About this work
Like a number of works by Milhaud, the popular Scaramouche exists in different versions and utilizes some clever borrowings from his previous stage works. The composer based the quick, sunny first and third movements on some of the incidental music he had composed months earlier for a children's adaptation of the Molière play Le médecin volant. This play was performed at the Theâtre Scaramouche on the Champs Elysées in Paris, hence the title of the work. For the somewhat melancholic middle movement, he used the theme of a short overture he had written for another play, Supervielle's Bolivar Milhaud's opera Bolivar].
Milhaud admitted that he had little enthusiasm for writing the first version of Scaramouche, for two pianos, Op. 165b, and that it gave him "enormous trouble," an interesting admission from such a notably facile and prolific composer. However, as it was essentially commissioned by noted French pianist, teacher, and Milhaud supporter Marguerite Long, the composer felt particularly obligated. Long wanted the work for two of her students to play at the 1937 Paris International Exposition. Marcelle Meyer and Ida Jankelevitch premiered the piece at the Exposition on July 1, 1937.
Scaramouche quickly became one of Milhaud's most popular works. The composer thought it was too popular, to the detriment of his other compositions. Less than two years later, the composer transcribed it for saxophone and orchestra, Op. 165c, and received its performance debut on Radio Paris in June 1940 with Marcel Mule as the soloist. Milhaud had composed a clarinet concerto for Benny Goodman, which the clarinetist never performed. Instead, he eagerly performed the 1941 clarinet (and orchestra) transcription of Scaramouche, Op. 165d.
Much of the popularity of the work is due to its engaging rhythms and diatonic melodic lines. Bitonality, a hallmark of Milhaud's compositional style, is consonantly and conservatively used in Scaramouche. "Braziliana" (Mouvement de Samba), the third movement, is one of the composer's most infectious South American-inspired pieces.
Scaramouche has also been transcribed for other combinations by other composers. These include an arrangement for alto saxophone and wind quintet, for three guitars, and even an arrangement for 12 saxophones. "Brazileira," the third movement, has been arranged for wind band, and notably, for violin and piano by none other than Jascha Heifetz.
Soon after the composition of the initial version for two pianos, Milhaud's somewhat eccentric friend and publisher Raymond Deiss asked to publish it. At this time sales of printed music were quite poor; thinking no one would want to buy it, the composer tried to dissuade Deiss. Fortunately, the publisher went ahead with his plan. In only a decade, several new editions of Scaramouche had to be printed.
Curated by Femke Steketee, Saxophonist