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DARIUS MILHAUD (1892-1974)

La création du monde, Op. 81 (1923)


1er tableau: The Chaos Before Creation

2er tableau: The Slowly Lifting Darkness

3er tableau: Man and Woman Created

4er tableau: The Desire of Man and Woman

5er tableau: Coda - The Man and Woman Kiss

Darius Milhaud was born on September 4, 1892 in Marseille, France and died on June 22, 1974 in Geneva, Switzerland. La création du monde was first performed on October 25, 1923 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The work is scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, oboe, 2 clarinets, alto saxophone, bassoon, horn, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, various percussion, piano, 2 violins, violoncello, and double bass.

With an opus list ending well in the 400s, Darius Milhaud carries the honor of one of the most prolific avant-garde composers belonging to Les Six. With Milhaud, Les Six included George Auric (1899-1983), Louis Durey (1888-1979), Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), and Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983). Together, their collective aesthetic embraced popular styles of music and subjects about faraway places.


The genesis of La création du monde does not begin with a galactic physical theory or by gospels of divine manifestation but with jazz. In 1920, the composer heard a jazz band in London, and Leonard Bernstein would remark it was the beginning of "a true love affair." So, as the story goes, in 1922, Milhaud embarked to the United States, soaking up American jazz in the New York music scenes on the streets, bars, and clubs. 


Returning to Paris, Milhaud channeled the inspiration into a new perspective, a jazz idiom. Like Stravinsky and rag-time, Milhaud would strive to fuse jazz with his aesthetic vocabulary. The zeitgeist of this style would find substantial formation in a newly commissioned one-act 16-minute ballet for the Swedish dance company Ballets Suédois in Paris. Jazz legend Dave Brubeck, a former student of Milhaud, gives a stunning endorsement, [Milhaud] "was one of the few great accepted classical composers that absolutely liked and accepted jazz. And he was the first one to use the jazz idiom… It's still the best piece that's ever combined classical and jazz. It's just great."


Using a libretto by Blaise Cendrars, the ballet outlines the world's creation through African mythology in an overture and five scenes; all performed without pause. The first begins in darkness, with shadowy bodies, the chaos before the creation. Then, three giant deities, Nazme, Medere, and N'kva, dance around them and cast magic spells. 


Marked modéré, the work opens in a prelude of a grey shadow world. The music delivers in medias res, such that there was always matter, and to open the curtain is to begin evolving. The sounds of this world, while primordial, could stand-in for a dark New York or Parisian street scene. Simultaneously winding down and awakening into nightlife, the trance-like groove may loosely remind of Brubeck's Take Five. The alto saxophone, a lone soul of sustained melancholic notes, wanders disconnectedly above a continuous stream of other souls, quarter notes in the piano and strings. A pair of trumpets appear with swing-like interjections, and this begins the appearance of divine entities (the deities), who excites and shifts the subdued mass into vibrant and active forms; the trombone sneers with glissando, and the snare drum rolls with dance riffs. Winds imitate trumpets and the whole ensemble blossoms into a fleeting festive cacophony of sorts. The music slumbers to its beginnings by the overture's end, but something has changed; the musical lines are more connected, mirroring each other in cascading scales, intelligence. Concluding quietly, the final cadence understates its sonic sorcery, an atomic revelation of tonal clarity; D-minor.


The jazz elements of the first tableau (The Chaos Before Creation) are unmistakable. Rapid arpeggiations in the piano and riffs in the percussion trio set a groove for the breathtaking bluesy chinwag to start. Next, three giant deities' in full-on spell casting mode begin a fugue in the bass, stacking the instruments into a conjuring of complexity; this is no Bach fugue by any means. In earthly analogies, this divine conversation eventually abandons coherent design for an all-out rumble in the chaos.


Illumination is the purpose of the second tableau (The Slowly Lifting Darkness), with emerging earthly foliage and creature shapes taking form. Sobering clarinets introduce a stately chorale. The texture is familiar to the opening of the work. Flute embodies the soul of the wandering saxophone, and the violins meander with repeated quarter notes; the evolution and osmosis of forms continue. An English horn melody takes the pulpit in a calming and tender moment of reflection. There is beauty in the delicate colors of solo horn, strings, fluttering flutes, and a grooving saxophone lick that transitions the work into a crossbreed of a french-jazz baroque sacrificial dance. 


Man and Woman Created is the third tableau. The man Sekoume and the woman Mbongwe are born with the gift of discovery and self-recognition. Hints of Stravinsky, Gershwin, and the kitchen sink are all thrown into the ingredients of humankind. Milhaud was a sponge for absorbing every influence, and the cacophony of styles will tickle the ear. 


An extended solo clarinet accompanied with gospel-like pizzicato cadences marks The Desire of Man and Woman, the fourth tableau. In the second half, the return of wandering quarter notes glue a series of snapshots that serve to remind how far the world has evolved, from the shapeless to humankind. The fourth scene brings about key human ingredients, desire, and division. Sekoume and Mbongwe are drawn together in a dance of passion. The display draws discord. It is perhaps the Promethean tale, a divine power discovered for the created to become creators. Curses are hurled from the N'guils, sorcerers, and sorceresses.


In the finale, the music recedes from activity. The wandering quarter notes return with a sense of having found purpose in the world. As once there was a unifying void of matter, smaller groups now form and propagate, finding their paths. The Man and Woman Kiss, and from this love, spring blossoms and engulfs the couple. Fluttering friends of flute, clarinet, and trombone anoint with one last bluesy polishing of the new world before the strings bring a final cadence to all creation. © MTF

(Notes By Michael-Thomas Foumai)


Unleashing a universe of sonic imagination, Darius Milhaud's jazz ballet conjures the primordial passion of humanity through African mythology in The Creation of the World. Sculpting beauty and elegance, Mozart's Flute Concerto in G bridges a gateway into the realms of sorcery with Ravel's extended universe of fairy-tales in Mother Goose and Stravinsky's spellbinding magical revolution in The Firebird. © MTF

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