Commentary Magazine

Modernism With a Smile

For decades, Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) and Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), the best-known French composers of the period between the two world wars, occupied the same pigeonhole: they both produced music that was at once unmistakably modern and irresistibly likable. Audiences around the world warmed to scores like Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le toit (1919) and Poulenc’s Les Biches (1923), finding in them a freshness and insouciance that remain engaging to this day.1

As lifelong friends and fellow members of Les Six, the group of Paris-based composers loosely associated with the poet-publicist Jean Cocteau, the two men could hardly have escaped being yoked in the public eye. And in fact, they shared a common musical lineage. Both of them had repudiated the stylistic legacy of Richard Wagner, instead seeking inspiration in the anti-Wagnerian modernism of Igor Stravinsky. Both also rejected Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system of musical composition as unhesitatingly as they had turned their backs on Wagner.

But the tendency of critics and journalists to treat Milhaud and Poulenc as birds of a feather eventually did them a disservice. It obscured their individuality—their musical styles were only superficially similar, while their temperaments were radically at variance—and made it easier for hostile commentators to write them off as a pair of amiable lightweights, long on charm but short on rigor and profundity. When Schoenberg displaced Stravinsky as the reigning prophet of modernism, the charges became graver: Milhaud and Poulenc were dismissed by progressive critics as reactionaries.

Today, with the collapse of late modernism and the breakup of the serial monopoly, Milhaud and Poulenc have begun to recapture critical favor—the first tentatively, the second decisively. In addition, the last few years have seen the publication of several important books about the two composers, including the first biography of Poulenc in which his homosexuality is discussed candidly, the first complete English-language translation of Milhaud’s delightful autobiography, My Happy Life; and a supplementary volume of reminiscences by Milhaud’s wife, Madeleine.2 It seems likely that the clearer perspective afforded by these books will strengthen the increasingly widespread belief that Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc, far from being mere purveyors of charm, are in fact fully worthy of being ranked among the key figures of musical modernism.



The disarming title of Milhaud’s autobiography goes a long way toward explaining the unwillingness of many critics to take him seriously. Though his long and productive life contained its share of hardships—among other things, he suffered from a painfully crippling arthritic condition that forced him to spend his later years in a wheelchair—he faced them serenely. As he recalls in My Happy Life:

In 1962 I was asked to talk about myself at an American college. I recalled my parents, who were so understanding, my wife, my son and his children, who have brought me nothing but joy. In short, I said that I was a happy man. At that moment I sensed general consternation—almost panic—in the hall. Some students came to talk to me after the conference: how had I been able to create in these conditions? An artist needs to suffer! I replied that I had managed to arrange things differently.

Milhaud’s inner tranquility derived from the circumstances of his birth, described succinctly in the very first sentence of his book: “I am a Frenchman from Provence, and, by religion, a Jew.” He loved the rugged hills and bright hot sunlight of Aix-en-Provence, and it requires no great leap of imagination to hear their echo in what Christopher Palmer, Milhaud’s translator, has aptly described as his “earthy, chunky, robust music.” His talents were discovered early and encouraged wisely, producing an utterly professional composer who churned out scores with staggering facility, and whose essential temperament was sweet and genial.



From 1916, when he played viola in the first performance of Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, to 1940, when he and his wife fled France just ahead of the Nazis, Milhaud was at or near the center of the modern-music movement in Europe. Largely through his associations with Erik Satie, Cocteau, and the members of Les Six, he acquired a deceptive reputation as a musical wit and enfant terrible; in fact, his music, while sometimes light in tone, was at all times serious in purpose, and his most frequent collaborator was the French religious poet Paul Claudel, with whom he composed the ballet L’Homme et son désir (1918), the opera Christophe Colomb (1928), and numerous other works.

Milhaud emigrated to the United States in 1940, spending the next three decades at Mills College, a small school in Oakland, California, and later at Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival. He soon became, with Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith, one of America’s most influential teachers of composition (among his many pupils was the pianist Samuel Lipman, COMMENTARY’s long-time music critic). Always a man of unswerving religious belief—his wife once described him as “faithful to the religion of his ancestors without ever posing the slightest question”—Milhaud explored Jewish themes in his music still more frequently after his exile from France, most notably in Service sacré (1947) and the opera David (1952), composed for the Festival of Israel.

Whatever the occasion, music poured from Milhaud in a near-constant stream, making him by a very long margin the 20th century’s most prolific composer of distinction. What saved so industrious and even-tempered a musician from the curse of blandness was his highly original harmonic language. Inspired by the example of Stravinsky in Le Sacre du printemps, Milhaud became the first composer methodically to explore polytonality, the simultaneous use of multiple key signatures. This technique, which became central to his compositional method, can be heard in the opening bars of his most famous work, the ballet score La Création du monde (1923), in which an alto saxophone plays a sinuous D-minor melody superimposed over a D-major bass line.

Though initially disorienting to untrained ears, polytonality is in fact a logical extension of functional tonality, one so natural that within a few years it would become part of the “normal” language of jazz and popular music (the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and many other West Coast jazz musicians studied with Milhaud). Milhaud chose to use polytonality not as an ornamental device but systematically. He believed it made possible the creation of harmonies that were “more subtly sweet and more violently potent” than their conventional counterparts. Indeed, in his music, seemingly unstable chordal combinations are interwoven with such subtlety and skill that they quickly acquire the solidity of traditional harmony.

Always receptive to new musical idioms, Milhaud incorporated into his scores devices gleaned from jazz and South American popular music-La Création du monde is scored for a seventeen-piece instrumental ensemble similar to the bands he heard during a visit to Harlem, while Le Boeuf sur le toit abounds with the zesty samba and tango rhythms of Brazilian dance. The only idiom to which he was wholly allergic was the richly upholstered German romanticism of Wagner. His description in My Happy Life of the first time he attended a performance of Parsifal sums up the impatient reaction of an entire generation of modernists to the oppressive specter of the master of Bayreuth:

This work, which everyone had been impatiently waiting to hear, sickened me by its pretentious vulgarity. I did not realize that what I felt was merely the reaction of a Latin mind, unable to swallow the philosophico-musical jargon and the shoddy mixture of harmony and mysticism in what was an essentially pompous art.

The operative word here is “pretentious.” Milhaud was hardly unresponsive to German music per se—he greatly admired the lyrical neoclassicism of Hindemith—nor was he averse to large-scale musico-dramatic statements. His opera Christophe Colomb, for instance, calls for a Wagnerian-scale ensemble of singers and instrumentalists, including 45 vocal soloists. What Milhaud rejected, rather, was the overblown aesthetic ends to which Wagner used his massed forces. For him, high seriousness did not imply grandiloquence.



Francis Poulenc was no less adamant an anti-Wagnerian, but his temperamental makeup, unlike that of Milhaud, contained a large dose of angst, albeit of a peculiarly French variety.

The only child of one of the founders of what later became the Rhône-Poulenc chemical corporation, Poulenc was born into upper-class comfort in the eighth arrondissement of Paris. The fundamental conflict of his life emerged early: brought up as a devout Catholic, he became as a young man a promiscuous homosexual who neither shook off the religious convictions of his childhood nor came fully to terms with his unorthodox sexual appetites.

Poulenc started playing piano at the age of five, and began composing a few years later without any formal training. He wrote his first successful work, the song cycle Le Bestiare (1919), a collection of miniature settings of the poetry of Guilliaume Apollinaire, when he was just twenty; a year later, Serge Diaghilev invited the promising young composer to prepare the score for what would become Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Biches, one of the Ballets Russes’ most enduring successes.

Early success is the first enemy of promise, and Poulenc’s natural gifts were so great that he came perilously close to turning into a dilettante, plunging into the thick of the avant-garde musical scene long before he had perfected anything like a mature technique. To be sure, many of the characteristics of his later music can be heard in Le Bestiare: the wry, nostalgic harmonies, the precise balance of humor and melancholy, the acutely sensitive response to words (most of Poulenc’s finest compositions would be for the voice). What was missing was the discipline that would allow him to create large-scale works. This he belatedly acquired from Charles Koechlin, the composer with whom he studied from 1921 to 1924.

By the mid-30’s, Poulenc was turning out seemingly without effort a stream of light-hearted, brilliantly scored works that clinched his reputation as one of France’s outstanding young composers. It was at this point that an unexpected development in his style took place: he embarked simultaneously on a long series of choral works on sacred themes and an equally lengthy series of secular song cycles, the latter inspired by the idiosyncratic but powerfully expressive singing of the French baritone Pierre Bernac. In these compositions—particularly the song cycle Tel jour, telle nuit (1937), set to the poems of Paul Eluard—Poulenc’s lyricism grew deeper and more intense, and the easy melancholy of his young years gave way to a much darker emotional tone.

Though Poulenc never lost the wit and vitality that brought him his first fame, his expressive range continued to widen, and by the 1950’s it was clear to unprejudiced observers that he had become the foremost French composer of his generation. The masterpiece of his middle years, the 1956 opera Dialogues des Carmélites, left little doubt that the impish miniaturist of the 20’s had grown into a major composer capable of expressing in music the full spectrum of human emotion.

Unfortunately, there were by 1956 few unprejudiced observers available to pass judgment on Poulenc. In Paris, Pierre Boulez had become the musical man of the hour, and his rigid adherence to Schoenberg’s serial methods cast a spell on the French cultural scene that even now remains powerful—and destructive. It goes without saying that neither Poulenc nor Milhaud had any place in Boulez’s austere world of totally organized sound.



Yet neither man seemed greatly troubled by the prospect of becoming a dead letter. As early as 1942, Poulenc had seen far into the future, writing to a friend:

I am well aware that I am not the kind of musician who makes harmonic innovations, like Igor [Stravinsky], Ravel, or Debussy, but I do think there is a place for new music that is content with using other people’s chords. Was this not the case with Mozart and with Schubert? And in any case, with time, the personality of my harmonic style will become evident. Was not Ravel long regarded as nothing more than a minor figure [petit maître] and imitator of Debussy?

The self-confidence that lurks behind this seeming modesty—particularly the tacit comparison with Mozart and Schubert—would surely have been greeted with contempt at the height of the serial revolution. But by the 80’s, when the failure of serialism to engage the sympathies of more than a handful of listeners had become clear, Poulenc was looking less and less like a petit maître and more and more like a great composer.

Today, of course, it is Schoenberg who is the dead letter and Poulenc whose music has become a beloved and indispensable part of the international concert repertory. So far Milhaud has been less fortunate, mainly because he composed too much: his huge output, particularly the works written after World War II, is uneven in quality, and there are simply too many pieces (including twelve symphonies and eighteen string quartets) for the ordinary listener to sort through. Still, there is much buried treasure waiting to be found among his 443 opus numbers, and it can only be a matter of time before imaginative performers unearth it; the systematic revaluation of Milhaud is among the most important and enjoyable tasks awaiting music critics of the next century. For now, his most popular compositions—La Création du monde, Le Boeuf sur le toit, the delectable Suite provençale and Scaramouche—continue to be played and recorded regularly.

The significance of Milhaud and Poulenc lies not only in the pleasure their music gives but in the assumptions upon which it is based. Both men believed absolutely in their ability to express themselves fully within the framework of tonality; even Milhaud’s most seemingly outrageous experiments in polytonality invariably prove on closer inspection to be rooted in the organizing power of the triad. Music, Hindemith wrote in 1937, “as long as it exists, will always take its departure from the major triad and return to it. The musician cannot escape it any more than the painter his primary colors, or the architect his three dimensions.” Neither Francis Poulenc nor Darius Milhaud ever doubted the truth of that recently unfashionable axiom, now once again seen as the firm foundation upon which the great tradition in Western music is built.



Milhaud and Poulenc on CD: A Select Discography

Surprisingly few of Darius Milhaud’s major compositions are currently available on CD in up-to-date recordings by world-class performers. The following are noteworthy:

Le Boeuf sur le toit (1919) and La Création du monde (1923) have been recorded with superlative skill and flair by Kent Nagano and the Lyon Opera Orchestra, coupled with a performance of the attractive but less interesting Harp Concerto of 1953 (Erato 2292-45820-2).

The Suite provençale (1936), First Symphony (1939), and Second Symphony (1944) can be heard in good performances by Michel Plasson and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse (DGG 435 437-2GH).

Les Choéphores (1915), the only one of Milhaud’s collaborations with Paul Claudel that continues to be performed at all regularly, has been recorded by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Sony Classical Masterworks Heritage MHK 62352).

Darius Milhaud: Enregistrements Historiques 1928-1948 (Classical Collector 150 122), a three-CD set available in larger stores that carry imports contains all the commercial recordings Milhaud made as pianist and conductor during the 78 era, including complete performances of La Création du monde, L’homme et son désir (1918), Six Chants populaires hébraïques (1925), Trois Opéras-Minute (1927), the First Piano Concerto (1933), Concertino de printemps (1934), and Scaramouche (1937). Milhaud is joined in performance on this invaluable set by several noted French singers and instrumentalists of the interwar period, including the soprano Jane Bathori, the mezzo-soprano Claire Croiza, the baritone Martial Singher, and the pianists Marguerite Long and Marcelle Meyer.



By contrast, virtually all of Francis Poulenc’s music is available in a wide assortment of first-class recordings, both historical and modern. These CD’s feature musicians who knew and worked with the composer:

The baritone Pierre Bernac, for whom most of Poulenc’s songs were written, can be heard performing the song cycles Le bestiaire (1919) and Tel jour, telle nuit (1937), accompanied by the composer, whose highly characteristic piano playing is here heard to ideal advantage (EMI CDC 54605).

A two-CD set of orchestral music conducted by Georges Prêtre includes a slapdash but marvelously vital performance of the Two-Piano Concerto (1932) featuring Poulenc and Jacques Février as soloists, together with a very good recording of Les Biches (1923) (EMI CDZB 62690).

Février, whose playing was strikingly similar in style to that of Poulenc himself, can also be heard in another two-CD set devoted to the complete chamber music, featuring the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the horn player Alan Civil, and various French woodwind players. Included are the important late sonatas for flute (1958), oboe, and clarinet (both 1962) (EMI CDZB 62736).

Robert Shaw, Poulenc’s favorite choral conductor, leads the Robert Shaw Festival Singers in the Mass in G (1938) and a representative selection of other sacred works for unaccompanied chorus (Telarc CD-80236).

Dialogues des Carmélites (1956), Poulenc’s masterpiece, can be heard in a 1958 performance by Pierre Dervaux and the Paris Opera, in which the starring role of Blanche de la Force is sung by its peerless creator, the soprano Denise Duval (EMI CDCB 49331).



1 For a list of recommended recordings of these and other works by the two composers, see the discography at the end of this article.

2 Francis Poulenc, by Benjamin Ivry (Phaidon, 240 pp., $19.95, paper); My Happy Life: An Autobiography, by Darius Milhaud (Marion Boyars, 285 pp., $27.50, paper); Conversations with Madeleine Milhaud, by Roger Nichols (Faber & Faber, 111 pp., $15.95, paper).


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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