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.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 1992