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Darius Milhaud and Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit

Darius Milhaud (September 4, 1892–June 22, 1974) was a French composer, known especially for his development of polytonality, and teacher. Born on Sept. 4, 1892, to a Provençal Jewish family at Aix-en-Provence in southern France, although some sources say at Marseilles to a family from Aix-en-Provence, Milhaud began as a violinist in his youth, later turning to composition instead. Studying in Paris from age 17 at the Paris Conservatory, he met his fellow students Arthur Honegger and Germaine Tailleferre, and had classes in composition under Charles Widor and harmony and counterpoint with André Gedalge. Also he studied privately with Vincent d’Indy, allowing him to focus on developing his skills as a pianist. From 1917 to 1919, during the First World War, he served as secretary to Paul Claudel, the eminent poet and dramatist who was then the French ambassador to Brazil, and with whom Milhaud collaborated for many years, setting music for many of Claudel’s poems and plays. While in Brazil, they collaborated on a ballet, L’Homme et son désir.

Milhaud would go on to provide incidental music for several of Claudel’s plays, such as Proteé in 1919 and L’annonce fait à Marie in 1934, and Claudel, in turn, would supply libretti for many of Milhaud’s compositions like the opera Christophe Colomb of 1928. On his return to France, Milhaud was adopted into the circle of “Les Six,” a group of progressive French composers brought together under the guidance of Jean Cocteau, and composed works influenced by the Brazilian popular music he had heard, including compositions of Brazilian pianist and composer Ernesto Nazareth. Le bœuf sur le toit includes melodies by Nazareth and other popular Brazilian composers of the time, and evokes the sounds of Carnaval. The recurring theme is, in fact, a Carnaval tune by the name of “The Bull on the Roof” (in Portuguese which he translated to French ‘Le boeuf sur le toit’, known in English as ‘The Ox on the Roof’). He also produced Saudades do Brasil, a suite of twelve dances evoking twelve neighborhoods in Rio. Shortly after the original piano version appeared, he orchestrated the suite.

On a trip to the United States in 1922, Darius Milhaud heard “authentic” jazz for the first time, on the streets of Harlem, which left a great impact on his musical outlook. The following year, he completed his composition La création du monde (The Creation of the World), using ideas and idioms from jazz, cast as a ballet in six continuous dance scenes. In 1925, Milhaud married his cousin, Madeleine (1902–2008), an actress and reciter. In 1930 she bore him a son, the painter and sculptor Daniel Milhaud, who was the couple’s only child. Milhaud composed, performed, and taught ceaselessly during the 1920s and 1930s. The rise of Nazism forced the Milhauds to leave France in 1940 and emigrate to the United States. His Jewish background made it impossible for Milhaud to return to his native country until after its liberation. He secured a teaching post at Mills College in Oakland, CA, where he composed the opera Bolivar (1943) and collaborated with Henri Temianka and the Paganini Quartet.

In an extraordinary concert there in 1949, the Budapest Quartet performed the Milhaud’s 14th String Quartet, followed by the Paganini Quartet’s performance of his 15th; and then both ensembles played the two pieces together as an octet. The following year, these same pieces were performed at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, by the Paganini and Juilliard String Quartets. The jazz pianist Dave Brubeck became one of Milhaud’s most famous students when Brubeck furthered his music studies at Mills College in the late 1940s. Milhaud’s students also include popular songwriter Burt Bacharach. Milhaud, like his contemporaries Paul Hindemith, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Alan Hovhaness, Bohuslav Martinů and Heitor Villa-Lobos, was an extremely rapid creator, for whom the art of writing music seemed almost as natural as breathing. His most popular works include Scaramouche for saxophone and piano, also for two pianos.

From 1947 to 1971, Milhaud taught alternate years at Mills and the Paris Conservatoire, until poor health, which was the result of a serious, paralyzing rheumatic condition and caused him to use a wheelchair during his later years, beginning in the 1930s, compelled him to retire. He died in Geneva, Switzerland, three years later at the age of 81, on June 22, 1974, and he was buried in the Saint-Pierre Cemetery in Aix-en-Provence. Darius Milhaud was very prolific and composed for a wide range of genres. His opus list ended at 443. His musical output is impressive, both in terms of quantity and quality. The numbers alone are staggering for a twentieth century composer, with nine operas, 12 ballets, 12 symphonies (in addition to six chamber symphonies), six piano concertos (one of them a double concerto), 18 string quartets, and about 400 other compositions in almost every conceivable form and instrumentation, including radio and motion-picture scores, a setting of the Jewish Sabbath Morning Service (1947), chamber music, choral works, and settings of poems by Claudel, Christina Rossetti, and Stéphane Mallarmé.

The following works by Darius Milhaud are contained in my collection:

(Harp) Concerto for Harp, op. 323 (1953).
La Creation du Monde, op. 81 (1923).
Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit, op. 58 (1919).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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