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Hyperion Records

CDA66594 - Milhaud: Le Carnaval d'Aix & other works

Recording details: January 1992
Blackheath Concert Halls, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Christopher Palmer
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: November 1992
DISCID: 6812152D
Total duration: 76 minutes 14 seconds


'Captivating' (Gramophone)

'What delightful music this is' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'C'est un genre 'lollipops' que Ronald Corp nous confectionné avec un heureux tour de main' (Répertoire, France)

Le Carnaval d'Aix & other works
Polly  [1'50]
Peachum  [1'05]
Mrs Peachum  [0'47]
Filch  [0'32]
Danse de Filch  [0'33]
Mazurka  [1'06]
Lucy  [1'52]
Masques  [0'49]
Chelsea  [1'08]
Gigue  [0'29]
Romance  [0'54]
Rosy  [1'14]
Cabaret  [0'22]
Deuxième gigue  [0'27]
Valse  [0'45]
Petite marche  [1'01]
Final  [1'40]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Although Darius Milhaud is regarded today solely as a composer, it should be remembered that before the onset of the crippling disease which eventually confined him to a wheelchair for the final thirty or so years of his life he was a performing musician of no mean repute. Milhaud always deprecated his pianistic technique, but he was a fine pianist. He premiered his own Piano Concerto No 2 (with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and several other of his works for piano and orchestra – including Le carnaval d’Aix with the New York Philharmonic – and his recording with Marcelle Meyer of Scaramouche has never been equalled, let alone surpassed. He was also a splendid violinist. In this capacity he premiered his Violin Sonata No 2 and Sonata for two violins and piano, as well as his first two string quartets as a member of the Soëtans Quartet. Milhaud was also a noted viola player: he was invited by the publisher Durand to participate in the premiere of Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp in December 1915.

As a conductor, Milhaud introduced Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire to London, Paris and Brussels, and in Vienna took part in a concert where in the first half Schoenberg himself conducted the work, and in the second half Milhaud conducted the same piece. Milhaud was appointed an Associate Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1922 season, when he gave Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony and music by C P E Bach, along with French music, especially the modern music which was his forte. After the onset of illness, conducting was the only performing activity he could undertake, and he made many recordings of his own works.

Milhaud’s skill and his practical knowledge as a performing musician can be discerned throughout his life’s work. At the time of his death in 1974 at the age of 81, Milhaud had composed almost 450 works. He would have been the first to agree that his output was uneven, and even if his music is rarely easy technically, at all times the performer is aware that the composer has a sympathetic understanding of the instrument. He was such a good composer that even in those works where his creativity burns less fiercely, there is always some superbly imagined piece of invention, of fantasy and imagination, that redeems it. One reason for Milhaud’s productivity is that, like Mozart, he could write music under any circumstances, being quite impervious to outside noise or distractions. Such a background view of this artist, and – if I may add a personal note – wholly admirable teacher and human being, throws into relief his enormous body of work.

From an early age – and later, despite his infirmity – Milhaud was a keen traveller, absorbing en route impressions and influences from his varied experiences: a later orchestral suite of his is Globetrotter. In 1917 he set foot in Rio de Janeiro, sent by the French Government as secretary to his friend and collaborator Paul Claudel who had just been appointed French Ambassador to Brazil. It was a remarkable time for Milhaud which he later celebrated in a variety of works from the mould-breaking 1918 L’homme et son désir, a ballet chanté to a scenario by Claudel (who termed it a ‘little plastic drama’) set in a primitive Brazilian forest, to the popular Saudades do Brasil of 1920. Upon Milhaud’s return to Paris in 1919 (via the West Indies and New York: more fresh influences) a concert series led Henri Collet to dub several young composers ‘Les Six’ – an appellation which has stuck to this day, not always to the composers’ advantage.

From Paris, where he witnessed an unforgettable victory parade on 14 July, Milhaud visited his home town of Aix-en-Provence where, no doubt, the vivid colours of a Mediterranean summer reminded him of Brazil, memories of which still haunted him. L’homme et son désir is concerned with the savage state of nature; fun-loving aspects of popular Brazilian life influenced Le bœuf sur le toit, completed in Paris upon his return from Aix.

In spite of the surface crudity of the work’s deliberate music-hall atmosphere, the organization of Le bœuf sur le toit is unusually subtle – so much so that those carried away, or put off, by the surface bonhomie remain ignorant of the clever artifice of its construction. Using the title of a Brazilian hit of the day, The ox on the roof, Milhaud said he ‘assembled a few popular melodies, tangoes, maxixes, sambas, and even a Portuguese fado, and transcribed them with a rondo-like theme recurring between each successive pair’.

The work is an extraordinary amalgam of material – and not purely musical. As written, Le bœuf sur le toit had no story, and Milhaud at first thought it might be suitable as the accompaniment to a Charlie Chaplin film (hence the original subtitle), an idea which was never tried in practice. Milhaud mentioned it to Jean Cocteau who suggested a theatrical spectacle instead, in effect a ballet, which he would produce. Within a few days Cocteau had funded the show by pre-selling seats to the leaders of Parisian society; he then drafted a scenario to complement Milhaud’s music.

The news of the day was full of the imminent enactment in the United States on 17 January 1920 of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution – nationwide Prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcohol. Le bœuf sur le toit was to open at the Comédie des Champs-Elysées on 21 February 1920, so Cocteau set the ballet in a Manhattan bar (a ‘Nothing-Doing Bar’ as they were soon called, an early title of the score in English), full of trendy characters at a loss owing to Prohibition: a transvestite woman, a negro dwarf, a boxer, a punter, a bookmaker and so on. At first they are seen drinking illegally, but a policeman’s arrival turns the place into a milk bar. To enliven the proceedings the barman turns on a big electric fan which decapitates the policeman whose head is used by a prostitute for a skit on Salome’s dance. The characters leave one by one until the barman presents the policeman – now revived, as if from a dream – with the bill for everyone’s drinks. Unusually, Cocteau’s choreographic gestures were deliberately slow, contradicting the fast pace of much of the music.

The conductor was the brilliant young Frenchman Vladimir Golschmann, and the result was a succès de scandale, not least for the designs by Raoul Dufy and Fauconnet and for the casting of the famous Fratellini clowns. Milhaud made several versions of the music – for violin and orchestra, for violin and piano (to which Honegger contributed the cadenza) – and the ‘Tango des Fratellini’ was published separately in various forms. Indeed, so notorious was Le bœuf sur le toit that a Parisian night-club, opened soon after, took the title as its name. Milhaud was given life membership.

But the music came before all of this and is heard today usually as a concert piece. The remarkable structure is a rondeau-avec-reprises, a stylization of Rameau and Couperin. The reprise is the Brazilian-like opening rondo idea, an original tune by Milhaud (not, as is often stated, an existing popular theme) which recurs no fewer than twelve times, against which a succession of other tunes in popular style pass by. The rondo theme is polytonal in inflexion, and each dance tune in turn rises a minor third from its predecessor, in groups of four, after which another idea modulates the music down a whole tone to begin the sequence over again in a new key. Thus, the minor thirds rise: C–Eb–Gb–A, then the transitional theme modulates to G, from whence the minor thirds rise again in rigid sequence: G–Bb–Db–E. Again, the transitional theme modulates downwards to D, from whence the music rises again in minor thirds D–F–Ab–B. The transitional theme modulates again, from B to A, and a fourth sequence begins, rising in minor thirds from A to C. But as C was the starting point, so the work has progressed through all twelve keys, and a short coda brings this breezy score to its close.

The impact of Le bœuf sur le toit led Cocteau to arrange for a British production. The London Coliseum was booked for two weeks and Milhaud came to rehearse the orchestra and to conduct the first night. During this visit he encountered live jazz music for the first time at the Hammersmith Palais, and after a thorough study of the idiom, both live and on records, he determined to utilize aspects of this new music in some of his own works.

In the years immediately following World War I Paris was the cultural Mecca for aspiring artists the world over. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution led many Russian musicians to settle there, even if temporarily, and in May 1920, three months after the premiere of Le bœuf sur le toit, Stravinsky’s new ballet chanté, Pulcinella, was first given at the Paris Opéra. For many, it marked the beginning of Stravinsky’s neo-Classical style and was also considered unique by combining solo voices in ballet music. Milhaud’s L’homme et son désir, as we have seen, predated Pulcinella’s use of voices by some years, but Milhaud’s earlier score was not staged until June 1921, a year after Pulcinella was first given, and six months before the death in Algiers of the venerable Camille Saint-Saëns. Amongst Saint-Saëns’ papers was the unperformed and unpublished score of a delightful work which, from its first performance in Paris in February 1922, became one of his best-loved pieces, Le carnaval des animaux for two pianos and small orchestra.

By the beginning of 1924 Milhaud’s reputation had been reinforced by his very popular Saudades do Brasil, and the sensational La création du monde. Vladimir Golschmann was again the conductor of the premiere (in October 1923) of the latter work, the first successfully to fuse jazz integrally within a ‘classical’ score (predating Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue by six months) and a seminal masterpiece of twentieth-century music.

Milhaud was now in demand. His facility was shown at its height in February 1924 when, following the success of La création du monde, he began Salade, a ballet chanté in two acts for Massine’s new company (established after his break with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes), sponsored by the Comte de Beaumont. Milhaud had just returned from a trip to Sardinia during which he had written down some local folk material. The scenario of Salade, by Albert Flament from an episode (Insalata) in the Commedia dell’arte, lent itself ideally to the use of this material as well as to that of some old Italian music which Massine had shown Milhaud, perhaps with an eye to the successful way Stravinsky had used material by Pergolesi in Pulcinella. Milhaud began Salade on 5 February. A week later Diaghilev came to see him, obviously aware of what was planned, to discuss a new ballet for the debut of his young English star, Anton Dolin. Failing to get Milhaud to renege on his agreement with Massine and the Comte and realizing there was no other composer who could complete the score on time, Diaghilev commissioned Le train bleu from him, the composition of which coincided with that of Salade. In the event, Salade was written in fifteen days and Le train bleu in twenty. The rival productions opened in May 1924. Both were notable successes.

During his first engagements in America in 1922, Milhaud had given the premiere of his Ballade for piano and orchestra with Dirk Foch conducting the New York City Symphony. The tour had been largely arranged by Robert Schmitz, the French pianist and conductor who emigrated to the USA during World War I and founded the Pro Musica Society. In May 1914, Schmitz had given the premiere of Milhaud’s First Symphonic Suite, Op 12, in Paris. Schmitz set up a second US tour for Milhaud in 1926, and Milhaud’s fame was such that Willem Mengelberg and the New York Philharmonic as well as Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony both wanted him to appear. A new work was needed for the composer as soloist, so Milhaud took twelve of the seventeen items of Salade, revising them along the lines of Saint-Saëns’ by now well-known composition, as Le carnaval d’Aix, the fourth of Milhaud’s eleven works for piano and orchestra. The first New York performances in December 1926 under Mengelberg were followed by others in Boston under Koussevitsky.

In Le carnaval d’Aix Milhaud did not invariably follow the sequence of the original ballet and he added a solo cadenza to the berceuse-like depiction of the character of Rosetta. There is an element of affectionate parody in some of the movements, ‘Tartaglia’ and ‘Le capitaine Cartuccia’ especially, and the ‘Souvenir de Rio’ almost pokes fun at his own Saudades in a tango and maxice. The good humour of this concertante piece has ensured its place as the most endearing of Milhaud’s compositions in the genre.

In the years 1935 to 1937 much of Milhaud’s work was written for the theatre, including three Shakespeare scores within twelve months. These were Julius Caesar (December 1936), Romeo and Juliet (April 1937) and Macbeth (November 1937, for the Old Vic in London). Romeo and Juliet was given in Paris by the Théâtre du Mathurins on 7 June 1937 in a translation by Jouve and Pitoëff as part of a British season to mark both the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the previous month and the International Paris Exhibition. Milhaud wrote several works to celebrate the Exhibition and spent the rest of the summer largely in Provence preparing, among other things, to celebrate his parents’ golden wedding by conducting a concert on Radio Marseille which included the premiere of his Cantate nuptiale, dedicated to his parents who heard the broadcast at home in Aix – a secret kept from them until transmission. Two weeks later Milhaud was in Venice to conduct the premiere of his Suite provençale, and on returning to Provence immediately continued work on an adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera for Radio Marseille, done into French by Henri Fluchère.

As was Milhaud’s custom, no sooner had he completed his arrangements of Gay’s ballad-opera than he utilized several of the tunes in a concert work for small orchestra (single wind, timpani, harp, percussion and strings), calling it Le carnaval de Londres and completing it by the end of September. Milhaud conducted the broadcast premiere of his version of The Beggar’s Opera on Radio Marseille; Manuel Rosenthal conducted the first performance of Le carnaval de Londres in 1939 at a Revue Musicale concert. As with Le carnaval d’Aix, it is not necessary to know the story of the seminal work to appreciate the skill and charm, the beauty and allure of this enchanting work, whose joie de vivre is so typical of this composer at his most light-hearted. His settings of the old themes, and folk material – notably Lillibulero – are accomplished with considerable affection and artistry.

After the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, it was clearly only a matter of time before capitulation would follow. Milhaud, with his wife and young son, had managed to escape to the USA by July of that year. He spent the war years in exile travelling, teaching and performing in America, and composing sixty-four ‘Opus Americanum’ works between 1940 and 1947.

The Milhauds left America in August 1947 and arrived in France the following month. They spent almost a year in Europe, during which time Milhaud composed his tenth ballet, ’Adame Miroir, and his most personal response to his return home, the suite for four pianos, Paris (not premiered until 1962). However, in July 1948 Milhaud was back in the USA to participate at that year’s Tanglewood Festival. There he composed L’apothéose de Molière for small orchestra with harpsichord, a suite in five movements on themes by Baptiste Anet, along the lines of Richard Strauss’s Dance Suite after Couperin. The first year following Milhaud’s return to Europe set the pattern for his life for some time to come: several months of teaching, composition and performances, based in California (where, at Mills College, he had taught throughout the war), followed by a similar period in France. Consequently, Milhaud found himself writing music in one continent for performance in another. This was the case with L’apothéose de Molière, commissioned by Italian Radio for a chamber ensemble of the RAI Orchestra who were to participate in the 1948 Capri Festival under their then chief conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, who gave the first performance on 15 September that year.

Baptiste Anet (c1676–1755) was a noted French violinist and composer, a pupil of Corelli and, like his father Jean-Baptiste, a member of the ‘24 Violons du Roi’ (the ‘king’ being Louis XIV). He published three sets of sonatas for violin and continuo in 1729, among other works, and in 1935 Milhaud had made a ‘free transcription’ of the tenth of these sonatas, for violin and piano, which he catalogued as his Op 144. The violinist Yvonne Astruc, the soloist in the premiere of Milhaud’s Concertino de printemps in March 1935, gave the first performance of the ‘transcription’ of the Anet sonata the following November with Milhaud accompanying.

The resultant L’apothéose de Molière is a captivating work of the greatest refinement and elegance, an essence of Gallic charm expressed through the coming-together of four great French artists – Lully (court composer to Louis XIV), Anet, Molière and Milhaud. Such expression is achieved through but one aspect, exemplified by all four works on this album, of Darius Milhaud’s multi-faceted creative genius.

Robert Matthew-Walker © 1992

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