Darius Milhaud: Symphony No. 1

This article has been marked as in need of a revisit. That’s where I feel like I didn’t do the piece justice or have more to say (usually because I didn’t know it nearly well enough or didn’t have the right perspective). I’ll keep the original article for posterity, but publish a new version that will eventually be linked here for my new take on it.

performed by the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Basel under Alun Francis

I’ve listened to this one at least three or four times… Almost. Just not in its entirety. So I gave it my full attention this morning.

Firstly, I was going to write this over the weekend, but I was busy listening to live music: a fantastic show on Thursday by the Youth Orchestra of Switzerland or something, and a piano recital on Saturday. The youth orchestra played a Lutosławski piece (Mala Suita), Ravel’s piano concerto in G (with a local pianist), and then Beethoven’s fifth. As many times as I’ve listened to that piece, it still gave me chills to hear live. Fantastic performance.

The piano recital was also wonderful. A local pianist and teacher who studied in Moscow, Artemis Yen (顏華容)played an all-Russian program: Scriabin’s 3rd sonata, Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a theme of Chopin, Medtner’s 7th sonata in Em, op. 25, no. 2 (“Night Wind”) (which I was not familiar with at all. Blown away), and then Scriabin’s sixth. An amazing program. The 6th was breathtakingly moving and dark. I got to meet her afterward and we chatted briefly. She seems like a genuinely kind, quirky, and sincere woman.

I wanted to write about the Lutosławski piece (I enjoyed it more than I expected, but need to hear it a few more times), but it is not a symphony. That’s kind of what I’m working on now, but I must eventually branch out to other “large-scale” works like concerti or other suites or things. There are also plenty of piano sonatas worth getting to know, but I’m not sure when I will finally branch out into other forms. I’m liking the idea of sticking to these for now. There are enough symphonies as it is, much less piano or cello or violin or clarinet concerti, suites, sonatas, symphonic poems, etc.

ANYway, back to Mr. Milhaud. He has an impressively large list of students who are very well known, among them three Brubecks (Dave and his brother Howard, and Dave’s son Darius, whom he named after Milhaud), Philip Glass, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Yvonne Loriod, Burt Bacharach. Those were just the names I recognized. Quite an interesting and varied bunch there.

Also interestingly, he did not compose a symphony until he was 47 years old, meaning it was op. 210, which I think may be the highest-numbered symphony number one ever. Within the next 24 years from this one, he managed to write twelve more symphonies, among his other works.

His first symphony was a commission he accepted from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for their fiftieth anniversary.

This is a relatively short symphony, its four movements coming in at around 24 minutes.

This piece feels neo-classical, but not as much as Prokofiev’s first symphony, which is what I think of when I think “neoclassical.”

The first movement sounds Stravinskianly pastoral in its playful pizzicato strings and flutes, in both the melody and the orchestration, fluttery and modern. There is a nice French horn accompaniment part in the middle section, and (I attest it is NOT because I’ve listened to it multiple times already) there is something warm, familiar and endearing about it. Sentimental even.

The second movement is “tres vif” indeed, with a fun bombastic rhythm that in places seems almost gypsy-like.

The third movement is much quieter and serene, even bordering on somber in some places. For some reason, Martin Ellerby’s Paris Sketches came to mind here. It builds some more towards the end and leads into movement four.

The beginning is dark and flowing, but returns to the pleasantness of the first movement. The flute introduces a passage that sounds almost Irish, and when violins and other instruments echo it back, it sounds like a reel. That same familiar feeling returns to end the whole piece on a warm note.

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