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Biographical Information:


Born:  September 4, 1892,  Aix-en-Provence, France.

Died:  June 22, 1974, Geneva.


Came from a well-to-do Jewish family.


Began studying violin and composing around age seven.


Entered Paris Conservatoire to study violin, but changed to composition.  While attending, he studied with Leroux, Dukas, Gedalge, and Widor.


Heavily influenced by writers and painters such as Claudel and Jammes.


Extensive traveler all his life, even after his arthritis confined him to a wheelchair.


Les Six


In 1940 with the fall of France, traveled to America.  Became professor of composition at Mills College in Oakland, California.  His best work is classified as having been composed before this time.


In 1947 he returned to France and became a professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire.


Continued composing until after his seventieth birthday. 




Over 400 works:  14 concerti, 18 string quartets, 8 operas, 10 ballets, 7 cantatas, 14 sonatas, 8 symphonies, etc.


Polytonal music.


Emphasis placed on recreating Brazilian and jazz related rhythms.


“Milhaud detested Wagner’s music.  When a young man wrote to him about Wagner’s theories that all art ‘springs from suffering, unhappiness, and frustration,’  Milhaud wrote:  ‘I am glad you decided to write me about your problem [with Wagner’s theories]; here is my point of view, if you want it.  I had a marvelously happy childhood.  My wife is my companion, my collaborator; we are the best of friends, and this gives me great happiness.  My son is a painter who works incessantly, and he is sweet and loving to his parents.  Thus I can say that I’ve had a happy life, and if I compose, it’s because I am in love with music and I wouldn’t know how to do anything else…Your Wagner quote proves to me once again that he was an idiot.’”



La Creation du Monde


Composed:  1923.

Premiere:  Paris, October 25, 1923.  Using the title, Black Ritual, a Paris ballet theatre performed it using all Negro dancers with the choreography by Agnes de Mille in 1939.

Duration:  15’

Structure:  Ballet in one act. 

Instrumentation:  2 flutes, 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 1 bassoon, 1 horn, 2 trumpets, 1 trombone, 2 violins, 1 cello, 1 bass, 1 saxophone, piano, and percussion.

Percussion Instrumentation:

Background:  In 1920, Milhaud went to a Paris nightclub and heard Bill Arnold play, thus being his first introduction to jazz.  He then traveled the United States where he spent every night going to Harlem jazz clubs listening to New Orleans jazz groups.  When he returned to France, Milhaud brought several recordings back with him, which he insistently played.  He was commissioned to write an African/Negro ballet.  Because he was so moved by this type of  music that he felt displayed the sufferings of an entire race, he felt it would be the best genre to represent the oppression of them.  He based the story on a traditional African tale.

Critic impressions:  critics said it was better suited for a dance hall than the concert hall, but 10 years later after acceptance of jazz, it was hailed as his best work.

Points of Interest:

Bass drum and cymbal are to be played in unison by one foot pedal.

Pitched for 2 piccolo timpani (under 20 inches) in treble clef.  The highest not being an F (first space in treble clef).

Possible solutions:

Notation:  The timpani part is noted as is done in The Rite of Spring, single notes on different staves and tied together.

Improvisation:  Because Milhaud only had sound recordings to bass his composition on and not actual sheet music, he didn’t understand how the jazz player worked or improvised.  He believed that every solo a person played was actually written out note for note on the page because the solos were too complicated to come up with on the spot.

The drum set part is written out like a multi-percussion solo.

Was one of the first pieces to introduce the rim shot.



Les Choephores  (subtitled  The Libation Bearers:  Harmonic Variations)


Premiere:  Score partially performed:  June 15, 1919

Complete Concert version:  Paris, March 8, 1927

            Staged version:  Brussels, March 27, 1935

Duration:  12’

Structure:  Opera in seven sections

  1. Vociferation Funebre
  2. Libation
  3. Incantation
  4. Presages
  5. Exhortation
  6. La Justice et la Lumiere
  7. Conclusion

Instrumentation:  full orchestra,  2 solo female singers, 1 solo males singer, female narrator, and 17 percussionists.

Percussion Instruments: 

Background:  Second opera in a three opera series.  Libretto was written by Claudel. 

Crowd Response:  So well received at premiere that the second movement had to be performed again.

Points of Interest:  Milhaud detested spoken word of music, but he enjoyed the power and contrast of spoken dialogue.  In the two movements “Presages” and “Exhortations” he has a female narrator speaking with the rhythmic background of unpitched percussion instruments as her only accompaniment.



Concerto pour Batterie et Petit Orchestre


Composed:  1929-1930.

One of earliest multi-percussion concertos.

Duration:  7’

Instrumentation:  for a small chamber type ensemble

Percussion Instrumentation:

Tabor was a favorite instrument of Milhaud.

Gives detailed diagram and instructions as to the set up just as Stravinsky and Bartok did.

Suggests each type of stick to be used, even double-headed ones.



Concerto for Marimba, Vibraphone, and Orchestra


Composed:  1947

Premiere:  Jack Connor with St. Louis Orchestra, conductor Golschmann

Duration:  18’

Instrumentation:  full orchestra, marimba and vibraphone

Structure:  three movements

  1. Anime
  2. Lent
  3. Vif

Difficulty lies in the fact that there is little or no time to switch between instruments or mallets.

Sometimes notated to strike bars with fingers or entire hand.

The Vibraphone was not traditionally used in the orchestral setting, but Milhaud has a fondness and fascination with the instrument because of his preoccupation with jazz music.

Fearful of the piece not being performed too much, it was rewritten in 1952 as Suite concertante pour piano et orchestre








Blades, James.  Percussion Instruments and their History.  Faber and Faber. London.  1984.  Pgs. 374-6, 388, 395-7, 408, 410, 416-7, 421.


Ewen, David.  The World of Twentieth-Century Music.  Prentice-Hall, Inc.  1968.  Pgs. 507-522.


Holland, James.  Percussion.  MacDonald and James.  London.  1978.  Pgs. 17, 177.


Mawer, Deborah.  Darius Milhaud:  Modality & Structure in Music of the 1920s.  Ashgate Publishing Ltd.  Aldershot, England.  1997.


Milhaud, Darius.  My Happy Life.  Marion Boyars.  London.  1987.


Nichols, Roger.  Conversations with Madeleine Milhaud.  Faber and Faber.  London.  1996.


Peters, Gordon.  The Drummer:  Man.  Kemper-Peters Publications.  Wilmette, Illinois.  1975.  Pgs. 64, 252.


Sadie, Stanley.  The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.  Vol. 12.  Macmillan Publishers Limited.  London.  1980.  Pgs. 305-310.




Web Sites:







Kuisma, Rainer.  Virtuoso Percussion Music.  BIS.  1993.


Milhaud:  Le Boeuf Sur le Toit.  Orchestre de L’Opera de Lyon.  Kent Nagano.  MusiFrance.  1992.


Milhaud:  Les Choephores.  New York Philharmonic.  Leonard Bernstein.  Columbia Masterworks.  1973.  (record)