Milhaud narrated by conductor Franck Ollu

Milhaud narrated by conductor Franck Ollu

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Darius Milhaud on 22 June, the versatile conductor and contemporary music expert Franck Ollu looks back at the history of this great composer, covering his various works and influences. 

"Major composer at the dawn of the 20th century, Darius Milhaud worked with some of the greatest artists of his time (Picasso, Fernand Léger, Paul Claudel, Blaise Cendrars, etc.). He studied at the Paris Conservatoire under André Gédalge, where he met Arthur Honegger. The "new young people", as Eric Satie liked to call them, became friends despite Honegger's inveterate Wagnerism and Darius Milhaud's no less fierce anti-Wagnerism. He was also a pupil of Vincent d'Indy, Charles Widor and Paul Dukas.

Appointed French ambassador to Brazil between 1917 and 1918, Paul Claudel asked his friend Darius Milhaud to accompany him as his secretary. The result of this journey was Man and his Desire, inspired by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes' visit to Rio with Eric Satie's famous ballet Parade.

From his trip to Brazil, Milhaud retained the exaltation of the music he heard there. They had a considerable influence on his style and enriched his rhythmic range. From the 1920s onwards, his music was also strongly influenced by jazz, which he discovered and studied in New York with the Afro-Americans of Harlem. These included Le Boeuf sur le Toit, Saudades do Brasil and Scaramouche. In 1922, having just returned from the United States, Blaise Cendrars and Fernand Léger asked him to write the music for their ballet project. La création du monde (the creation fo the world) was performed in 1923 at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées, and was later conducted by Leonard Bernstein. It is conceivable that this play was an influence on the genesis of his famous West Side Story.

A prolific composer, Darius Milhaud wrote his first Opus in 1910 to poems by Francis James. He went on to write 440 more, until his last work, the cantata Ani Maamin to a text by Élie Wiesel, composed in 1974, the year of his death.

An artist of particular idiosyncrasy, he dabbled in all genres, like his most talented contemporaries. He can be compared to Stravinsky in the way he approached and drew inspiration from the artistic movements of his time. His Concerto for Percussion is reminiscent of Stravinsky's Ragtime. Both often feature wind instruments. Milhaud's music is imbued with neoclassicism, as evidenced by his remarkable Viola Concerto Op.108, which is reminiscent of Paul Hindemith's Kammermusik. His piano concertos are as remarkably clear as those of Saint-Saëns. Milhaud also preferred the heritage of Gregorian chant to the chromaticism of Wagner and Schoenberg.

He is often credited with inventing polytonality. Others have also tried their hand at it, including Albert Roussel, Charles Koechlin, Charles Ives, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky and Arthur Honegger, to name but a few. Darius Milhaud made polytonality a principle of composition. It is polytonality that makes his music original and defines his language, in other words, the use of at least two superimposed melodic lines, in the form of counterpoint, written in different keys. He also uses polyrhythm. This is the use of at least two simultaneous rhythmic motifs of different structures. This is his way of being modern, having never been attracted by either dodecaphony or atonality. In this sense, his research can be compared, at least in concept, to that of the American composer Charles Ives.

It is said that he sometimes composed in the summer with his window open, letting in the sounds of the Avenue de Clichy, where he lived most of his life. He could also hear the sound of car horns as they invaded his creative space. This may be anecdotal, but in my opinion it reveals an original trait of his personality and would explain the presence of the sound of klaxons in the 2nd movement of his Chamber Concerto for piano and orchestra Op.389.

Milhaud's art offers a wide variety of registers. Best known for his entertainment music, he also composed dramatic works such as his opera Orestie d'Eschyle, a triptych including I. Agamemnon (1913), II. Les Choéphores (1915) III. Les Euménides (1922), in a French translation by Paul Claudel. This piece, written over a period of ten years and requiring the use of 15 percussionists, may well have inspired Edgard Varèse's Ionisation in 1931 or Xenakis's Oresteia in 1965. We had to wait until 1963 to hear the complete version of Orestie d'Eschyle". Franck Ollu, 26 April 2024