There can be few active musicians able to remember a time when Darius Milhaud's (1892-1974) name was not familiar, fewer still who can claim knowledge of the vast quantity of work produced during a long career by this incessantly prolific and versatile composer. Milhaud's musical training began in his native city. At the age of 17 he went to the Paris Conservatoire. His teachers were Dukas, Leroux and Gédalge. Among his friends were Auric and Honegger. Of equal if not greater importance were literary friendships with, for example, Jammes and Claudel, two of the great influences (Gide was the third) on the early years of Milhaud's career. By 1917, when Claudel took Milhaud to Rio de Janeiro as a member of his ambassadorial staff, the composer had set La brebis égarée of Jammes as an opera, Alissa, prose excerpts from Gide's La Porte étroite for voice and piano, and the first two parts (Agamemnon and Les choéphores) of Claudel's Oresteia trilogy. Milhaud later described the visit to Latin America as the equivalent for him of a stay in Rome (the war of 1914 had prevented his competing for the Prix de Rome). Brazil brought him into fruitful contact with a civilisation half-Latin, half-exotic, with Latin-American popular music and with jazz.
When he returned to post-war Paris he won notoriety with such works as Machines agricoles, Le boeuf sur le toit, La création du monde, Le train bleu, and the three tiny opéras-minutes written for Germany. He was a member of the group Les Six, and although his style was already formed, and although the group's mentor Cocteau was never so deep an influence on Milhaud as the writers mentioned earlier, the glitter of that brilliant butterfly period has stuck. The fading in the 30s was symbolized, in Milhaud's case, by the cool reception given to his Maximilien at the Paris Opéra in 1932. But the output flowed on, only briefly interrupted by a painful uprooting from his homeland in 1940.
The years after the Armistice were spent in the USA at Mills College, where Pierre Monteux and other friends had obtained him a teaching post. Milhaud, who had for some years been an invalid confined by rheumatic afflictions to a wheelchair, nursed by his devoted wife, returned to France in 1947, and was offered the post of professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire. He spent alternative academic years in Paris and at Mills. For many years he attended the summer music school at Aspen, Colorado, and taught at a number of other establishments in the USA. In spite of ill-health, and of persistent attachment to Paris and to his native Provence, Milhaud remained a willing, indefatigable traveller.
The label 'member of Les Six' is emphatically not enough. It is not easy to pin him down. The Jewish-Provençal background was important. It led directly to some of his best works, to the Poèmes juifs (1916), to operas with texts by his compatriot Armand Lunel - Les malheurs d'Orphée (1924) and Esther de Carpentras (1938, written earlier), to the Suite provençale (1936), and it lends a melancholy pastoral colour to other scores not overtly of Provençal or Jewish origin.
Milhaud's style set early and evolved hardly at all. He seems, in spite of a fondness for working with themes from past composers, especially of the 18th century, to have taken little from other people or other periods. He gave more than one explanation of the origins of his use of polytonality, which he regarded as a Latin solution to the problem of the decay of tonality. One was a recurrent, quasi-mystical experience at night in the country, when he felt rays and tremors converging on him from all points of the sky and from below ground, each bearing its own music - 'a thousand simultaneous musics rushing towards me from all directions.' Another explanation of the origin was the study of a duetto by Bach in which the original entries of the two voices appeared to be in different keys. Milhaud never erected polytonality into a system. It was more a question of colour, adding a characteristic tang to the melodic and contrapuntal facility, sometimes clarifying the texture, sometimes, in the later music especially, making it opaque.
Side by side with the Latin qualities of Milhaud's music there exists a strain of expressionism, a penchant for thick timbres. Like many French musicians of his generation, he rejected Wagner and Brahms, but he accepted Mahler and Strauss. Schoenberg, whom he admired greatly, was a friend of many years standing.
In a series of radio interviews (published as Entretiens avec Claude Rostand(, Paris, 1952), Milhaud drew attention to his simultaneous and continuous cultivation of a number of musical forms which he listed in order of importance as: large operas, chamber music, symphonic works, concertos, music for chamber orchestra or small combinations, musique de divertissement (not quite the same thing as light music), ballets, works using or deriving from folk music, works 'after' classical composers. The Heugel catalogue stops in 1956 at op. 354.
In the feature devoted to Milhaud after his death, Le Monde gave the total as 426 works. This terrifying figure includes several large operas or opera-oratorios - the Oresteia trilogy, Christophe Colomb (1930), Maximilien, Bolivar (1950), David (1952), Saint-Louis, Roi de France (1972). To the smaller operas mentioned above should be added Le pauvre matelot (1927) and Médée (1939). Among the chamber music are eighteen string quartets, of which nos. 14 and 15 may be played together as an octet. Milhaud, who in the 20s had written six 'little' symphonies for small combinations, waited until he was nearly 50 before embarking in 1939 on a series of 12 symphonies for full orchestra (the Third has a choral finale).
There are many choral works, a mass of film scores and incidental music for the theatre, a number of undeservedly neglected songs. Among his prose writings is a volume of memoirs, Notes sans musique (Paris, 1949, translated 1952), which includes a chapter on the death of Satie. Milhaud had an air of inner serenity and benign authority which impressed those who had even the slightest acquaintance with him, and won him the affection and respect of musicians of all tendencies and ages. At this stage the least one can say is that when the dust has settled and the grain has been separated from the chaff, there should remain a balance-sheet of which any composer might be proud.