“The Creation of the World” by Darius Milhaud

Fernand Léger: Mise-en-scène for the ballet
"La Création du Monde" (1922)

Sunday, June 6 the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival is back in action. We have an evening online concert of piano quintets that will include clips from rehearsals, interviews with the musicians, and more. We’re all cross-eyed from staring at online concerts so I am thinking of this as more like a hybrid documentary/concert – it will give you an opportunity to get to know the musicians, something that is central to our mission. The program features the magnificent Brahms piano quintet and a quintet I barely knew: “The Creation of the World” by French composer Darius Milhaud (1892 – 1974).

Milhaud was one of a group of avant-garde French composers that called themselves “Le Six”. Assembled by poet and all-around French icon Jean Cocteau, it was a kind of composing collective based in Montparnasse (Paris). They met in a bar (of course) discussing music, art, and culture. Other well-known members were Poulenc and Honegger with Picasso and Andre Breton frequent guests representing the visual and literary arts. Russian ballet impresario Diaghilev would drop in and it wasn’t unusual for crooner Maurice Chevalier to show up. Just think of the Pastis-fueled artistic brain trust in that one little bar.

“Sank Evan Four Leedl Girlz"

Originally written for orchestra as a one-act ballet, Milhaud himself scored “Creation” in a chamber version for piano quintet. The first classical composition overtly influenced by jazz (it preceded Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue" by two years), Milhaud encountered jazz in a London pub in 1920. He immediately bought a ticket to New York City where the jazz clubs of Harlem beckoned. This experience was to have a profound influence on his art. Written upon his return from New York, “La Création du Monde” premiered on the Champs-Élysées in 1922 with sets and costumes by the great modernist painter and sculptor Fernand Léger. The movements consist of:

I. Chaos before Creation
II. Creation of the Animals, Insects, and Trees
III. Creation of Man and Woman
IV. Desire
V. The Kiss.

Based on African origin stories, “La Création” doesn’t superficially plaster a thin jazz veneer over a classical work. Rather, it tries to be a piece written using classical forms (such as fugue) inspired on a deep level by the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic vitality of jazz. What we get is an irrepressible and slightly odd hybrid with occasionally so much going on it can feel a bit like Thanksgiving dinner with five family members talking over one another at the same time. But in a cool sort of way.

Darius Milhaud (1892 – 1974)

Milhaud’s loving homage to an art form he revered comes through joyously in every note. The final word goes to jazz great Dave Brubeck who studied under Milhaud.

Brubeck: [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 in classical music in a piece called “The Creation of the World,” which was a ballet, and a great piece. Bernstein recorded it, and said, "It's still the best piece that's ever combined classical and jazz." It's just great.

Interviewer: Is it true that you came to him really wanting to become a classical composer, and he kind of turned that on its head and encouraged you to become a jazz musician who incorporated a classical approach?

Brubeck: He said, "Why would you want to give up jazz, something you do so well and become a classical composer?" And I said, "Well, that's what I thought I'd study to be." He said, "Don't do that. Keep your jazz, and bring it into your classical music that you write."


David Yang, Artistic Director

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