Milhaud, Darius (1892-1974)

By Hervé Roten

Born in Marseille on September 4, 1892, Darius Milhaud was born into an old Jewish family from the Comtat Venaissin region. He defined himself as “a Frenchman from Provence of the Israelite religion” [1]Darius MILHAUD, Ma Vie heureuse [1974], Paris, Belfond, 1987, p. 9. His parents were both amateur musicians, and his mother knew the tradition of Provençal Jewish songs. From the age of seven, Milhaud was learning the violin and composing. In 1909, he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied harmony with Gustave Leroux, counterpoint with André Gédalge, composition with organist Charles-Marie Widor and orchestration with Paul Dukas. At the same time, he completed his training with composer Charles Koechlin.

Between 1916 and 1918, Milhaud spent time in Brazil as an embassy secretary to Paul Claudel. There he discovered South American folklore and exotic rhythms, which were later expressed in such of his most emblematic works as Saudades do Brazil (1920-1921) and Le bœuf sur le toit (1919). Back to Paris, he took part in the brief adventure of the “Groupe des Six” (Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, Louis Durey, Georges Auric and Darius Milhaud) created around Jean Cocteau, mainly in reaction to Impressionism and Wagnerism.

In 1923, during a stay in the United States, he discovered jazz, whose rhythms he used in the composition of his ballet La Création du monde (1923).

His output remained abundant until the outbreak of the Second World War, when he was forced to flee occupied France, accumulating two proscription lists: as a Jew and as a composer of degenerate art. In 1940, he left for the United States, where conductor Pierre Monteux helped him find a position as professor of composition at Mills College in Oakland, California. Milhaud’s students there included jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, variety composer Burt Bacharach, and the founders of American minimalism Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

In 1947, he returned to France and was offered a position as professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire. He then alternated his musical activities between Paris and the United States. His career was crowned in 1971 by an appointment to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. He died in Geneva on June 22, 1974, at the age of 81.

Author of a prolific oeuvre (443 opus numbers!), Darius Milhaud tackled every genre: opera, chamber music, symphonic music, concertos, ballets and vocal music. His musical language is marked by polytonality and polyrhythm. He drew his inspiration from jazz as well as from Brazilian, African and Provençal Jewish music.

His Jewish-inspired works are mainly vocal. These include: Poèmes juifs (1916), the opera Esther de Carpentras (1925-1927), Chants populaires hébraïques (1925), Prières journalières à l’usage des Juifs du Comtat Venaissin (1927), Liturgie comtadine (1933), Cantate nuptiale (1937), Couronne de gloire (1940), Caïn et Abel (1944), Borechou-Schema Israel (1944), Kaddish (1945), Service sacré pour le samedi matin (1947), Lekha dodi (1948), Cantate des Proverbes (1951), Le Candélabre à sept branches (1951), the oratorio David composed in 1952-1953 for the third millennium of Jerusalem in 1954, Le Dibbouk (1963), Chants hébraïques suivant le rite des Communautés Israelites de l’ancien Comtat Venaissin (1973) and finally one of his last works, the cantata Ani Maamin (1972) on a text by Elie Wiesel, which relates the horrors committed at Auschwitz. Treblinka, Maidanek… places where more than twenty of the composer’s cousins perished.

Some of Darius Milhaud’s Jewish works are inspired by liturgical themes from his native Comtat Venaissin. This is particularly true of his Etude sur des thèmes liturgiques du Comtat Venaissin, which includes the traditional aria of the Lé’ha dodi prayer noted on p. 124 of the collection Chants hébraïques suivant le rite des Communautés Israelites de l’ancien Comtat Venaissin by Jules Salomon and Mardochée Crémieu (1885).

Ex audio 1 : Etude sur des thèmes liturgiques du Comtat Venaissin (extract)

Ex audio 2 : Lé’ha dodi (extract)

The theme of the Adon olam prayer from Service sacré du samedi matin is modelled on the melodic motif of the Berushim atem circumcision song, also noted on p. 186 of Crémieu’s collection.

Sources: Ircam ; Milken Archives ; Esprits Nomades ;

The IEMJ owns several handwritten or printed scores signed by Darius Milhaud.

Consult the catalog of Darius Milhaud’s audio recordings held at the IEMJ

Read the article Le Candélabre à Sept branches by Darius Milhaud

Listen to the Darius Milhaud playlist and his works inspired by Jewish tradition

1 Darius MILHAUD, Ma Vie heureuse [1974], Paris, Belfond, 1987, p. 9


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