Darius Milhaud, one of the 20th century’s most prolific composers, with an opera comprising nearly 450 works, belongs historically to the coterie of French intellectuals and composers who, loosely bonded by their initial embrace of Jean Cocteau’s antisentimental aesthetic ideas, as well as by their allegiance to composer Erik Satie’s spiritual-musical tutelage, were known as Les Six. That group also included Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey. But Milhaud belongs as well to the significant number of European Jewish émigré composers who took refuge in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s from the Fascist-inspired anti-Jewish persecution that emanated from Germany and culminated in the Holocaust.
Milhaud was born in Marseilles but grew up in Aix-en-Provence, which he regarded as his true ancestral city. His was a long-established Jewish family of the Comtat Venaissin—a secluded region of Provence—with roots traceable there at least to the 15th century. On his father’s side, Milhaud’s Jewish lineage was thus neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi (i.e., stemming neither from medieval German-Rhineland nor from pre-16th-century Spanish/Iberian Jewry), but rather, specifically Provençal—dating to Jewish settlement in that part of southern France as early as the first centuries of the Common Era. His paternal great-grandfather, Joseph Milhaud, was one of the founders of the synagogue at Aix, and he wrote exegetical works on the Torah and conducted the census of Jews who had returned to France after the Revolution.
Like its Ashkenazi and Sephardi counterparts, Provençal Jewry had a distinct musical tradition that developed over many centuries. Milhaud’s mother, however, was partly Sephardi on her father’s side. This may have lent an additional perspective to his internalized Jewish musical sensibilities. Both parents came from middle-class families who had been engaged successfully in respected business enterprises for generations, and both were musicians as well. Darius began violin studies at the age of seven and began composing even as a child. In 1909 he commenced studies at the Paris Conservatoire, where one of his teachers, Xavier Leroux, immediately recognized that his student had discovered a harmonic language of his own. His other teachers included Vincent d’Indy, Paul Dukas, and André Gedalge, whom Milhaud later credited as his greatest influence.
In his memoirs Milhaud wrote that when he first began to compose, he was already aware of the path of Impressionism, which he viewed as the end of an artistic current whose mawkishness he found unappealing. He became profoundly affected as a composer by literature, as well as by Satie’s commitment to a concept of artistic totality, exploring and including the various art forms in complementary expression. From 1917 to 1919 Milhaud held a secretarial post at the French Consular Mission in Brazil, where he developed an interest in native folk rhythms and ethnic music traditions. He later applied these influences to some of his pieces, and his first two ballet scores drew directly upon the Brazilian experience.
In the 1920s Milhaud began his association with Cocteau, whose seminal aesthetic attack on the contemporary direction of “serious” music and its high-flown “romantic bombast” made a significant impression on him. Encouraged by Satie and his own musical models, Milhaud—together with the other composers who formed Les Six—embraced aspects of this aesthetic principle, especially with regard to simplicity, directness, avoidance of excess sentimentality, sounds related to nature and everyday life, and, perhaps above all, that attribute so prized by certain French poets of a previous era: la clarité—clarity. For Milhaud, perhaps more so than for the others of his circle, Satie’s love of the music hall, the circus, and other unelevated forms of entertainment was in tune with his own adoption of popular material—French folksong, Latin American dance rhythms, Jewish secular and sacred melodies, and one of his most important discoveries: jazz.
Milhaud first encountered jazz in London in the early 1920s, and he visited Harlem dance halls when he made a concert tour of the United States in 1922–23. He was instantly engaged by the syncopated rhythms, the improvisatory freedom, the authentic character, and even the purity of the music, and he created a bit of a stir when he was quoted as saying that jazz was “the American music”—according it the same validity as classical repertoire. Thereafter he turned to jazz elements for his works on quite a few occasions. Later he was quoted as observing that jazz could only have sprung from the experience of an oppressed people. After the installation of the Nazi puppet Vichy regime in France and his escape to America as a Jewish refugee—as well as the German murder of more than twenty of his cousins—that can only have had additional significance for him. It is no accident that, notwithstanding several prewar Jewish-related works, it was in his American period and afterward that he turned even more frequently to his Jewish roots for musical sources.
In 1940, Milhaud’s one-act opera Médée (to a text by his wife, Madeleine) had just reached the stage of the Paris Opera when the German invasion resulted quickly in France’s surrender and the creation of the Vichy government. The occupation of Paris was a clear sign to Milhaud and his wife that it was time to leave with their son while they still could. The Chicago Symphony had invited him to conduct a new work it had commissioned, and that invitation enabled him to receive exit visas from the consulate in Marseilles for himself and his family. Their friend, the French-Jewish conductor Pierre Monteux, then conducting the San Francisco Symphony, organized a teaching position for Milhaud at Mills College in nearby Oakland, California, and beginning in 1951, for twenty years, he also taught every summer at the Aspen Music School and Festival. He is known to have cautioned his students—who included such subsequently celebrated musicians as Dave Brubeck, William Bolcom, Simon Sargon, and Peter Schickele—against what he called “overdevelopment” as a pretension to the profound. “It is false,” he told students, “that the profundity of a work proceeds directly from the boredom it inspires.”
Milhaud is often perceived as the champion of polytonality. Although he neither invented that harmonic technique and language nor was the first to employ it, he found ingenious ways to make use of its potential. Perhaps because he so clearly understood its possibilities, it became the harmonic vocabulary most commonly associated with his music. In the 1920s, however, Milhaud was considered a revolutionary and an enfant terrible of the music world. Yet his actual approach owed more to the French composer Charles Koechlin than to Satie, and it built upon a particular concept of polytonality derived from Stravinsky’s early ballets. Ultimately Milhaud believed not in revolution, but in the development and extension of tradition. “Every work is not more than a link in a chain,” he postulated, “and new ideas or techniques only add to a complete past, a musical culture, without which no invention has any validity.”
Milhaud’s personal Judaism as well as his family heritage informed a substantial number of his compositions, beginning with his Poèmes Juifs (1916) and followed by several prewar pieces with overt Jewish titles and content. But it was in his later Jewish works that he relied frequently and specifically on the Provençal liturgical tradition that he knew from his youth in Aix-en-Provence. His Judaically related works from the period following his immigration to America include Cain and Abel, for narrator, organ, and orchestra; Candélabre à sept branches;David, an opera written for the Israel Festival; Saul (incidental music); Trois psaumes de David; Cantate de Job; Cantate de psaumes; and—arguably his most significant Judaic work—Service Sacré, an oratorio-like full-length Sabbath morning service (with supplemental settings for Friday evening) for cantor, rabbinical speaker, large chorus, and symphony orchestra, which was commissioned in 1947 and premiered by Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco. This service was first recorded in its entirety by the Milken Archive in 2000. His final work, Ani maamin (subtitled un chant perdu et retrouvé), on a text by Elie Wiesel, received its premiere in 1973 at Carnegie Hall, conducted by Lukas Foss, with soprano Roberta Peters, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and several narrators, including Wiesel.