Milhaud Little Symphony no. 1, op. 43 “Le Printemps”

performed by the Orchestre de Radio Luxembourg under the composer’s baton

(cover image by Trevor Cole)

I apologize in advance.

Today and tomorrow, there will be three posts each. You’ll see why.

Beginning in 1917, in his mid-twenties, Darius Milhaud began serving as secretary to one Paul Claudel, poet and dramatist and more importantly the French ambassador to Brazil. A number of works date from this period, and many more show the lasting influence of South America on the Frenchman’s music.

What we’ll discuss in these next two days is a loose series of six ‘little symphonies,’ sometimes referred to as chamber symphonies, which they are. When they say little, they mean it. The longest of these six works reaches about seven minutes, the shortest of them a little over three, with individual movements (all of them have three each) in some cases under a minute long.

They’re not really a set, per se, since they have separate opus numbers and were not composed (exactly) together. This first was composed in Rio de Janeiro  in 1917, premiered there the following year, and published in 1922. Wikipedia says, citing the composer himself in his book My Happy Life, that:

According to Milhaud himself, he was quite attracted to the unusual quality of small groups of instruments, which is why he embarked on his series of Petites Symphonies.

This one is written for piccolo, flute, clarinet, oboe, harp, 2 violins, viola, and cello, a total of only nine players, so these really could be considered chamber works, except they do call for a conductor, and they are labeled symphonies.

The first movement of this first little symphony lasts around a minute long and is made up of an ebullient sound afforded it by the harp, like a babbling brook, a constant flow of sound. The first 15 seconds or so will give you this warm, bucolic feeling, but then bam, an absolutely fascinating color palette of weird harmonies, what Wikipedia, and likely other people, refer to as polytonality, or multiple keys existing at once. We’ll see this a lot in his work.

It sounds here like the fresh, near-acrid smell called petrichor, what most people associate with a light rain. In the city, we only smell the subtle stench of asphalt or concrete, but in the past, it referred to the smell of rain on very dry ground, with plant matter and all the rest.

Anyway, that’s what this makes me think of, and before you can really finish thinking about it, the movement is over. They’re so short that in my recordings, the separate movements aren’t even tracked. One track, one symphony.

The second movement is a contrast to the first, the longest and slowest of this work. It begins with a lyrical oboe, and is more like an afternoon nap than the bubbly first movement. In this afternoon nap, we get breezes, whiffs of chromaticism, and this time only a few plucks from harp.

The third and final movement is almost entirely driven by the clarinet, at times chirpy, which seems to call the other woodwinds to life. They mimic her song, and the movement and entire symphony ends abruptly with a chirp.

As we’ll see over the next few days, these six symphonies all have a number of things in common. We’ll hear Milhaud’s heavy use of polytonality, almost to the point of atonality, but vibrant use of color, texture and rhythm. That’s a good thing, too, because there’s obviously not much room for any kind of motivic development here.

There’s also almost nothing German about these symphonies. As is well known, the symphonic tradition is largely a German one, we’ve been seeing, and will continue to, how their Romance neighbors approach the form.

After this Le Printemps (spring) symphony, what should we expect from the second, subtitled ‘pastoral’? You’ll find out in about six hours, so stay tuned. Thanks so much for reading.



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