Milhaud, La Création du monde, Op. 81b

October 25, 2014

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974)

La Création du monde, Op. 81b (1923)

Darius Milhaud was a remarkably prolific 20th Century French composer who established his reputation in the 1920's along with a generation of young avant-garde composers, artists and writers in the modernist ferment of Paris. Some of Milhaud's most enduring work reflects "foreign", exotic influences he acquired during his travels: popular Brazilian dance music for Carnival and early American Jazz. He first heard Jazz in Paris and then, in New York, where Milhaud went out of his way to Harlem seeking out the nascent art in its most ideal context. Milhaud wrote that he was intoxicated by Jazz, particularly with some early female blues vocalists, where he sensed a deep, more primal aesthetic legacy from Africa. Back in Paris, Milhaud teamed up with a designer and writer on a production for the Swedish Ballet about the creation of the world based on African folklore featuring exotic deities with supernatural powers. Milhaud found it a perfect vehicle to express his Jazz affinities and the result was the successful ballet la Création du monde which debuted in 1923, the year a young Louis Armstrong made his very first recording and one year before the debut of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

Op. 81b is an arrangement of the five-movement ballet for string quartet and piano. It is a remarkable example of early Jazz impressions influencing a Classical sensibility. Rather astonishingly, it begins with a prelude and fugue. The prelude is atmospheric, tense, melancholic and mildly discordant. The fugue is bright, sassy and rhythmically jaunty with a subject featuring the classic blues notes (flattened 3rds and 7ths). The third movement Romance is a jewel: it begins with the most famous blues riff of all time (the leering dominant 7th) leading into a suave ballad recalling the slower ragtime character pieces and fully anticipating Gershwin. The Scherzo is jagged, nervous and urban, perhaps the clearest homage to what Milhaud must have heard and felt in Harlem. The finale ties it all together in a kind of epilogue joining riff-based blue notes, jazz rhythms and melancholic interludes in a welter of polyphony. Rather significantly, Milhaud can't quite end on a dominant 7th as a jazz or bluesman might: he opts for the more classical major 7th in the manner of his friend, contemporary and compatriot Erik Satie.

© Kai Christiansen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.