Celebrate Milhaud’s ‘happy life’ on the 40th anniversary of his death
Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) was best known for his jaunty cabaret and jazz-tinged music, and for the neoclassical charm of the style he perfected as part of the French collective Les Six in the 1920s. But there is much more to this prolific composer’s eclectic oeuvre.
To honour his legacy on the 40th anniversary of his death, Erato has released a 10-CD boxed set devoted to Milhaud, taking its title from his autobiography, Une Vie Heureuse (A Happy Life). And he was certainly a joyous and unusual character, as reflected in his music. His teacher Saint-Saëns dismissed his music as ‘hullabaloo’, but his playful, polytonal style had plenty of admirers, particularly that of his surrealist ballet Le Boeuf sur le toit, inspired by his time spent in Brazil 1917-18 and featuring more than 30 lively Brazilian tunes.
He was one of the pioneering European composers to embrace the American jazz craze – which he first encountered in the dance halls of Harlem during a 1922 trip New York – in works like his thrilling ballet La Création du Monde. The influence of jazz came full circle when the Nazi occupation forced him to leave Paris for the United States, where he went on to teach Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach. He was also fascinated by percussion and in 1947 composed a concerto for marimba and vibraphone – one of the first works establishing the vibraphone as a solo instrument from within an orchestra.
The American Aaron Copland praised his French colleague for his ability to ‘enrich his own style by submitting to a series of widely differing influences: first Debussy, then, with his two year stay in Brazil, the popular melodies he heard there, later Stravinsky, then jazz, then Satie. Whatever he touches becomes pure Milhaud’ Copland also admired Milhaud’s ‘distinct personality’ and ‘all-pervading charm’.
Une Vie Heureuse is a milestone boxed set featuring yesterday’s legends and some of today’s classical music stars: from Leonard Bernstein, Sergiu Celibidache, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Mstislav Rostropovich to Natalie Dessay, Emmanuel Pahud, Alexandre Tharaud and Dawn Upshaw. Not to mention Milhaud himself, a formidable conductor who had given the Paris premiere of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. As enjoyable and accessible his work is, Milhaud was above all a musician's composer, whose music rewards a spirit of discovery.