Darius Milhaud

The composer Darius Milhaud was a very influential figure in twentieth-century music.  He came into contact with and mentored hundreds of younger composers, including the likes of Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich, Dave Brubeck, and Burt Bacharach.  Moreover, Milhaud’s enormous output, wide-ranging interests, and experimental openness mark him as a key composer not only in twentieth-century French music, but also in the modern era itself.
Early Years and Studies

Born in Marseilles on September 4, 1892, Milhaud was from a prosperous, well-established family of merchants and almond dealers.  He showed an early and easy gift for music, playing the violin well enough to give solo recitals and also mastering the piano.  He seems to have resolved to become a composer at a young age and towards this end, followed the inevitable path for musically inclined French youths and moved to Paris to enter the Conservatoire in 1909.

Milhaud’s studies at the Conservatoire lasted until 1915.  They were marked by a rapid acceleration in his abilities, and a considerable broadening of his musical horizons.  Though the music of the time was characterized by the ascendancy of the Impressionists and the music of the Ballets Russe, Mihaud had an aversion to what he defined as “shimmering finery, vapours and wistfulness.”  Instead he sought a cooler, dryer texture and a more straightforward formal approach, an approach that became characteristic of French music after the First World War.

Brazil and Les Sixes

Milhaud spent the majority of the war years in Brazil where he served as a personal aide to Paul Claudel, a poet and diplomat whose works he was to set often.  Milaud had a very impressionable nature, and found musical inspiration in an extremely wide range of experiences. In this regard, his time in Brazil had a profound impact. Both the local music, with its complex rhythms and strong reliance on percussion, as well as the sounds of the tropical rain forest itself were to have a lasting influence of Milhaud's music.

Upon returning to France after the war Milhaud was caught up in its strong artistic currents, which had at their center the figures of Jean Cocteau and the composer Erik Satie.  During the war, Cocteau had called for a purging of all Germanic, indeed all non-Latin elements from French art and had held up Satie as the new ideal in French music. Satie, a mercurial, puckish man who wrote mainly short piano music, had already won a following among younger composers for his individuality and freshness.  These elements, combined with a lingering nationalism and a sense that a new era had dawned in the wake of the war, served as a very productive environment for a man of Milhaud’s talents and temperament.

The group of composers known as “The Six”  (Milhaud, Poulenc, Honeggar, Tailfar, Auric and Lury) were never more than a group of friends and associates who happened to be about the same age and who had their first professional notice in the post-war years.  Yet, due mainly to the brilliant propaganda of Cocteau, they became in the mind of the public, and the ever afterwards in music history, a coherent artistic movement.  In so far as they had a discernable “program,” these young composers were interested in a music which eschewed pre-war extremes of sensuousness and atmosphere.  In most of their work, textures are simpler, lines cleaner, popular music often occupies a central place, and the tone, following Satie’s example, hovers always on the verge of irony.

Milhaud was perhaps the most experimental of the group: his interest in the music of other cultures and his extreme openness to new ideas gave his music a variety and richness distinct from that of the other five composers. Also he had a rather theoretical bent, as well becoming committed early in his career to “polytonality” – the simultaneous use of two or more keys.

Milhaud’s Early Period and the Influence of Jazz

Throughout his career, Milhuad was consistently prolific, writing with ease in nearly every genre imaginable.  His major works from the first part of his career include several ballets.  Among these are L’homme e son desir (1918), La boeuf sur le toit (1920), La train Bleu (1924), and Le Creation du Monde (1923) with sets by the artist Ferdinand Leger.  This last work was highly influenced by the then newly arrived American jazz.

Mihaud first heard American jazz played in London in 1920 by touring dance bands.  Then in 1922 he again encountered the music on a tour to the United States when he went to Harlem and heard many of the pioneering jazz artists of the day.  His subsequent jazz-influenced La Creaton du Monde is perhaps the first serious attempt to incorporate jazz idioms into a concert work – predating Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Copland’s Piano Concerto by a year or two.

Aside from the ballets, Milhaud wrote works spanning the grand and serious (the opera Cristophe Colomb), to the commercial (innumerable film and theater scores), to the slight and humorous (setting  the text of descriptions of farm implements as in his work Machines agricoles).  Along with Satie, he even pioneered the concept of “background music” in Musique d'ameublement (1917).  Milhaud also explored the more traditional instrumental forms, writing twelve symphonies and eighteen string quartets, in addition to many other chamber works and dozens of songs and choral settings.

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The Second World War and Immigration to America

When the Nazis occupied France early in World War II, Milhaud, a prominent Jewish artist, was in grave danger.  But for Milhaud the danger was increased further, as by this time in his life severe rheumatoid arthritis confined him often to a wheel chair and the Nazi party did not look kindly on those who were disabled.  Fortunately, Milhaud was able to escape and he accepted an offer to teach at Mills College in Oakland, California.
After the war Milhaud split his time between France and America, teaching at the Paris Conservatory and the Aspen Summer Music Program, as well as for a time serving as director of Santa Barbara-based Music Academy of the West.  Milhaud died on June 22, 1974.

Drake, Jeremy: ‘Milhaud, Darius’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 19 November 2006), <http://www.grovemusic.com>

Milhaud, Darius.  Notes without Music: An Autobiography.  New York: Knopf, 1953.