Literary food

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today, works by the great French composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974). Born in Marseilles, he studied at the Paris Conservatory (where he was a member of Les Six), spent two years in Brazil as a young man, then returned to France where he composed interstitial music borrowing from many musical styles (classical, Brazilian, jazz, folk, and more), including music for the opera and ballet -- until, being Jewish, he was forced into exile in America during World War II. After the war, he taught alternate years at Mills College in California and the Paris Conservatory.

I have an old clipping in my files passed to me many years ago by Ellen Kusher (working then as the host of a late night music show for WGBH Radio in Boston) containing my favorite passage about Milhaud. I'm afraid I don't know who the author is, but I think about these words every time I hear Milhaud's music:

Darius Milhaud"Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Darius Milhaud's life and work -- and the feature most irreconcilable with popular notions of creativity -- is that he was in all aspects a truly happy man: this despite a crippling disease that kept him bed- and wheelchair-ridden, and in almost constant pain, for nearly half his life. He spurned the heart-on-sleeve negativism of much of the 'serious art' of the 20th century, attributing it to the influence of Richard Wagner, to whose music he took an early and permanent dislike.

"In 1958, a young a troubled student from provincial France wrote Milhaud of his consternation at Wagner's reputed dictum that art springs from suffering, unhappiness and frustration; Mihaud answered: ''I am glad you decided to write to me about your problem; here is my point of view, if you want it. I had a marvelously happy childhood. My wife is my companion, my collaborator; we are the best of friends and this gives me great happiness. My son is a painter who works incessantly, and he is sweet and loving to his parents. Thus I can say that I've had a happy life, and if I compose, it's because I am in love with music and wouldn't know how to do anything else....Your Wagner quote proves to me once again he was an idiot.  You will probably think I've been very lucky, and you're right. But even if a composer does have a difficult and unhappy life, he still writes out of love (look at Schubert), and it's in love that he finds consolation and a reason for living. The idea that you can only make a work of art out of repression, semi-hysteria, or having your nose constantly out of joint, seems to me one of the most infantile and superficial notions one can have.' "


Above: Milhaud's "Sonata No. 1 for Viola and Piano, Op. 240 - Movements III and IV," a lovely composition (with folk influences) performed by Spencer Martin (viola) and Xiao Hu (piano).

Below: Milhaud and his beloved wife, Madeleine, introduce "Caramel Mou," a delightful, jazz-inflected piece created in Paris between the wars. In this remarkable film footage (from a documentary aired in 1965), Milhaud explains what it's all about....

And last:

"Scaramouche," inspired by the music of Brazil, performed by the wonderful Spanish brothers Víctor and Luís del Valle on pianos, with Enrique Llopis and Raúl Benavent on percussion. How often do you see classical musicians look like they're having this much fun...?

If you'd like a little more this morning, here's the first overture from Milhaud's "The Creation of the World" (1923), performed  by the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Leonard Bernstein at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris in 1976. This is music for a twenty-minute ballet inspired by African mythology, originally commissioned by the Ballets suédois, a Swiss dance ensemble based in Paris.