A citizen of the world, Milhaud was a resolute traveller who lived away from France and his native Provence for many years. Each immersion in a different country presented him with an opportunity to take in different cultures, rhythms and musical hues that enriched his artistry and nurtured his creativity. His work is a unique example of musical syncretism both in his expression and in the means he employed. His vast output, which spreads across all genres, shows an irrepressible need to write music unhindered by aesthetics or technique. It did not matter where he was, he never stopped composing.
Milhaud’s music is often bathed in a recognisably Mediterranean light combining his French (and especially Provençal) roots and his Jewish spiritual traditions with jazz and other popular music from Brazil, the Caribbean, the USA, and the Middle East.
Aesthetically, he was a free spirit. Milhaud’s early works were Debussy-esque, but quickly evolved under the influence of his teacher in counterpoint, André Gédalge. After attending the premiere of Le Sacre du printemps, he, with his friend and fellow composer, Charles Koechlin, analysed the polytonality and the rhythmic language Stravinsky employed. Enlightened by the expressive power of rhythm and polyrhythmic combinations Milhaud began to explore rich percussion soundscapes and abandoned classical harmony-based structure in favour of a more horizontal organisation, based on linear melodies. He cultivated a personal style that blended harshness, softness and poetry, dissonance, polytonality and lyricism.
While Milhaud conducted the Parisian premiere of Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, his style was not like the Viennese atonality of his time. He preferred Latin tonal traditions, which he employed to create polytonal and polymodal textures, which allowed for both occasional tonal harmonies as well as dramatic dissonances.
The most important element of Milhaud’s musical aesthetic was the melody. While his later compositions became a little more abstract, throughout most of his work his transparent, polytonal textures highlight melodic lines. Like Schönberg and Webern, he often abandoned the traditional symphony orchestra in favour of smaller ensembles with highly refined tonal combinations, putting him in the forefront of the renovation of the traditional symphonic orchestra. He also experimented with musical developments of his time like aleatory, which can be heard in Musique pour Ars Nova and introduced audience participation for the first time in a symphonic work in Musique pour San Francisco.
Passionately political throughout his life, Milhaud’s hatred for barbarism, racism, discrimination, and injustice can be found in Le Château de feu, La Tragédie humaine, and Ani maamin, and he demonstrated his commitment to peace, the rejection of violence, and ecumenism in Ode pour les morts des guerres, and Pacem in terris. These pieces still evoke strong emotion today.