Born at the end of the 19th century, Madeleine Milhaud got married in 1925 to the composer Darius Milhaud, one of her cousins she knew since her childhood. Paul Claudel was the best man at their marriage in Aix-en-Provence, France. Portrait of a woman deeply involved in the 20th century’s history of art.
Madeleine Milhaud wrote several libretti for the operas composed by her husband: Médée in 1938, Bolivar, in collaboration with Jules Supervielle in 1943 and La Mère coupable after Beaumarchais’ text (1965). As an actress, she played at the Théâtre de l’Atelier with Charles Dullin. She also recorded recitals of works by her husband and by Igor Stravinsky, worked as a set designer and taught French literature in the US, at Mills College, California, where Darius Milhaud had taught composing during the occupation of France by Germans.
Throughout her life, she has knew the most important musicians of her time: Satie, Ravel, Stravinsky, Schönberg, de Falla, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Honegger, Poulenc, Ives, Kurtweill, among others, and the greatest performers such as Menuhin, Désormière, Bernstein, Munch, Markevitch, Monteux, Marcelle, Meyer, Janine Micheau, Marya Freund…
She evolved around the same intellectual milieu as her husband and got in touch with popular writers like Gide, Claudel, Cocteau, Cendrars, Malraux, with painters like Léger, Picasso and Masson, and with movie directors like Renoir, Cavalcanti and L’Herbier.
A scrupulous witness of her time, Madeleine Milhaud shows a great sense of observation. She knows how to tell a story, recalling faces and attitudes of the people she got in touch with during her life, and she often makes humorous remarks. She kept in touch with Darius’ students (Betsy Jolas, Gilbert Amy and Georges Delerue among others), or with Claude Roy, a very good friend of hers and Darius Milhaud, and with the conductor Manuel Rosenthal.
Jean Roy, the author of this text, knew Darius Milhaud since 1954. He is the current president of the composer’s Work, and he is very close to Madeleine. He also wrote books on Darius’ works and on the “Groupe des Six” (Seuil publishing, France), a group the composer was part of in the 1920s.
Before this film, A visit with Darius Milhaud, another color documentary on Darius Milhaud, was produced in the US. The present production, conceived at the time of the composer’s centennial, has been shot at Madeleine’s house, Boulevard de Clichy, in Paris. Surrounded by all her memories (photos, portraits…) she recalls her husband better than anybody else could do.
Jean Roy © Medici TV
The above text by Jean Roy provides an introduction to the interview with Madeleine that is available at the above link. The film does not provide sub titles for Madeleine’s French. We have provided another interview that is currently available on youtube with sub-titles.
Actor and librettist at the heart of Parisian cultural life for 80 years
By Roger Nichols
The Guardian, Tue 15 Apr 2008
Madeleine Milhaud, who has died aged 105, was the widow of the French composer Darius Milhaud, and an actor, librettist and treasured source of information for scholars of 20th-century French music. She was at the centre of Parisian theatrical and musical life for more than 80 years; no visit to the French capital was complete without tea and biscuits in her flat on the boulevard de Clichy.
Neither her Belgian mother nor her lawyer father was particularly musical. Born in Paris, she first experienced the power of music at 15 through hearing Sarah Bernhardt, whose voice had “very characteristic and extremely songlike inflections”. Madeleine studied with the actor-director Charles Dullin, which gave rise to a number of anecdotes that were an irresistible feature of her company. “You’re very small,” said Dullin, which she was. “And I,” recorded Madeleine, “had a wild impulse to say to him, ‘and you, Maître, have quite a pronounced hump!’ “
Her first cousin Darius and his parents lived in Aix-en-Provence, but he and Madeleine saw each other regularly, even if, with a 10-year age difference, their relationship initially remained cousinly. From time to time he would say: “Why don’t you learn some Paul Claudel or Francis Jammes?” But that was to no avail. She first heard his music, the First Symphonic Suite, in May 1914, but could not later be sure whether this had struck her so much as the fact that she had left behind a little fur wrap. But from then on she attended the first performances of all his works.
She was a great reader, spurred on by her meetings at Adrienne Monnier’s and Sylvia Beach’s bookshops in the rue de l’Odéon with Valéry, Fargue, Joyce and others. At Shakespeare & Co bookshop she heard Erik Satie playing Socrate. Gradually, she and Darius realised that their feelings for each other were more than familial: in 1925 they married, and Madeleine joined him at the address at which she was to die 83 years later.
Until the outbreak of war, she was constantly by Darius’s side – or, more accurately, behind him, since the arthritis that struck him soon after their marriage meant that he often had to use a wheelchair. But she continued her career as an actor and reader of poetry on French radio. She also specialised as a reciter in works such as Roland Manuel’s Jeanne d’Arc and Darius’s Les Choéphores. When the Germans were within range of Paris in May 1940, the Opéra was putting on the première of Milhaud’s Médée, for which Madeleine had provided the libretto, taking passages from Seneca, Euripides and Corneille. But the music was accompanied by the sound of anti-aircraft guns and, with the abandonment of the opera after the third performance, Madeleine urged Darius to leave France – “I can do many things for you, but I cannot carry you on my back and hide you.”
They reached Lisbon and from there sailed to America, where they and their 10-year-old son Daniel stayed for the remainder of the war, with Darius teaching at Mills College, California, and Madeleine enlightening American students about French and French theatre. The family returned to France in 1946, and from then until Darius’s death in 1974 he taught both at the Paris Conservatoire and in America. Madeleine, meanwhile, wrote libretti for his operas Bolivar, premiered at the Opéra in 1950, and La Mère Coupable, premiered in Geneva in 1965. While musical analysis was not among her interests, she had been quite capable of playing the piano duet version of Le Sacre du Printemps and, to the end, her musical judgment remained individual and perceptive.
On the day of her 100th birthday, her flat was a riot of flowers. “My problem,” she said, “is that I exhaust everybody.” Only once in a quarter of a century did I find her even slightly dispirited. “Oh well,” she said, “it’s just that Lennie [Bernstein] was here yesterday, talking about Mahler. I know he was a great composer, but all the same …”
One of the joys of going to see Madeleine was that you never knew who you might meet. Claudel’s daughter, perhaps, or Dave Brubeck’s son, Darius. Where else could you learn that, at Satie’s funeral, his family duly arrived, “and they all had umbrellas” (pronounced “umberellas”)? Or that Stravinsky, in America during Prohibition had thought his eminence entitled him to import several dozen bottles of Bordeaux, only to be summoned to the dockside where the customs man ritually smashed each one with a hammer?
Madeleine was a marvellous storyteller. With her professional diction and timing (and English learned from her nanny), a patient counsellor and an unfailing friend, she will be missed by everyone who knew her.
· Madeleine Milhaud, actor and librettist, born March 22 1902; died January 17 2008