Darius Milhaud

1892 1974

Darius Milhaud

Composer • Conductor

Biography

The French composer Darius Milhaud was at the forefront of several musical movements of the 20th century. Not only was he a leading voice in avant-garde, he was also an innovator at combining jazz with classical music, and experimented with polytonality and polyrhythm in a completely new way. As a professor of composition in both France and the United States, Milhaud influenced hundreds of students and taught them his own unique approach to composition.

Milhaud was born to a Jewish family in the south of France and began his musical immersion very early in life, playing piano duets with his father from the age of three. After taking up violin at age seven Milhaud began playing second violin in the string quartet of his teacher, Léo Bruguier. He was already starting to compose even in his early teens, and when he discovered Debussy his musical curiosity took off, causing him to immediately buy several of his scores to study.

In 1909 Milhaud attended the prestigious Paris Conservatoire, where he studied composition withPaul Dukas and Vincent d’Indy. With the onset of World War I, he left Paris to accompany the poet and diplomat Paul Claudel to Brazil. Milhaud spent several years there, during which time he was heavily influenced by the local culture and in particular some of the rhythms used in Brazilian music. Milhaud andVilla-Lobos met in Brazil and influenced each other's composition. His friendship with Claudel would turn into a mutually prolific relationship, with Milhaud providing music for several of Claudel’s plays, and Claudel in turn providing libretti for many of Milhaud’s works. Throughout much of his life Milhaud would continue to be very much interested in poetry as a main source of inspiration for his compositions.

By the time he returned to Paris in 1919 Milhaud’s highly individual style had already largely solidified. Upon his return the artist and poet Jean Cocteau famously grouped Milhaud with five other like-minded composers of the same age in Paris. This collection, which also includedPoulenc, Honegger, Tailfar, Auric and Lury, became known as “Les Six,” and to many, represented the newest movement in modern composition. In fact, these six composers had relatively little in common stylistically, beyond eschewing the path of the impressionists that had come before them. Milhaud was the most experimental of the group and had a particular aversion to impressionism, although he did always have a soft spot forDebussy, and once declared; “When I started to compose, I at once sensed the danger in following the paths of impressionist music. So much woolliness, perfumed billows, rocketing pyrotechnics, shimmering finery, vapors and wistfulness, marked the end of an era whose affectation I found insurmountably repugnant. The poets saved me.”

Milhaud’s style is in many ways a direct response to impressionism; simple rather than lush textures, understated rather than dramatic, and with much more jarring harmonies. Milhaud became particularly notable for his systematic and codified use of polytonality, or the presence of two or more simultaneous tonal centers, starting as early as the 1910s. For him this angular approach was an essential part of the essence of his music, and is exemplified in hisSaudades do Brasil (1921), a set of dance suites. Over time his use of polytonality would become simpler and less abrasive, but it remained the hallmark of his style for his entire life.  

Another key element that would not form until the next decade was a heavy jazz influence. Following a visit to the United States in 1922, during which he went to Harlem in New York and saw many of the luminaries of jazz, Milhaud began to openly emulate the style in his own music. One of the first examples of this was the balletLe Creation du Monde (1923). As it predates George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue by one year it is often cited as the first major attempt to incorporate jazz into a concert work.

Over the next several decades Milhaud would assemble an astonishing breadth of over 400 works, writing for almost every instrumentation and context imaginable. He wrote 18 string quartets between 1912 and 1950, in addition to 12 symphonies, six piano concertos, nine operas, 12 ballets, numerous choral works, such asPsalm 126, Op. 72 and even pieces for children. Many of his operas and ballets turned out to be his most enduring works, including the operasChristophe Colomb (1930), and Le Pauvre Matelot (1926), and the ballets L’Homme et son désir (1918) and Le Boeuf sur le toit (1919). Some celebrated works for solo instruments with piano includeDuo concertante, Op. 351 for clarinet and piano,Scaramouche Op. 165c, Sonatina for Flute and Piano , Op. 76, as well as 4 Chansons de ronsard, Op. 223.  Over time he made increasing use of non-conventional orchestration techniques, including whips and hammers being used as percussion and the chorus being instructed to groan and shriek.

In 1939 the Nazi advance forced Milhaud, who was on a list of prominent Jewish artists, to flee France and seek refuge in the United States. By this time his daily life and musical endeavors were already severely hampered by rheumatoid arthritis. Milhaud moved to California and was offered a position teaching composition at Mills College. He would maintain a busy teaching and composing schedule over the next decades, even as his health deteriorated. By 1947 Milhaud was able to finally move back to his beloved France, as he was accepted to the faculty at the Paris Conservatoire. He would continue to travel back and forth between his two teaching posts for many years, educating hundreds of aspiring composers. Perhaps the most famous of these is the jazz pianistDave Brubeck, who credits Milhaud for being an immense influence as he was developing his own unique style at Mills College.   

Milhaud was forced to retire from his teaching positions in 1971 as his health worsened. However he would continue to compose up until his death in 1974, and did not leave any unfinished works, a testament to the devotion and thoroughness with which he approached his life’s work.

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