Darius Milhaud, 1892-1974, was born in Aix-en-Provence to a wealthy Jewish family – his father was an almond importer. Both of his parents were music enthusiasts, indeed his mother had studied voice before her marriage. Darius showed an early talent for the piano, playing well even at the age of four, and he also began violin lessons before he was ten. During his youth he performed with a local string quartet, and knew from a young age that he would like to pursue a musical career path.
In 1909 Milhaud travelled to Paris to study at the Conservatoire, where his teachers included Paul Dukas and Vincent d’Indy. His studies coincided with the rise of Impressionism in music (the music of Debussy, for example), German Romanticism (think Wagner and Richard Strauss), as well as with the popularity of the Big Five Russian composers – Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev and Cui.
Milhaud rallied against all of these trends, however, and his music is a strong reflection of this rejection. In his own words, his aversion was to what he referred to as, ‘shimmering finery, vapours and wistfulness’. Milhaud wasn’t the only French composer to feel this way at the time; indeed, he was grouped artificially by a French journalist (Henri Collet) into a group of likeminded composers, referred to as Les Six. The others in this group were Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, and Germaine Tailleferre.
During the war, Milhaud was exempted on medical grounds and so he worked for the propaganda department of the foreign ministry. His friend, the French Catholic poet Paul Claudel, was appointed minister to Brazil and in 1917 asked Milhaud to accompany his as his secretary. Milhaud was deeply affected by the music he heard on his journey and some of his subsequent compositions reflect this, for example his 1920 work, Saudades do Brasil (Longings for Brazil).
In 1922 Milhaud visited the United States of America, and again his travels deeply influenced his subsequent works. This time, in addition to the heady Latin influences of South America, the jazz sound of Harlem was added to the melting pot. The blend of sounds can all clearly be heard in the ballet La Creation du Monde of 1923, Opus 81, a setting of Blaise Cendrars’s scenario. The piece was first performed on 25 October of 1923 by the Ballets Suédois at the Théâtre des Champs Élysée and is around 16 minutes long.
It was Cendrars’s proposal to use African creation myths as the subject of the ballet; the scenario is taken from his The African Saga, which was written in 1919 and is a collection of tales recalled by missionaries and other travellers to Africa. French society’s tastes at the time were for jazz, but with an additional fascination with African sounds and culture thrown in for good measure and so the work tapped into this enthusiasm perfectly.
The music is heady and exotic and it blends American jazz with the more rigid compositional form of the western classical style in a way that had never been heard before. Importantly, the jazz harmonies and rhythms are not included simply for the sake of being novel and daring: they are used purposefully, artistically and ultimately, effectively. The ballet is split into six parts:
- Chaos before creation;
- The birth of plants, trees and beasts;
- The birth of man and woman;
- The desire of man and woman;
The overture mixes minor and major modes and utilises the saxophone for its main theme, playing over the rhythmic pulse of strings and piano. A fugue led by double bass and accompanied by percussion and piano forms the beginning of the first movement, which leads into a bluesy reverie for oboe. Man and woman are created to the backdrop of an energetic and rhythmic dance to which the blues theme is joined. Representing the desire, a Latin American inspired dance is combined with the theme of the overture, together with a recalling of the fugue. Finally, calm is created with a coda which includes fluttertongue flutes, clarinets and trumpets playing over quietly pounding timpani; the saxophone has the last say, however, softly playing over the strings once more.