Darius Milhaud on the Roof

Darius MilhaudOn this day in 1892, the great French composer Darius Milhaud was born. He was a member of Les Six — the six French composers of the early 20th century that I have such a love of. And of them, Milhaud is probably the most charming. He integrated traditional melodies into his work. And although most jokes that composers put into their works are subtle, Milhaud is kind of like the Charlie Chaplin of composers.

In addition to everything else, Milhaud composed at a furious pace. I’ve only heard a small faction of his work. But I quite enjoy it all. His speed was not an indication of a lack of quality. You will see this if you bother to listen to the music I’ve embedded below. I really encourage you to do so. Unlike most modern composers, his work is lyrical and fun.

He was also a major music teacher during the last century. In 1940, he and his family were forced to flee France because he was nominally Jewish. He ended up at Mills College, which is just down the road from me. Leave it to a French man to end up at a woman’s college! But the school did accept men in its graduate program, which is where he taught such luminaries as Dave Brubeck, Philip Glass, and Burt Bacharach. Apparently, Milhaud once told Bacharach, “Don’t be afraid of writing something people can remember and whistle. Don’t ever feel discomfited by a melody.”

And speaking of melodies, here is Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit (“The Bull on the Roof”), which is based upon music he heard in Brazil while working there. It has very lively counterpoint with polytonal harmonies that often come crashing together for great effect.

I can’t find a live performance of it, but if you want to hear something really charming, check out his Suite per Violino, Clarinetto e Pianoforte. He wrote it in 1939. Imagine: the Nazis would have killed the man who wrote this. In addition to just being evil they had no sense of beauty and the joy that it creates.

In 1922, Milhaud first visited the United States and got to hear his first “real jazz” in New York. This led to his composition, La Création du Monde (“The Creation of the World”). It is a wonderful piece, but all things considered, not one of my favorites. But it is an important piece. If you are only going to listen to one piece, I’d pick one of the two above.

Happy birthday Darius Milhaud!

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