About this work
Milhaud discovered American jazz in a 1920 visit to London, where he encountered Billy Arnold's Novelty Jazz Band in a Hammersmith dance hall. By the time he arrived in New York two years later for a series of engagements, he was claiming that European composers, including himself, were strongly influenced by American jazz (even though the only evidence available consisted of very short pieces by the likes of Satie, Auric, and Stravinsky). In New York, he haunted Harlem clubs and bought as many jazz records as he could. Upon his return to Paris, Milhaud was primed to write a lengthy, jazz-inspired score and saw his chance in a collaboration with Swedish producer Rolf de Maré, designer Fernand Léger, writer Blaise Cendrars, and choreographer Jean Börlin. The subject was nothing less than the creation of the world, as seen through African myth. Léger based his scenery and costumes on African art, and Milhaud took his inspiration from the African American music then in the air: jazz. He created a score for 17 solo instruments, including saxophone, and made liberal use of syncopation and near-chaotic counterpoint with the feeling of jazz improvisation (all the notes were written out, however). The score falls into five sections performed without breaks, always underlined by percussion instruments (here including the piano) that evoke both African drums and American jazz styles. The more animated the music becomes, as in the fugal second section, the more frenetic, syncopated, and outwardly jazzy it grows. The slower, quieter passages early on have less to do with African or American styles, aside from the occasional blue note. Throughout, Milhaud makes liberal use of polytonality, as is the case with all his mature music. The curtain rises on darkness, through which can be dimly perceived in inchoate mass of human bodies. Soon, the African gods of creation, Mzamé, Mebère, and Nkwa materialize and through their incantations, various forms of life begin to emerge from the mass of bodies: trees, animals, and ultimately a man and woman. The couple performs a sassy, syncopated dance of creation; the music becomes gentler and the man and woman are left alone on-stage to welcome the first spring.