrote in Jean Cocteau's magazine Le Coq in
1920. Perhaps it was meant in fun (although at that moment he already had five to his name) but it is a fact
that twenty years later, in 1951, he ended his Eighteenth Quartet with the words:"FIN des dix-huit quatuors
à corde 1912-195 I." Although he still had twenty years to live, Milhaud composed no more string
quartets. They thus occupy a special place in his oeuvre. Of particular interest is the Third string quartet,
written in memory of the poet Leo Latil, with whom he had been close friends since his youth and who had
died in the trenches in 1915. Milhaud long intended to delay the publication of this quartet until after his
death, but revoked this decision after the completion of his eighteen-part "cycle."
The Third string quartet is the only one to be composed in two movements, and is further distinguished by
a soprano part in the second movement. The music is slow and melancholic. It could be interpreted an elegy,
but Milhaud was primarily giving a musical portrait of his friend Latil's character.
"Leo wrote a 'Journal'," said the composer, "which was actually nothing but a long lament, with his
gloominess and his religious feelings, dominated by a spirit of deep self-denial and resignation, mingling
with a passionate love for nature, for the flowers and the graceful lines of the blue horizons around Aix."
The first movement is based on the melody of "Rossignol," one of the four poems by Latil which Milhaud
had set to music in 1914.This melody drifts from instrument to instrument, accompanied by extremely
chromatic, contrapuntal lines in the other parts. After a while the music subsides and nothing is left except
seufzers (a "sighing" falling second, a motif which has been used since the Renaissance to express grief).
Milhaud's harmonic explorations here are audacious and extremely expressive. The main melody then returns,
leading to further explorations of all registers. Finally the three top parts evaporate in an aura of
The second movement is slightly less slow but even more chromatic. The music is continuously based on two
melodic figures, each consisting of four quavers, in which the Seufzer-motif again plays an important role.
Above this fabric of strings the soprano sings a freely composed melody set to a text from Latil's
"Journal." On the words:"But what is that longing for death, and what kind of death is involved?" the music
comes to an end, with the notes of the second motif, two minor seconds, melted into a chord.
In the course of his long life Milhaud was outdistanced in terms of modernity by a younger generation, but
eighty years ago this music was astonishingly daring. Milhaud was one of the first composers to make use of
polytonality. At the same time his work is closely tied to tradition: melodic expression is the core of all
his music. The first task set him by his composition teacher, André Gédalge, was to write
lines. Only when the pupil had mastered this art were the other aspects of composition addressed.
This is all clearly expressed in the Fourth String Quartet, which Milhaud composed in Rio de Janeiro in
1918. The first movement opens with a theme played by the first violin and the cello in F major, with the
second violin and the viola given the same material in A major. After some time a second theme makes its
entrance in the viola. This then gradually merges into the fabric of the music, only to pop up again in the
final bars. This is sunny music with a sparse texture which leaves the poly tonal structure quite t
The second movement is longer and more sombre in tone, with a throbbing march rhythm running like a
thread through the music. A gradual acceleration leads to a dramatic turning-point, after which a short
fugue-like episode leads again to a climax. The movement closes with a varied reprise of the opening
The third movement, again manifestly bitonal, is short and exuberant, with a crackling theme full of
repeated notes. Although the Latin-American influence is not yet fully apparent, the movement has all the
fiery impudence of a carnival parade, including an out-of-tune band. Here too, after briefly thinning out,
the music returns to its starting point. Milhaud may have been an innovator, but he was also a classicist
with a razor-sharp feeling for balance.
Of the "Cantate de l'Enfant et de la Mere" Milhaud writes the following:
"In 1938 two concert societies, the Pro Arte in Brussels and that of Mrs. Coolidge, decided to celebrate
their 20th anniversaries together; these two groups had thoroughly committed themselves to music and could
be proud of themselves! I composed a cantata in homage to them; I wanted to write a work which would bring
out all the facets of friendship, in a sort of Franco-Belgian reunion. I chose poems by a young Belgian,
Maurice Carème, from his beautiful collection "Mère," which I grouped under the title
Cantate de l'enfant et de la mère for rhythmic declamation, piano and string quartet. I
conducted the performance of my cantata in Brussels on May 18th, 1938. We must have seemed like a sort of
flea circus, playing very soft music and reciting tender and intimate poems, because we came after a couple
of bravura pieces played by a military band under the fiery direction of Arthur Prevost."
It is indeed a feather-light piece, this Cantate, and one in which not a single note is sung. The rhythm
of the spoken part, which was performed at the premiere and thereafter by Milhaud's wife Madeleine, is fully
written out, but the pitch, in contrast to Schoenberg's Sprechgesang, is not indicated. Milhaud made
use of this technique on other occasions, as well. These twelve miniatures do not have the depth of the
quartets, but the warm, magical sound perfectly matches the lyrical, rather sugary texts. Here and there the
predominantly abstract idiom gives way to musical depictions of the words: the seventh piece is a lullaby,
and elsewhere gusts of wind and a babbling brook are echoed in the ensemble.
© Frits van der Waa 2007