Darius Milhaud (1892–1974)
Darius Milhaud was a French composer, perhaps best known today for his association with the 1920s’ avant-garde collective, “Les Six”. He was enormously prolific, writing music in every conceivable genre—grand opera, film music, symphonies, string quartets, concertos, children’s pieces, songs…and more. In his compositions, Milhaud pioneered the use of percussion, polymodality (the simultaneous use of multiple keys or modes in a piece), jazz idioms, and aleatoric (or “chance”) techniques. His works often fused musical sources as diverse as Provençal tunes, Comtat Venaissin Jewish liturgical music, Brazilian folk music, and older classical music, with a French sensibility for supple melodies and contrapuntal textures.
Born in Marseilles, France, on September 4, 1892, Milhaud grew up in Aix-en-Provence. He took up violin at age seven and eventually, in 1909, he went to study at the Paris Conservatoire, taking classes in violin and orchestral playing as well as in composition and orchestration. Health issues prohibited him from serving in the armed forces in WWI but he found work aiding Belgian refugees. Between 1917 and 1919, he was the attaché in charge of propaganda in Brazil, where he also organized concerts and lectures in support of the Red Cross.
Milhaud returned to Paris in 1920, where, during the next decade, he had a productive and successful career as a composer, pianist, and music critic. In the 1930s, he wrote a substantial amount of film music and incidental music for theatre productions, much of which he refashioned into concert works.
Being a prominent Jewish artist, Milhaud knew he’d be wanted by the Germans, so in 1940, he emigrated to the USA, where he took up a teaching post at Mills College in Oakland. He also taught at the summer school in Aspen, Colorado, and was honorary director of the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara from 1948 to 1951. For the remainder of his life, he split his time between France (he was professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire from 1947) and the USA. All the while, Milhaud continued to compose unceasingly; he left no unfinished works when he died in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 22, 1974.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley