My Happy Life
Notes Without Music was reprinted by Da Capo Press in 1970 in their Da Capo Press Music Reprint Series. It reproduced all text and illustrations following the same format and pagination that was used in the Alfred Knopf edition of 1953. The editions are identical in that respect. The Knopf edition was octavo whereas the Da Capo reprint was slightly larger, medium octavo. Julliard reissued Notes sans Musique in 1963.
Calder & Boyars published Notes Without Music in the UK in 1967, translated by Donald Evans and edited by Rollo H. Myers. Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd published My Happy Life in 1995. An introductory note by Christopher Palmer explained the genesis of the current reissue of Milhaud’s autobiography.
“Milhaud’s autobiography was originally called Notes sans Musique and was first published in 1949 in Paris by Rene Julliard; it took us up to the end of Chapter 34, with the Milhauds eagerly looking forward to their return to France after the war. Donald Evans’ English translation, called Notes without Music, came out in 1952 and forms the basis of the present English edition. The complete text in French, re-titled Ma Vie Heureuse, was published in Paris by Belfond in 1974, the same year as Milhaud’s death in Geneva in June 22. Those who are interested in a full, detailed listing of Milhaud’s music are referred to the English edition of Paul Collaer’ s Darius Milhaud (San Francisco, 1988). The translator, Jane Hohfeld Galante, has established a definitive catalogue of works in association with Madeleine Milhaud, the composer’s widow.” C.P.
Marion Boyars Publishers graciously extended permission to use Christopher Palmer’s introduction to My Happy Life when the www presentation was created by the UCI Bookstore in 1995. Regrettably it has taken twenty-six years for this to be realized.
DARIUS MILHAUD: POET OF PROVENCE
By Christopher Palmer
Darius Milhaud once described in a radio interview an incident which took place at Mills College, a girls’ college in Oakland, California where he taught during World War II and many years subsequently. It seems that one day, as Milhaud was sitting having lunch in the canteen with his students, one of them approached him, clearly in a state of some perturbation. There ensued the following conversation, or something like it:
Student: Something you said yesterday disquieted me so much I could scarcely sleep for thinking and worrying about it.
Milhaud: (raising his eyebrows) Oh? What? Why?
Student: You said you had had a happy life. But how can a composer have a happy life? Surely he must fight with his wife, fall into debt, endure many difficulties and disappointments. Doesn’t he need those conditions to produce great art?
Milhaud: (shrugging his shoulders in that placid manner of his) Well, I manage otherwise.
This benighted girl had clearly been heavily influenced by an excess of Thomas Mann (probably Tonio Kroger) or Wagner, which amounts to much the same thing. Moreover, even as this student was berating him for having presumed to enjoy his ‘happy’ life, Milhaud would almost certainly have been sitting in the wheelchair to which he was confined for most of the latter part of his life.
‘Happiness’ is, of course, a quality of mind, an inborn state which has little or nothing to do with material circumstances, and even thing to do with a sense of humour: the ability to see the world in a proper perspective. Those who are born without it tend to make life difficult both for themselves and for everybody else. Milhaud did not belong in that category. Madeleine Milhaud has described her husband as being an extremely easy man to live with; they were married for almost 50 years without ever exchanging a cross word. He was at ease with people in all walks of life. He genuinely liked people, loved to be surrounded by them and was genuinely interested in other composers and their music. Wherever they were, in Europe or America, the Milhauds kept open house and constantly made new friends without losing the old ones. Small wonder that Milhaud’s pupil, the American composer and musicologist Everett Helm, described him as one of the finest examples of homo sapiens imaginable.
The key to this affable personality lies surely in the enormously strong racial and family security which enveloped Milhaud from birth. He sprang from one of the oldest Southern-French Jewish families. It could trace its roots back as far as the tenth century; and the outline of the strong, rugged Provencal hills was engraved on his subconscious from time immemorial. The result is that much, if not all. of his music is shaped and coloured by the physical characteristics of Aix and its environs, just as the novels of Jean Giono, such as Le Chant du Monde and Que majoie demeure (read them, if you never have), and the paintings of Cezanne have made the Provencal landscape familiar to those who have never seen it. Peter Mayle’s delightful A Year in Provence set out to tell us what it’s really like to live in Provence. He needed a whole book: Milhaud requires only a few bars of music, if one is in the mood and lets the imagination rove. Garlic and olive-oil; village gardens and vineyards; intense heat and sharp, blinding light; damp, green, steamy and sensual summers: once we have experienced these characteristics of the real Provence we can never listen to Milhaud’s earthy, chunky, robust music the same way again. Milhaud’s lifelong friend and standard-bearer, Paul Collaer, has memorably described the ‘vast unfolding landscape’ which had so pervasive an influence on the young composer, just as it did on Bizet and Van Gogh:
It is both wild and orderly, like the landscape of Tuscany but more glowing; for along with grapevines and almond trees, the red, charred soil is overlaid with the wind-shifted gray or silver haze of olive orchards …. Around a bend in the road, all of a sudden, in a hollow, is ‘yellow’ Aix, or rather, ‘russet’ Aix, basking in the sunlight. It seems as though its rays penetrate the very heart of the stones, baking them thoroughly …. The abrasive sunlight,more than the Mistral, has eaten away the trimming on balconies and cornices. What an ode to summer the spectacle of this town is, glowing in the sun and dust, framed by yellow vegetation and ruddy earth: what an affirmation! Many other delights await the person who searches further into the byways of the city and discovers the secrets of life that emanate from them. Above all, he will be aware of contrasts: though Aix may be a symphony composed to the glory of the sun, there is also, beneath its plane trees, the deepest possible shade . . . the splashing water from mossy fountains, located at every street corner, murmurs unceasingly. As shadow complements the brilliance of sunlight, so water satisfies this thirsty earth: where can this special equilibirum, this balance of contrasting passions, be better observed.
I have dwelt at some length on the character of Provence as I feel it is impossible to appreciate Milhaud’s music fully without some knowledge of it, even at second-hand. His music grows out of the landscape and is an integral part of it. Milhaud himself had no choice in the matter. He heard, saw and felt; and wrote what he heard, saw and felt. Armand Lunel, Milhaud’s lifelong friend and librettist for many of his stage works, even suggests that the taste of Provencal almonds can be enjoyed in some of his works. Milhaud, it seems, habitually munched almonds from the first moment he was able to munch anything.
The result is that Aix, in one form or another, is rarely absent from Milhaud’s music. There are, of course, many works, often suites of shortish movements, which make their intentions clear in their titles: the Suite provençale (probably Milhaud’s best-known work), the Suite française, the Suite Campagnarde, the Cueillette des citrons (Interméde provençale), the Ouverture mediterranéen, the Carnaval d’Aix, the Symphonie Rurale and others. We can be equally sure that the many works with the word ‘printemps’ in their titles will also bring Provence to the mind’s eye: there are two volumes of piano pieces so named, likewise the First Chamber Symphony, and the Concertino de Printemps for solo violin and small orchestra, one of Milhaud’s most beautifully-made shorter works. The same is true in the case of the ‘Pastorale’ (the Second Chamber Symphony), the third movement of the Second Symphonic Suite (‘Protee’), the Fantaisie pastorale for piano and orchestra, and so on. There is also much concern for ‘old’ music, following Stravinsky’s lead in Pulcinella, where he showed how the seventeenth century could be updated to the twentieth without loss of dignity to the original; hence, in Milhaud’s case, the Suite provençale, the Suite d’aprés Corrette, L’Apothéose de Moliere, Le Carnaval de Londres, La Cheminée du roi René and others.
Now, all this might suggest that Milhaud was a mere sender of picture-postcards, or a skilful time-traveller. Nothing could be further from the truth. The same characteristics, mostly derived from folk-songs, nursery ditties and traditional tunes (for example the ‘Lydian’ sharp fourth, a C sharp in the scale of G major, a familiar modal connotation of freshness and innocence, turns up again and again) are unmistakable features of the Milhaud landscape, whether specifically designated as such or not. Take the case of the First Symphony, Milhaud’s first full-dress ‘symphonic’ symphony, not Le Printemps, which was his first chamber symphony. Milhaud describes in My Happy Life how he first heard from his sickbed the news of the invasion of Poland:
Bedridden and incapable of working. I listened to the radio night and day. When I think back to that time now, it seems like some interminable period of waiting, in which the predominant feeling was one of impotence and frightful anguish … yet I had to deliver a work for the Chicago Orchestra. The idea that it would be the only French work on the programme helped me shake off my torpor, and I made a start on my First Symphony. . . .
Milhaud reveals no more than that, but if we listen to this work, one of his best, it is not difficult at all to hear the Provençal spring in the pastoral first movement; the anguished turmoil of war in the second; deep sorrowing in the third; and a finale in which a noble, proud, austere chorale is gradually overrun by a lively crop of Provençal dance-tunes. We may also note the recurrence of a characteristic type of drum-ensemble in Milhaud’s symphonic scores: whether they have any specific Provençal connection or no, the ‘tambour provençal, a kind of deep tenor drum without snares, is a regular member of this ensemble. Similarly in the Fête de la lumiére, a half-hour score composed for the 1937 Universal Exhibition in Paris (see My Happy Life, p. 189) the flavour of Provence is noticeably stronger than that of Paris, even though the music was designed to accompany light-shows and firework displays along the banks of the Seine. And nothing can stop the coda of La Création du monde, Milhaud’s masterly stylization of a Harlem jam session, from dissolving at the end, via oboe and sweetly sorrowing alto saxophone, into the fresh mists of a Provençal spring.
Milhaud was fond of remarking that, for him, ‘Provence’ began in Constantinople, passed via Aix and ended up in Rio de Janiero; but it can be argued that the great revelatory experience of Milhaud’s life had nothing immediately to do with Provence or with Provençal music. In 1916 the poet-diplomat Paul Claudel, with whom Milhaud had already collaborated on a number of stage-works including Agamemnon, Protée and Les Choëphores, invited him to Rio de Janeiro as his secretary. Such an opportunity would probably never come the young composer’s way again, and he seized it eagerly. It does seem there are young composers who need to be banished from their familiar surroundings for a period: thereafter returning to them as ‘new’ people; that is, as men not boys. Delius and Britten are notable examples. Delius, supposedly minding a grapefruit plantation in Florida which his father had been talked into buying for him, encountered the indigenous black music of the area — primarily spirituals treated vocally with a wholly spontaneous, instinctive, non-European harmonic and rhythmic freedom — which haunted and possessed him for the rest of his life. Britten endured his saison en enfer in North America and returned home a wiser man and a more mature composer. Milhaud himself describes so vividly the impact of the Latin American landscape and music on him that there is no need to rehearse it here: except to point out that it kindled in him a deep delight in popular traditional music wherever he might happen to find it: England, for instance, in his quodlibet on tunes from Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (Le Carnaval de Londres); North America (Kentuckiana, based on no fewer than 20 Kentuckian folk-tunes) and France herself in the Suite française for concert band (an orchestral version also exists, but is less effective). Percy Grainger paid a charming impromptu tribute to this last piece which probably never came to Milhaud’s notice. Ten days after a 1948 concert at the Carnegie Hall in which Grainger conducted the Goldman Band in his own Power of Rome and The Christian Heart, he wrote in a round-letter to friends, after deriding his own piece, ‘. . .what I got from the Goldman Band Tone-show was PURE JOY in hearing Milhaud’s Suite française, written straight for wind-band. What a bewitching work! What enthralling she-like little tunes darting about, what mastery of form and tone colour, what manly power in the use of 7-tone scales. . . . ‘
The first musical fruits of Milhaud’s Brazilian sojourn were the Saudades do Brasil for piano, later orchestrated. Let me quote from one of Leonard Bernstein’s 1974 Harvard Lectures, The Unanswered Question, whose theme is the development of early twentieth-century music:
It wasn’t only the Russian vernacular that attracted [Stravinsky] but all vernaculars, old and new — an international street language, so to speak, which ultimately included jazz, cafe music, and salon music, with all their attendant waltzes, polkas, foxtrots, tangos, and rags. Here was yet another department of fresheners for tonality, letting some fresh air into a stuffy post-Victorian room — a totally different air, chemically different from that other-planetary air, that ‘Lufi vom anderen Planeten that Schoenberg was breathing at the same time. But on Stravinsky’s planet people now spoke in the vernacular; post-World War I aesthetic life could be relaxed, facile, and fun. This new aesthetic relaxation caught on like wildfire, so attractive was the sheer relief of it. It was to produce pieces like this delectable Saudade do Brasil by Darius Milhaud; and the point to note is not only that it is bitonal, the left hand in G and the right hand in D, but that is a Parisian speaking the Brazilian vernacular. Do you see how charming and relaxed bitonality can be?
‘Fun’, yes; although there’s more to the Saudades than just ‘fun’. LeBoeuf sur le toit is more consistently ‘funny’. At the beginning, the strings are playing in C major; the flute pipes up in E flat major, only to be answered by the flute in F sharp major. That is certainly Milhaud at his ‘funniest’ in a fantasy on popular Brazilian themes — see My Happy Life pp. 86-88 — designed solely for entertainment and amusement, sexy rhythms, charming tunes and instrumental effects, and the purest Milhaud from first to last. Counterpoint is scaffolding, pressed ineluctably into the service of one of those lovely Bach-like muddles. Incidentally, doesn’t this piece brand Milhaud as one of the first ‘cross-over’ composers to produce music of lasting merit? Music-hall, jazz, circus, bal musette: all were grist to the Milhaudian mill; and the fact that both Le Boeuf‘ and La Creation du monde are among his most recorded works bears witness to his skill in making these transitions. Other composers who attempted them are for the most part forgotten.
There is, however, another vitally important dimension to Milhaud’s multi-tonal experiments. A remark made to Collaer is astonishingly revealing. Milhaud claimed that when he was in the country at night, ‘I would feel rays and tremors converging on me from all points in the sky and from below ground, simultaneous musics rushing towards me from all directions.’ In other words, Milhaud had a quite special vision of how nature-mysticism, nature-worship, might be articulated. He was. however, not altogether original in creating this musical language. As we know, Stravinsky (Petrushka and Le Sacre du printemps) is generally reckoned to be the father of modern bitonality and polychordality. Although we cannot dispute the influence of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale and Mavra on Milhaud’s own chamber-operas (e.g. Les Malheurs d’Orphée) and we have also mentioned Pulcinella in relation to the Suite provençale, L’Apothéose de Molière and other ‘new-old’ music, it would be quite wrong to attribute Milhaud’s innovations in the sphere of pitchless percussion to Les Noces. The latter came out in its definitive version (the earlier ones were never published) only in 1923; Les Choëphores was completed some eight years before, in 1915. Furthermore, there was another, quieter voice whose explorations into this particular area of terra incognita were no less thorough-going for receiving less than their share of réclame. This was Charles Koechlin.
Koechlin is one of the great unknowns of twentieth-century French music. His opus-tally cannot lag that far behind Milhaud’s. although, unlike Milhaud’s, very little of it has been published or even performed. Like Milhaud, he was taught by André Gédalge, from whom they both claimed to have learned everything of value relating to the technical composition of music. Both Koechlin and Milhaud idolized Debussy. Koechlin was also much attracted to Fauré, and to the music of the early Renaissance and the Middle Ages; from these he evolved non-metrical rhythms, polymodal lines and polyharmonic textures. He often dispenses with key signatures and time signatures in a further quest of that quasi-improvisational freedom which was Debussy’s ideal and Milhaud’s. And, like Milhaud, Koechlin’s technical experimentation was generally a means to an end rather than an end in itself; that ‘end’ being to penetrate Nature in her complexity and profundity.
Koechlin’s early reading of Jules Verne instilled in him a love of the night sky, ocean depths, the primeval forest, effects of light — all long-time favourite Impressionist attractions — but both Koechlin and Milhaud wanted to take these further. The very titles of Koechlin’s symphonic works are indicative enough — La Forêt Paienne (ballet). La Forêt (symphonic poem in two parts), En Mer, La Nuit, L’Automne, Soled et Danse dans la Forêt. Vers la plage lointaine, a pair of symphonic poems (Le Printemps and L’Hiver). a matching pair entitled L’Été (‘Nuit de juin’ and ‘Midi en août’). Suite legendaire (among whose movements are l’ame de Mélisande revient la nuit, dans la forêt’). Vers la voute etoilee, Sur les flots lointains — and a vast cycle of symphonic poems after Kipling, one of which (Les Bandar-Log) was the first of Koechlin’s larger works to become generally known, thanks to a recording released in the late 1960s with Antal Dorati conducting. Many of these larger orchestral scores were composed contemporaneously with Milhaud’s as the century wore on. What Milhaud came to know and be influenced by in his formative years would have been the early songs, the piano and chamber music. Milhaud was in fact the dedicatee of the consistently polytonal Sonata for viola and piano (1906-15) and gave its first performance. Moreover, Milhaud may well have derived his love and aptitude for counterpoint not only from Gédalge but also from Koechlin, a fanatical admirer of J.S. Bach. In 1947, Milhaud had to listen to the first European performance of his Second Symphony from his sickbed in Aix; but the aged Koechlin was present and wrote him an appreciative letter, particularly with regard to the fugal finale, ‘Alleluia’, which was clearly inspired by thoughts of the liberation of Paris, dating from 1944. Milhaud remained a loyal friend and supporter of Koechlin to the end of the latter’s life. This is hardly to be wondered at, since if we had to isolate one particular figure as mentor and guide for Milhaud in the years when he was still developing a musical speech of his own. it would have to be Koechlin. This has been a longish digression in his favour but, I believe, a worthwhile one; and I am sure Milhaud would have approved.
Koechlin would certainly have approved of an extraordinary work in which many of his ideas are exploited to the full, namely L’Homme et son désir. a musical poem of South American jungle and rain-forest. Milhaud and Claudel, the librettist, have left between them such a full account of the work that little needs to be added except to remark that L ‘Homme et son désir has striking affinities with Ives’s Central Park in the Dark and many works by Percy Grainger which aspire to the ideal of freedom from bar-lines and key-monopolies. This is all in the interest of emulating Nature, exploring the complexities of man’s relationship with Nature, penetrating the deeper mysteries of Nature herself, recording for all to hear at least one night in the life of our vanished Eden. The music ranges unselfconsciously from euphony to cacophony; but since cacophony is not synonymous with atonality, and since tonality is an acoustical fact of Nature, it is an acoustical fact of Milhaud’s music too, however uncompromisingly dissonant it may sound. And for those with tuned-in hearing, fresh-toned memories of Provence rarely hide from view, however thick the surrounding tangle of undergrowth.
The two books of Saudades do Brasil (for piano or orchestra) are based on the music of Ernesto Nazareth and also use bitonality in their much simpler way, more as a matter of colour and to enhance the evocative and atmospheric power of the music. The effect is, as Leonard Bernstein says, magical. L’Enfant prodigue (cantata after Gide) was an early experiment in which, as Milhaud says, I recaptured the sounds 1 had dreamed of as a child, when I closed my eyes for sleep and seemed to hear music I thought I should never be able to express.’ Another work (or rather a pair of works) in which I’m sure Milhaud consciously aspired to this ideal is the String Quartet No. 14 coupled with No. 15. In an astonishing feat of contrapuntal virtuosity, Milhaud composed them in such a way that they can be performed either individually or simultaneously as an Octet. Milhaud makes a point of describing how moved he was upon hearing these two quartets finally played together shortly after they were completed, between 1948 and 1949. This was surely because, ultimately and definitively, he was hearing ‘the sounds he had dreamed of as a child which I thought I should never be able to express.
Around the time of L’Homme et son desir, the Saudades and L’Enfant prodigue Milhaud also wrote the first of his ‘Little’ or ‘Chamber’ symphonies; the first three (‘Le Printemps’, ‘Pastorale’ and ‘Serenade’), being nature-music, naturally lead the composer to apply bitonal procedures; too late, now, to rely on Debussy. The result of these contrivances of euphonious dissonance is wholly successful. No South American ingredients are left in this mix, but Milhaud never saw any reason to eliminate them wholly from his system. The ‘Souvenir de Rio’ in Le Carnaval d’Aix is a charming cameo; the two-piano suites Scaramouche, La Libertadore, Le Bal martiniquais, Les Songes and Carnaval à la Nouvelle-Orléans are all full-scale dance-pieces with strong Latin American elements. Le Bal martiniquais dates from the time of the liberation of Paris, with Milhaud recalling the scenes of joy and triumph with which the 1918 Armistice was greeted. After Milhaud returned home he composed Paris in 1948, for not two but four pianos; that is, eight hands. Most of these suites exist in orchestral format (why do we never hear them?) yet the multiple piano medium is excitingly well-attuned to Milhaud’s idiom. Those clangourous, chunky polychords — great fistfuls of them, often — make a clearer, cleaner impact, with the occasional salutary blow to the listener’s solar plexus, than when we hear them mixed, and therefore blurred, in with the orchestra. A strong Latin-American input is, not surprisingly, also present in the great Central-American operatic trilogy of the 1930s and 1940s, Maximilien, Bolivar and, what is probably Milhaud’s outstanding masterpiece in the genre. Christophe Colomb. The American Marc Blitztein, composer of The Cradle Will Rock, told Wilfrid Mellers he considered Christophe Colomb to be one of the great operas of the century.
Milhaud described himself as a Mediterranean composer first and last. His mother was Italian, and right from the start he was a dedicated Germanophobe, at least as far as music was concerned. In later years he found more concrete reasons to be anti-German, as the note appended to the score of his Suite francaise makes clear:
The five parts of this Suite are named after French Provinces, the very ones in which the American and Allied armies fought, together with the French Underground, for the liberation of my country: Normandy, Brittany, the Île de France (of which Paris is the centre), Alsace Lorraine and Provence. I used some folk-tunes of these provinces. I wanted the young Americans to hear the popular melodies of those parts of France where their fathers and brothers fought to defeat the German invaders, who in less than seventy years have brought war, destruction, cruelty, torture and murder three times to the peaceful and democratic people of France.
Yet Milhaud conducted many an early performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and it was in Berlin, in 1930, that he scored one of the great triumphs of his career, namely the premiere of Christophe Colomb. To appreciate the motive force of Milhaud’s operas, we need to assimilate what Collaer says à propos the Provençal artist’s deep inner need ‘to be cast in the same mould of wisdom that has shaped the Mediterranean mind from time immemorial, shaped it and given it its deep religious conviction . .. the Mediterranean spirit consists of a lyric quality based on eternal truths and commonly shared by all the inhabitants of the littoral. This is the spirit of the Odyssey, of Greek tragedy, Hebrew scriptures, the Bible, Horace and Virgil.’ No wonder Milhaud’s Jewish heritage inspired many of his most powerful and beautiful works: the Poèmes juifs, the Six Chants populaires hébraiques, the Service Sacré (Sabbath Morning Service), the opera David and the cantata Le Chateau dufeu (a short but harrowing piece in which Milhaud confronts the actuality of the concentration camps). It cannot be by accident that so many of the subjects of his operas are rooted in myth and legend and explore, in his own highly original manner, the immemorial priorities of human rights and responsibilities. This was a concept that first encouraged Milhaud to experiment with polychords and non-musical sonorities in which the former are used as an enhanced means of expression in the piano and forte, that is, in the wider, richer subtleties of both sweetness and violence; and the latter are a kind of stylized recreation of how humans would have communicated with each other before speech, then in heightened speech and song, out of which the lyrical quality has evolved. It is a fascinating topic and one which I have not really the space to treat adequately here. Let us at least note, however, the seemingly inevitable way in which Milhaud’s music gradually gained pre-eminence as Claudel’s Aeschylean triptych took shape. Agamemnon, the first of the three tragedies, has very little music. Les Choëphores, on the other hand, has a fairly substantial score and has been recorded several times, in whole or in parts. Ironically, although Les Euménides, the third part of the triptych, is a through-composed no holds barred opera, no actual recording of it has been made since Louis de Vocht’s 78s of the finale, produced in the 1920s. This is no doubt on account both of its excessive difficulty and the demands it makes in terms of numbers of performers. The critic Ronald Crichton had some revealing comments to make on Les Euménides in Opera magazine:
Sometimes in the ensembles Milhaud lays on polytonality almost as a colour wash. In Les Euménides, when the crowd swarms on the Acropolis for the trail of Orestes and the goddess Athena, who has saved him with her casting vote, ordains the formation of a great procession, it is almost impossible to follow the individual lines and blocks of sound yet the accumulated reverberations are tremendous [the vocal-piano score needs six staves — i.e. 3 players — to accommodate all the notes]. At the long-delayed premiere of Les Euménides (Belgian Radio, Brussels, 1949) I was suddenly reminded of a morning a few months previously on the deck of a steamer in Piraeus harbour, when I was spellbound by the wonderful mixture of sounds from the crowd on the quay below bangs, crashes, shuntings, snatches of song, competing cries of vendors, violent disputes. There, one realized, was a real Greek chorus. At the party afterwards I rather nervously mentioned this to Milhaud. ‘That is exactly what I wanted,’ he replied, ‘I had a similar experience in the Piraeus many years ago.’
Look now at the later operas: Les Malheurs d’Orphée, Le Pauvre Matelot, the three opéras-minute (L’Enlèvement d’Europe, L ‘Abandon d’Ariane, La délivrance de Théseé), Esther de Carpentras, Médée and David. All have their backgrounds in myth or folk-tale. The theme of Christophe Colomb, Maximilien and Bolivar is, in each case, the rights of man. Milhaud treats these ideas of human justice in grandly-conceived historical tableaux whose elaboration and complexity inevitably place obstacles in the way of their being produced today. This is particularly regrettable in the case of Christophe Colomb, an opera conceived on the grandest scale. Part symbolic, part expressionist, its structure refers to Greek tragedy and its all-important chorus to the medieval mystery-play and to the Wagnerian leitmotif. Milhaud’s vision calls for a small army of executants, including 45 vocal soloists, an offstage orchestra, non-singing actors and a huge chorus: plus filmed sequences to be inserted as backdrops at strategic points. All facets of Milhaud’s polymorphous musical personality are represented in this tremendous work, whose impact registers and reverberates unforgettably even on record.
My use of the word ‘polymorphous’ just now was, I must admit, an unconscious reference on my part to Milhaud’s Protée, a work which, when I first heard it as a student, on Monteux’s old San Francisco recording, turned me into a Milhaud fan for life. It is, however, a key work in relation to Milhaud’s own personality, which changes by the minute: Christophe Colomb, for example, with all its mountainous dramaturgical paraphernalia, was written in 1928, the year following the three operas-minutes. ‘Contradictory’ and ‘paradoxical’ are other epithets which apply: their thematic relationship to ‘polymorphous’ scarcely needs much pointing out. Milhaud indeed is a mass of contradictions or paradoxes: miraculously they all gel and with no trace, except in his student years, of eclecticism. A statesman and spokesman for Provence, who is one of twentieth-century music’s great cosmopolitans; a composer whose expressive range encompasses both the tremulously tender and the volcanically violent; who can carve on a cherry-stone one minute and fill the largest, gaudiest canvas the next. And despite his renunciation of Wagner and Wagnerism, Milhaud came closer to realizing Wagner’s ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk in his mixed-media conception of Christophe Colomb than Wagner himself ever did. Whatever kind of twentieth-century music it is we like, we can probably find it in Milhaud if we look diligently enough.
Why, one wonders, has Milhaud never quite achieved the popular success of his contemporaries, Poulenc and Honegger? Of the other members of Les Six, Auric ceased to be a vital force quite early, and Durey and Tailleferre have long disappeared into the footnotes of history books. For a start, there is the sheer intimidating bulk of Milhaud’s output. He finally closed his account at Op. 443, and, apart from the faithful Collaer, it is doubtful if any living person can claim familiarity, either through study or live performance or records, of every Milhaud score. Inevitably, of course, the output is variable. In my experience, however, I have yet to encounter a work by Milhaud which doesn’t have something good in it. Mostly there are many good things. But what do we make of this immense productivity, of this ceaseless outpouring of music in all genres and for all media? Let us also not forget that there is far more to producing a work than merely producing the work. There are proofs to be read, often two or three sets; vocal or piano scores to be prepared of ballets or operas; individual parts of orchestral works to be checked. Then, of course, there is the routine of rehearsal, performance and maybe recording, and the bigger the work, the more time it consumes. Much of Milhaud’s fecundity as a composer must have been promoted by his accomplishments as a performer. He was a fine pianist who wrote piano concerti and other works for himself to play with the orchestra (for example Piano Concerto No. 2, Le Carnaval d’Aix, Ballade and Pastorale). As a violinist he premiered his Second Violin Sonata. Sonata for Two Violins and Piano, and as a member of the Soëtans Quartet, String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. He was also sufficiently well thought-of to be invited by the publisher Durand to participate in the world premiere of Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp in December 1915. He began to conduct from an early age. In later years this was the only performing activity he could undertake, and until quite late in life he made many guest appearances, albeit seated. He was also present at many recordings of his own works. Clearly, all these commitments made inroads into Milhaud’s composing time; but he once explained that, like Mozart and Malcolm Arnold, he finished every detail of a composition in his mind before putting pen to paper. This latter process was simply a mechanical process which could be carried out with the greatest dispatch; nor did he ever revise anything. There are stories of Milhaud discussing a commissioned work with the artist at dinner one night and appearing at breakfast the following morning with a completed score under his arm. These stories may or may not be true; I don’t want to give any more particulars for fear of disseminating disinformation!
As I said earlier, the girl-student who challenged Milhaud on the artistic validity of his ‘happy life’ was apparently oblivious of the wheelchair. This had been in increasing use since the 1930s, and from the 1950s onwards, Milhaud was more or less permanently confined either to it or to his bed, a victim of rheumatoid arthritis. He had suffered from poor health since childhood. Madeleine is of the opinion that an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, in which he was writing those reams and reams of music, did nothing to help. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that Darius became less and less mobile as time went on. Often the severity of a bout of ill health seemed to be directly induced by any great emotional and psychological stress, as when the Nazis were over-running Europe and hammering at the gates of la douce France itself. Milhaud knew that, as one of the most prominent representatives of Jewish culture, he would be one of the first to be arrested; the Nazi authorities would have already noted his popularity and many successes in pre-Nazi Germany (particularly with Christophe Colomb) and the fact that many of his works had been issued by Universal-Edition, an Austrian publisher. Madeleine said to her husband, “My dear, I can do many things for you, but I cannot put you on my shoulders and carry you to a place of safety.’ When they returned after the cessation of hostilities it was to find their homes looted and a Wagner score ensconced on the piano in the Boulevard de Clichy apartment. Most of the Milhauds’ possessions in the latter had been stolen by their concierge, but they managed to retrieve many of them. Worst of all for his health, however, was the time in 1947 when Milhaud finally made his way back to Aix. Then it was that the full horror of what had taken place finally hit him. He knew that from then on Aix was his Paradis Perdu, to which he could never return. Mills College and, eventually, Geneva, came ultimately to replace it.
There are several important, indeed amazing, points to be made about this life-long history of physical adversity. Firstly, in spite of everything, Milhaud always retained his serenity. Those who knew him and saw him close-to speak of fine-cut features of the greatest delicacy and refinement, countermanding the overall impression of physical bulk. Secondly, Milhaud rarely permitted his incapacity to interfere with his passion for travel — and it really was a passion, as all readers of My Happy Life will appreciate. Madeleine recalls that, even at the very end of his life, when a heart condition and the fitting of a pace-maker restricted his mobility further still, she might announce that she was going shopping, and Milhaud would say simply: ‘I will come with you.’ If he were working at the time he would bring writing implements and paper with him and continue in the car. In other words, he was determined at all times to be living a full life in every feasible particular. This brings me to my third point: it is arguable that Milhaud’s increasingly enforced immobility actually stimulated his productivity. He claimed that he inherited the discipline of regular work from his mother, and this stood him in good stead all his life; but we also know that, quite often, the deterioration of one faculty is counterbalanced by enhanced activity in another. So it seems likely that, increasingly traumatized by pain and physical infirmity, Milhaud’s creativity may have been stimulated and enhanced. It would certainly be in keeping with what we know of his personality, which was strong and determined and irradiated optimism: ‘whatever the day bringeth thee, set it down as gain.’ Had that poor student — and I’ve probably been castigating her quite unduly — learned the wisdom of that maxim from her distinguished mentor, his vie heureuse, his ‘happy life’ would surely have been hers for the asking. Milhaud’s sturdy optimism and generosity of spirit strongly echo the words spoken by the blind and paralyzed Delius to his amanuensis Eric Fenby, around 1930: ‘Not being able to see does not trouble me. I have seen the best of the earth and done everything that was worth doing. I am content. I have had a wonderful life.’
London — Blackheath, 1994