ClassicsOnline Home » MILHAUD, D.: Alissa / L'Amour Chante / Poemes Juifs (Farley, Constable)
One of Milhaud’s finest and most expressive later scores, L’Amour chante sets poems on the subject of love by various poets, making of each a ‘novel within a sigh’. In the Poèmes juifs, whose anonymous texts Milhaud read in a magazine, the vocal line threads its way through myriad keys, creating subtle effects reminiscent of Fauré or Debussy. Alissa, based on a novel by André Gide, completes this survey of the cream of Milhaud’s output for voice and piano.
Darius Milhaud (1892–1974)
Alissa • L’Amour chante • Poèmes juifs
Darius Milhaud was one of the most prolific of twentieth-century composers: when he died at the age of 81, he had reached his Op. 443. This vast body of work, written over more than sixty years, is also remarkable for its range: Milhaud wrote music in every genre and originated several more. He took his inspiration from many sources, always moulded by a distinctive style which could never be mistaken for that of any other composer.
Today it is perhaps his ballet scores which, together with several piano and two-piano pieces and a few other orchestral items, are the works that most readily come to mind when his name is mentioned, but his worklist shows areas of composition which are not often heard today. There is much chamber music (twenty works for string quartet) and many vocal compositions, especially solo songs and song-cycles. Milhaud’s Op. 1, begun in 1910, consists of two groups of settings of poems by Francis Jammes. His final songs, the cycle recorded here for the first time, L’Amour chante, Op. 409 (1964), sets texts by eight French poets. In all he wrote over 300 songs for voice and piano, singly, in sets, or song cycles,
an enormous outpouring of French mélodies which have enjoyed very distinguished interpreters. Milhaud himself was the accompanist at the first performances of many of his early songs (in this capacity he recorded around twenty of them, as well as accompanying several Satie songs on disc). In 1940, writing of Milhaud’s music, Aaron Copland spoke of its essential singing quality. Indeed, it was Milhaud’s expressive lyricism which made him such a gifted writer of songs, responding readily to the precept of his Conservatoire
master, André Gédalge: “just write eight bars that can be sung unaccompanied”. The cream of Milhaud’s songs, some of which are recorded here, show him at his best and must be counted amongst the finest by any twentieth-century composer.
The song-cycle Alissa, Op. 9, was written in 1913 and revised in 1931. In 1883, when he was thirteen, André Gide, then in love with his older cousin Madeleine, found her inconsolable after she had learned that her mother had a lover. This incident was used by Gide in his short novel La Porte étroite, written in 1909, which tells of the obsession by Alissa for her younger cousin Jérôme, an obsession which eventually causes her to lose him, the one person she desires above all: too late, she realises what she has done. In La Porte étrôite, told from Jérôme’s stand-point, this incident leads Jérôme to fall in love with the older Alissa, whose mother elopes with her lover. The cousins hear a sermon in church next Sunday based on the passage from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, “wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction…straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life.” Jérôme, on listening to the sermon, resolves to lead a pure life worthy of Alissa, to enter in at the narrow gate (La Porte étroite) at the behest of Christ and the priest, but Alissa gradually comes to believe that Jérôme’s love for her will, in fact, defile him. With her mother’s example, Alissa is also a little afraid of her own sexual feelings for him; she rejects Jérôme’s proposal of marriage, makes excuses for them not to meet, and gradually causes him to turn from her, all the while ardently desiring him. Jérôme never learns the real reasons for the withering of their love; Alissa’s selfdenial and her true feelings for Jérôme are only revealed at the end of the novel in extracts from her diaries.
This deeply moving story profoundly influenced Milhaud, who in 1913 took extracts from the novel and composed the first version of Alissa. He played the music to Gide; the author’s reaction was somewhat equivocal—“thank you for making me feel my prose was so beautiful”. This first version of Alissa lasted about an hour. Eighteen years later, having married his own cousin Madeleine, Milhaud returned to the score, substantially revising and shortening it: ‘I rewrote the music, without altering the prosody, merely making the vocal line more melodic. I only varied the harmonies to avoid certain sequences that had dated over-much and emphasized the lines of the piano part by the addition of a little more counterpoint. I was very much attached to my old style, though I had now left it far behind”.
Milhaud had left his ‘old style’ even further behind by 1964, when, half a century after composing Alissa and the Poèmes juifs, he had become a world figure whose seventieth birthday was widely celebrated in September 1962. As prolific as ever, he responded keenly to the many commissions he received at that time. Some were for large-scale compositions: his Thirteenth Symphony (as it transpired, his last), a choral work (1963) taking as its text the then-recent encyclical of Pope John XXIII Pacem in Terris; a three-act opera (1964–5) La Mère coupable (the libretto by his wife Madeleine, after Beaumarchais); and Caroles (1963), settings for chorus and instrumental groups, spatially placed in the auditorium, of French and English poems by Charles d’Orléans written during his imprisonment. Other commissions included a New York Ouverture Philharmonique for the Lincoln Center opening; and at Aspen Colorado in July 1964 Milhaud wrote his final group of songs, L’Amour chante, Op. 409, nine settings for soprano and piano commissioned by the soprano Alice Esty and given its première by her at Lincoln Center on 22 April 1965.
L’Amour chante should be considered less a cycle than a set of love songs on texts by various poets, united by their metaphysical content. The work is one of the finest of Milhaud’s later scores. Here his manner has become more elliptical, finely jewelled and subtly judged so that even a momentary inattention will cause the slightest nuance to be lost. In this regard, his art fused French Expressionism and Impressionism, the gesture, that of the ‘novel-within-a-sigh’, transmuted into a distinctively concentrated style.
L’Amour chante is unified by tiny cells, often merely seconds, sevenths and ninths, either melodically or harmonically, embryonic ideas from which the completed song (and, ultimately, the whole group) develops. Such an approach makes Milhaud’s piano-writing difficult to play, but his technique in this regard fitted his own not inconsiderable pianism admirably, not least in his ability to create the perfect atmosphere for the text, the mark both of a fine song-composer, and of an essentially Gallic composer.
Each of the eight songs of Poèmes juifs, Op. 34 (1916) was dedicated either to a living Jewish friend or relative or to the memory of one. It has been suggested that Milhaud turned to the tradition of his own race in the face of the growing horrors of World War I. His friend Léo Latil, author of his Op. 2 song texts and later settings, was killed in action in September 1915. Milhaud’s Third String Quartet, Op. 32, written in his memory and withheld for forty years, sets a text for soprano and quartet from Latil’s diary (Schoenberg’s Second Quartet, also with soprano voice, was then unknown to Milhaud). Milhaud’s next work, the Piano Sonata No. 1, has much emotional power and dissonance; the Poèmes juifs, whose anonymous words were chanced upon by the composer in a magazine, are full of fellow-feeling and pity. Technically, Milhaud’s recent evolution of polytonality is here in evidence, but quite differently used from the manner of Les Choëphores of 1915. In this cycle polytonal subtleties are gently understated, impressionistically, revealing the “more subtly sweet” character, as Milhaud claimed, of polytonal chords. But, as he also maintained, the essence of the music—the melodic line—remained, and his use of polytonality is within strict limits of diatonic harmony. Other, simpler, techniques are used: the piano part of the Poèmes juifs is essentially ostinato, mostly in the left hand with the right in another key. The vocal line, threaded between the keys, is, in Milhaud’s own words, “the essential part of the music”. Yet these settings, direct in their appeal, inhabit a uniquely fascinating sound-world similar in character to the late music of Fauré or Debussy, but remaining original inspirations unrelated to accepted inflexions of ‘traditional’ Jewish music. These are settings of ‘Jewish Poems’; they are not ‘Jewish Songs’.
These three groups of songs by the same composer but written over a period of fifty years are very different in execution: Poèmes juifs is a genuine song-cycle, unified by text and by the composer’s emergent individuality; Alissa, arguably Milhaud’s masterpiece in the genre, is more a cantata, the solo piano Prélude (as a
psychological commentary on the protagonists) coming at just the right moment in the work, raising the level of the composition’s unity. In L’Amour chante Milhaud returns to a lifelong theme of his—aspects of love—in which he was continually inspired by his deep and abiding love for his wife Madeleine, expressed with the beauty and ardour of a twentieth-century troubadour from Provence.