Nostalgia for Milhaud
August 30, 2005
Even those with no interest in classical music were aware, during summers of the ’50s and ’60s, of the presence in the wheelchair. The man’s size and immobility – the wide, aging round head with its black, slicked-back hair – suggested something of the Buddha. Through no overt gesture he radiated fulfillment, the sense of a tapped core.
Darius Milhaud’s physical gravity was hard to reconcile with his festive, best-known scores. He was a member of Les Six, French composers of the ’20s inspired more by the quirky clarity of Erik Satie than by such immediate predecessors as Debussy and Ravel. Dispensing with impressionist mist, their music evokes an urban world of street vendors, hurdy-gurdies, music halls and, in Milhaud’s case, American jazz. Milhaud’s popular ballet score for black dancers, “La Création du monde,” uses the same my-dog-has-fleas motif, with a blue note on fleas that recurs in Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” Another ballet score, “Le Boeuf sur le toit,” portrays a cow trapped on the roof of a raffish bar on Montparnasse in a series of brief, revolving romps that my neighbor refers to as The Boof on the Roof. The history of high jinks made Milhaud’s 19-summer glide through Aspen the more enigmatic.There are two versions of how Milhaud first reached Aspen, in 1951. Charles Jones, who was teaching composition in Santa Barbara with Milhaud in 1950, says the director of the music department at the Music Academy of the West wanted to move, called on Festival founder Walter Paepcke in Chicago, and sold him the Santa Barbara composition faculty “like a baseball team.” In a more genial version, Igor Stravinsky, who had visited Aspen in 1950, ran into Milhaud in Santa Barbara and said, “I just came from this beautiful place in the mountains. Why don’t you get involved in it?” Encouraged or not by Stravinsky, Milhaud found that among Aspen’s seductions was a dry climate that alleviated his arthritis, and he founded the Conference on Contemporary Music. His wife Madeleine taught French diction in 1951, and went on to teach opera production and to stage numerous operas, some from the standard repertoire, some by her husband – who had to be carried by students up the 54 steps of the Wheeler Opera House to attend productions of his own works.While the excuse for this remembrance is that Milhaud was born 100 years ago, in 1892, for me the real Milhaud summer occurred in 1962. At that time the Festival program was a one-page list of pieces rather than the square-bound glossy magazine it has become, and I have kept the program for Aug. 19, 1962, Milhaud’s 70th birthday. The Festival celebrated with music by Les Six progenitor Erik Satie, Les Six members George Auric and Arthur Honegger, Milhaud’s own “Le Boeuf sur le toit,” which the composer conducted from his wheelchair, and ended with a piece by Milhaud’s predecessor in Aspen, Igor Stravinsky. That evening the Wheeler Opera House offered a free program of Milhaud-related films, with commentary by Darius and Madeleine.
In 1962 the Milhauds stayed in Aspen a few days after the Festival, and I had the privilege of meeting them at the house of friends who allowed me to torture their Steinway a couple of hours a day. Shamefully, I tried to greet Madeleine in French. She indulged me with a few phrases, then introduced me to her husband in perfect English. My hand wasn’t met by Milhaud’s; it was surrounded by matter so boneless and vast it was like being engulfed by a decayed mushroom. Thirty years later, when the subject of unusual handshakes comes up, I feel my hand being swamped by Darius Milhaud.What music was I practicing, Milhaud asked. I indicated the “Mouvements perpetuels” on the piano, composed at age 19 by his friend and fellow member of Les Six, Francis Poulenc.”The second one is marvelous,” said Mme. Milhaud.
“How does it go?” he asked her. “I can’t remember.”She sang the insolent seven-note phrase on which the short piece is built, and which Poulenc asks you to play “indiférent.””Yes,” he murmured, “wonderful,” then segued to the subject of music as background for nonmusical activities. He hated it. Once in a dentist’s chair, facing oral surgery, he asked a nurse about to give him the anesthetic to turn off the Muzak. “But that’s supposed to soothe you, Mr. Milhaud,” she protested. “It’s not soothing me,” he exploded, “it’s driving me wild.” On the other hand, rolling once into an elevator during some Brahms, he made the operator run the car up and down, letting no one else in, until the movement was over. Inconsequential as such banter may have been, memory has kept it – partly because it was the Milhauds’, partly because it showed their closeness as a couple and their total immersion in the musical life.
Even when the Milhauds left, the Milhaud summer wasn’t over. Rummaging through practice rooms afterward the way others walk under lifts when the snow melts, I found a musical score on the floor. It was the second book of the “Saudades do Brasil” – Nostalgia for Brazil – by Darius Milhaud. Sleuthing revealed that these pieces were written in 1921, a time when some European countries gave ambassadorships rather than grants to their artists. Astonishingly, the French embassy in Brazil was run for several years by the French poet and playwright Paul Claudel, with Darius Milhaud serving in 1917 and 1918 as his secretary. Reading through the six pieces, I found them to be polytonal – unfolding in more than one key at once – by means that were more coloristic than systematic. Milhaud had taken the sambas, tangos, and habañeras of Brazilian dance music, conventions so formulaic he may well have used them as they came, and juxtaposed their elements in jarring collage. Certain sections fused dominant and tonic, superimposing chords conventionally heard in sequence. Other passages combined chords a half-step apart, for spice rather than argument. By depriving simple material of the setting that made it stirring or trite, he isolated it, held it to inspection, turned its innocence to irony. In the last measures, each of the Saudades broke by unexpected means into consonance like the simple, surprising solution to an intricate puzzle.Not all of Milhaud’s music was as playful and accessible as the Saudades, and some tent-goers had less favorable reasons for preferring the last chord. Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck honored his teacher by naming his son Darius Milhaud Brubeck. Less flatteringly, thinking of the composer’s alleged caterwauling, one Festival patron named her cat Darius Meow. A subsequent female became Madeleine. My Mexican friends, unaware they are punning in English, refer to him as Me Loud.Centenaries are occasions for the big picture, the summing up, the long view on the brilliant career. Aspenites, in their blinkered slot of a valley, have less to go on. So it is that a handshake, the names of cats, a flare-up in a dentist’s chair and a forgotten score must resolve themselves in a face that masked, with its haunting blandness, a fury of creation.
Bruce Berger’s books include “The Telling Distance,” winner of the Western States Book Award, and “Music in the Mountains,” a history of the Aspen Music Festival. This essay, written in 1992, is from the forthcoming “The Complete Half-Aspenite,” to be released at the end of the summer.