The presentation of Elizabeth and Elliott Hurwitt’s appraisal of the music of Darius Milhaud on the world wide web in 1995 was to include two other complementary offerings, a discussion of Ralph Swickard’s documentary film about Milhaud and a discussion of Milhaud’s autobiography, Notes Without Music, that had recently been republished by Marion Boyers as My Happy Life. I contacted Marion Boyers and was very pleased when permission was extended to feature the introductory essay by Christopher Palmer on the world wide web. I regret that it has taken twentyfive years to realize these last two ambitions. I am also happy that Ralph Swickard’s film can now be presented to the world. YouTube did not exist in 1995.
How I came to make the film, A Visit with Darius Milhaud
by Ralph Swickard
It was over 40 years ago, in the spring of 1953, that I first met Darius and Madeleine Milhaud in Los Angeles. At the time, I was a music student at U.C.L.A. working on a Masters degree in composition. Darius Milhaud had been invited by the U.C.L.A. Music Department to confer with a number of the music students in a seminar and to listen to some of their student efforts, performed by either the students themselves, or their colleagues, and give his reactions and constructive criticism to their work. Along with Milhaud’s appearance at this student seminar, he was scheduled to give a public lecture at U.C.L.A. on the music of Erik Satie, and attend a concert performance of Milhaud’s own music at Royce Hall which would be presented by a chamber orchestra of professional musicians and soloists from the Los Angeles area. I was present at the student seminar, as well as the public lecture and concert performance. Always, Madeleine Milhaud would be there with Darius at all of these functions, as she, of course, was always there to help her husband in various ways – with his transportation and other necessities.
At Milhaud’s lecture on Erik Satie, I was quite touched by the remarks that Darius had been making and also in the manner in which he made them concerning his older colleague whom he greatly admired. At the conclusion of his lecture, a number of people went backstage to greet Milhaud, as I did also. When many of the people had left I approached Monsieur Milhaud and introduced myself to both Monsieur Milhaud and to Madeleine, who was by his side. I mentioned to him that I had been making some amateur motion pictures recently and wondered if he might be interested in my doing a short film interview with him. His reply was quite short and direct. He said, “Well, why not?” I was a little surprised, almost startled, by his willingness to allow me to embark upon such a project.
Among my first concerns was not only to get permission from the Milhauds themselves, but also from Mills College where the Milhauds indicated that I do the filming. Following the brief encounter with the Milhauds at U.C.L.A., I wrote to Dr. Lynn T. White, who was president of Mills College at that time, asking for permission to shoot some 16mm film at Mills College and also to film an interview of the Milhauds in their residence at the college. Dr. White’s reply to me was, “Of course. Such a request would be perfectly agreeable to Mills College, and that perhaps any publicity that Mills College would receive as a result of such film exposure would perhaps indirectly be of benefit to the college.”
My previous experience in making movies had been strictly on an amateur level. Furthermore, I had no “organization” at my disposal for really doing an adequate job as a film interviewer. Since I suddenly realized that I would have to make sound recording for the film -not only for the purpose of interviewing Monsieur Milhaud himself, but also to record his performance at the piano as well as other performers who might be involved in the project, I felt a tinge of near panic in undertaking a project of this sort.
Toward the end of May 1953, Darius and Madeleine were to be in Santa Barbara for a week in residence at the Music Academy of the West. In my communications with the Milhauds by letter, I suggested that perhaps we could start doing some filming in Santa Barbara at the Academy. That prospect seemed satisfactory to them. Meanwhile, I had gotten in touch with some people at the Brooks School of Photography in Santa Barbara. At the time the Brooks School of Photography had a small motion picture unit consisting of about four or five students, a professor who owned the camera and recording and lighting equipment and another professor who was a part time advisor who had previously directed a couple of professional films in Hollywood. I made arrangements with the professor, who owned the camera and recording equipment, Rex Fleming, to undertake the filming in Santa Barbara. His students would be the crew – to deal with the lighting and sound equipment.
When the Milhauds arrived in Santa Barbara we got started doing one or two scenes in between Milhaud’s teaching obligations. Following these first brief scenes, the Santa Barbara film students and their teacher, agreed to travel up to Oakland, California and shoot some more film footage at Mills College, and at the Milhauds’ residence at the college. While shooting some of the film at the Milhauds’ home on the college campus, Dave Brubeck, who had been one of Milhaud’s Mills College students, dropped by and agreed to participate in the film along with some of his jazz group. The Milhaud film had started to grow.
In the next few episodes, the student film crew, with their teacher, said they would be agreeable to travel to Aspen, Colorado and do further filming there, where Milhaud would be in residence in July for the Aspen Summer Festival of Music. Along with filming Darius and Madeleine taking a Jeep ride through the Colorado landscape, an episode was filmed showing Milhaud conducting an orchestra of student performers at the Aspen Music Festival.
In September 1953, Darius and Madeleine Milhaud would be again back in Paris for a year before returning to Mills College for the 1954-55 academic college year. The film instructor from the Brooks School of Photography of Santa Barbara, Rex Fleming, indicated that he would be happy to travel to Paris (afterall, I would be paying his airfare and living expenses) to do further filming of Milhaud in his Paris home. However, his student film crew would remain in Santa Barbara. At the time I knew a young man who was in France on a Fulbright Scholarship. Since Rex Fleming did not speak French, I enlisted the aid of this young fellow, Leon Vickman, who was also interested in films, to help Rex Fleming in the filming activity. As it turned out, while in Paris, the Milhaud film not only involved Milhaud himself but also the composers Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Henri Sauget, the singer Jane Batori, and the poet Paul Claudel. I never imagined at the outset of this project, that a short film on Darius Milhaud would attain the importance that it seemed to be acquiring.
Along with the several scenes shot in Paris, Rex Fleming and my student friend, Leon Vickman, traveled down to Aix-en-Provence, Milhaud’s childhood home, where further film footage was shot. When Rex Fleming returned to Santa Barbara, we had perhaps already exposed well over eleven hours of unedited film. Another year and a half was devoted to editing all of this film material in order to construct a documentary film 30 minutes in length.
I had indeed learned a great deal about film making in undertaking this Milhaud project, but beyond that, the making of the film, A Visit with Darius Milhaud, had been for me a wonderful experience towards becoming lifelong friends with Darius and Madeleine Milhaud.