Forbidden Music: Composers banned by the Third Reich

June 17, 2017 by Stevie Whitmont
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Continuing a series by Stevie Whitmont of music banned by the Nazis…this month features  Darius Mihaud (1892-1974).

Darius Milhaud

Darius Milhaud was among the most prolific composers of the 20th century.  He is credited with over 400 substantive works, including fifteen operas, eighteen string quartets, thirty-four concertos, twelve symphonies, nineteen ballets and more than a dozen film scores.  His work was charming, generous and often infused with jazz rhythms from the American continents.  He also incorporated experimental uses of polytonality, well-received sounds in an era when other musical experiments were generally disliked and only partially tolerated (serialism and atonality).

He came from an established Jewish family in southern France.  Milhaud’s father descended from the ancient Comtadin sect, a branch of Judaism known for its charming religious music and poetry using a mixture of Provencal, Hebrew and Aramaic languages. This heritage flowed from a Gallic-Judaic presence in southern France from before the Common Era.  His Mother was from a Sephardic family.  Both parents were music enthusiasts, and Darius himself was an early prodigy (piano and violin).  Later he studied at the Paris Conservatoire, socializing with the leading musical figures of the time (including Debussy, Claudel, and the subsequent members of Les Six).  He lived in Brazil as a diplomatic attaché for several years (1917- 1919), where he developed a sensitivity for jazz rhythms.  This was reinforced during later trips to the USA (for lecturing and music performance). His famous jazz-influenced compositions include Le Boeuf sur le toit, Saudades de Brasil and La Creation du monde.

Between the World Wars, Milhaud worked largely in Aix-en-Provence (his grandmother’s family home) where he married his cousin Madeleine.  They had one child, Daniel, who later became a well-known artist.  The family fled France in 1940 when Paris was threatened by the imminent invasion of the Nazis.  They went first to Lisbon, then on to North America.  Milhaud secured a position at Mills College in California, where he taught composition and continued his own prolific composing.  He was a loved-mentor to his students, among whom were jazz pianist Dave Brubeck (who named his own son Darius after the composer) and Burt Bacharach.   After WW II, Milhaud alternated his teaching role between Mills College and the Paris Conservatoire.  He had suffered rheumatoid arthritis from the late 1930’s and was eventually confined to a wheelchair.  Despite a chronic and painful illness over many years, and the professional and personal disruption of WW II (including the murder of twenty of his cousins by the Nazis), Milhaud’s memoir was entitled Ma vie heureuse (My happy life, 1973).  His earlier autobiography Notes sans musique was published in 1949.  He died in France and is buried in Aix-en-Provence. 

Jewish influences were a dominant presence in Milhaud’s work.  Notable in this regard was the opera David (1954), commissioned by the State of Israel to commemorate the three thousandth anniversary of the founding of Jerusalem.  Also notable were:  Poems Juif (1916); Six chants populaires Hebraiques (1925); and Couronne de gloire (1940), a musical setting of prayers from the Comtadin liturgy.

 Suite d’Apres Corrette (1937) is a set of eight short movements written in the 18th century style of Michel Corrette (1707-1795), composer and organist at the Jesuit College in Paris.  Milhaud commented of this work, “I wrote a suite based on the themes of Corrette a petite maître of the 18th century very freely handled…”  The result is a charming trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon:   A neo-baroque collection which is both traditional and modern.  It incorporates polytonality and despite its almost simplistic presentation, makes significant demands on the oboist’s endurance.

The Suite is featured in the Forbidden Music concert presented by the WPO at the Sydney Jewish Museum (28th June) and The Woollahra Council chambers (2nd July).



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