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ClassicsOnline Home » MILHAUD, D.: Suite / Scaramouche / Violin Sonata No. 2 (Fessard, Pelassy, Reyes)
Darius Milhaud frequently composed music for stage and screen. The Suite derives from his incidental music for Jean Anouilh’s play Le Voyageur. The outer movements of Scaramouche are taken from his stage music for Charles Vildrac’s adaptation of Molière’s Le Médecin volant, with the central movement drawn from the overture for Jules Supervielle’s Bolivar. Le Printemps and the Cinéma-Fantaisie similarly rework previously composed music. In each case, Milhaud created new works whose sophistication, lively rhythms and elegance matter more than their origins. The two remaining works, the Violin Sonata No. 2 and the Sonatina for clarinet and piano, were freshly composed and show Milhaud’s remarkable ingenuity.
By Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta
Darius Milhaud (1892–1974)
Suite for clarinet, violin and piano • Scaramouche • Violin Sonata No. 2
Clarinet Sonatina • Le Printemps • Cinéma-Fantaisie d’après Le Boeuf sur le toit
During the 1930s Milhaud frequently put his talents to the service of stage and screen, and a number of the works he wrote in this period as film or incidental music are still to be heard in the concert hall today, including the Suite provençale and Scaramouche.
In 1936 he wrote the incidental music for Jean Anouilh’s play Le Voyageur sans bagages, which was staged at Paris’s Théâtre des Mathurins. From this he immediately drew, with a little reworking here and there, the Suite, Op. 157b, for clarinet, violin and piano. The first performance of this simple, relaxed work took place on 19 January 1937 as part of the Parisian concert series organised by the “La Sérénade” music society. The Ouverture’s main theme is sustained in the lower register of the piano by a typically Latin-American rhythm (3+3+2). A sudden change of character occurs when the clarinet and violin take it in turns to play, piano, a melodic variant of the theme above a completely different piano accompaniment, closer in feel to café-concert music that neither Satie nor Poulenc would have disowned. The Divertissement’s opening theme takes the form of a dialogue between violin and clarinet, the entry of the piano being the signal for a second theme on clarinet. The movement ends with a return of the original theme, now entrusted to the piano and enriched by new contrapuntal lines for the other two instruments. Jeu, in which the piano is silent, follows the symmetrical pattern ABCBA. Of its three themes, the first (A) calls to mind the Stravinsky of L’Histoire du soldat, with its wealth of double stops on the violin and its rough, folk-like character. The Final, in 6/8, preceded by an introduction in five-beat time, introduces two main elements: a theme in the style of a rather hackneyed French chanson, soon followed by writing with a bluesy atmosphere.
The outer movements of Scaramouche are taken from the incidental music Milhaud wrote in May 1937 for Le Médecin volant by Molière/Charles Vildrac and which was conceived from the start for clarinet or saxophone and piano. For the middle movement he borrowed the overture theme from his 1935–36 score for Jules Supervielle’s play Bolivar. Milhaud created three versions of this suite, the last of them in 1941 for clarinet and orchestra or piano.
The first movement, Vif, is characterized by the brevity of the initial musical figure, brought into play with mischief and humour above repetitive harmonic patterns similar to those of a children’s song, but with extra spice provided from time to time by the introduction of polytonal harmonies. A second melodic idea progresses via repetition to the upper second, while the harmony remains unchanged. A march with a motif of four repeated notes followed by dotted rhythms makes up the cellular material of the central section before a varied repeat of the opening. Marked Modéré, the second movement is also built on three principal ideas. The first, in a dotted 4/4 rhythm, alternates clarinet and piano in a slow march; these exchanges continue with the arrival of the second idea, a lyrical, almost romantic motif (a paradoxical ambience in Milhaud’s work...) over a supple, rhythmical accompaniment. The 6/8 central section is reminiscent of a barcarolle and comes in to break up the recapitulation which is varied in a most original manner. Here the first two ideas are subtly combined in simultaneity. Brazileira, the finale, is a samba movement, with an ABCDCA structure, in which the semiquaver piano accompaniment of the opening theme seems to allude to toccata style. In the final analysis, the fact that Milhaud borrowed or reworked these materials is of little importance, so virtuosic and elegant is his approach in this piece, as in Le Boeuf sur le toit, to the art of musical collage/montage.
Dedicated to André Gide, the Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano was composed in May 1917 in Rio de Janeiro. The opening movement, Pastoral (an atmosphere often found in Milhaud’s works), is in free sonata form and dominated by five main thematic elements. It demonstrates remarkable harmonic, contrapuntal and formal ingenuity. The violin is muted throughout, and the ending, with its augmentations and combinations is notable for the gradual way in which the thematic elements fade away before a return to the peaceful ambience of the beginning.
With its brevity, rapid tempo and upbeat thematic material the second movement is scherzo-like in nature. It is constructed on two themes (A on the violin, B on the piano) of unequal importance. This “scherzo”, however, lacks a real trio, this being replaced here by a short development section. The final section, marked Moins vif, combines duple and triple metres. Here, theme A is heard in augmentation on the violin, while the piano brings us a brief presentation of B, in the initial tempo, Vif.
In free ternary form, the third movement is based around two main ideas, with a concise central development section. The violin opens the finale, Très vif, with a determined and furious first theme above a spirited, polytonal piano accompaniment. After a piano cadenza, a second theme appears on the violin, in F sharp major and a dotted rhythm, above a steadily flowing semiquaver accompaniment. The brief coda simultaneously brings together the opening of the initial theme, on the violin, and the dotted rhythm of the second, on the piano.
Written during the summer of 1927 in Aix-en-Provence, the Sonatine for clarinet and piano, Op. 100, is dedicated to clarinettist Louis Cahuzac. Of the pieces included here this is without doubt the one composed in the harshest idiom. Milhaud employs a polytonality that makes abundant use of dissonant intervals such as minor ninths and augmented fourths (tritones), whether horizontally in his melodies or vertically in his harmonies. The complex theme of the opening movement freely employs various motivic ideas, dominant among which is the initial descending motif. Following a more serene passage and then a crescendo elaboration, there appears a second, very calm, contrasting idea, which in turn is followed by the development section. A brief recapitulation presents the materials in an inverted and condensed manner. The central movement is cast in ternary form; its first theme, soft and tranquil, is tender and dreamy in nature. Its middle episode, marked Un peu moins lent, is sombre and dramatic and begins in the clarinet’s lower register. The last five bars make a brief allusion to the middle section, before the final movement returns to the energetic discourse of the first. Here again, the descending motif heard at the start of the work predominates, in multiple variants.
Le Printemps (Spring), Op. 18, for violin and piano, was written in Aix-en-Provence, at Easter 1914. Milhaud had met poet Paul Claudel not long before, and had begun work on the incidental music for Protée. Le Printemps is an atmospheric work, inspired by the natural world. The fluidity of its continual “supple and moderate” motion and its lilting 5/8 rhythm combine to convey the renewal and blossoming of new life linked to the return of Spring. Despite its unusual harmonic language, offering us a glimpse of the Milhaud of the future, the work stems from an established French aesthetic, sober and ethereal. This composition was reused for the fourth movement, Nocturne, of the Suite symphonique No. 2 for large orchestra, Op. 57 (1919, from the incidental music for Protée).
Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof) was written in France, in 1919. In a letter to Adolphe Nysenholc dated 14 December 1986, Madeleine Milhaud (the composer’s widow) explained, “As Milhaud was a great admirer of the films of Charlie Chaplin, he confided in Cocteau that he wanted to send the score to Chaplin, suggesting that it might be suitable for one of his movies. But Cocteau dissuaded him from doing so and instead suggested that he himself might be able to use the score for a ballet for which he would devise the scenario…Soon afterwards Milhaud had the idea of turning the work into a concerto for violin and orchestra…I think it was then that Darius came up with the title ‘Cinéma-Fantaisie’.”
The score for violin and piano is an exact reflection of the original ballet, while for the orchestral version the composer made a number of cuts. Brazilian musicologists Aloysio de Alencar Pinto and Manoel Aranha Corrêa do Lago recently shed new light on the meticulously conceived structure of the ballet as well as drawing up a detailed inventory of the musical sources on which Milhaud had drawn for his thematic material. Almost all the composer’s borrowings have now been identified: the majority of them come from Brazilian popular music from the period 1897–1919 or from a few Brazilian composers well known in the field of so-called “serious” music, such as Alberto Nepomuceno (1864–1920) or Alexandre Levy (1864–1892).
Le Boeuf sur le toit is set out as a rondo in fourteen episodes and a coda, in which the refrain theme (the first sixteen bars of the work) is heard fifteen times. This refrain is Milhaud’s only original creation. The tonal progression obeys a carefully planned modulation structure, with the result that for the first twelve episodes, each time the refrain returns it is heard in a different one of each of the twelve major keys.
Arthur Honegger, himself a violinist, composed a cadenza for the Cinéma-Fantaisie, probably in the summer of 1920, based on four popular themes and the refrain. As for the new title of Cinéma-Fantaisie, it distances the work a little from Cocteau’s stage farce and its strong links with Brazilian popular music. Milhaud clearly wanted to take it in a new direction, to translate it from the choreographic to the cinematic, thereby following his original plan to link this music to the silver screen, establishing a symbolic connection perhaps between the solo instrument and an imaginary film character, for which Chaplin might have provided just one of a multitude of possible faces.
© 2009 Gérald Hugon
English version by Susannah Howe
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