Milhaud Little Symphony no. 2, op. 49, ‘Pastorale’

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

(cover image by Lisa Hobbs)

Well, here we are again in record breaking time for our second article of the day, and for a work with such a similar subtitle (‘pastoral’ to the first’s ‘spring’), it seems vastly different from the get-go.

This work was composed in 1918 at sea on a trip back to France from Brazil, where he was secretary to the French ambassador. It is written for flute, English horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and bass. (For the full background on what eventually became a set of six ‘little symphonies’, please see this morning’s post on the first little symphony.)

The first movement is subtitled ‘joyeux,’ but the first word that may come to most listeners’ minds is something more akin to chaos or complexity. This is the result not only of the composer’s penchant for polytonality, or even an abundance of musical lines all kind of coexisting, but mostly from the two-against-three rhythms. It really sounds like chaos, but somehow, as we’ll see in later works, the result still kind of has a delicate prettiness, sort of… if you’re willing to see it.

The first movement is extremely brief, around 45 seconds. It begins with almost no downbeat, as if someone hit an unmute button and the music had been going on all along. The strings here also seem to be encroaching on the prettiness that the woodwinds are trying to impart, and then ends as abruptly as it began.

The second movement, marked ‘calme,’ sounds welcome after that first chapter. It makes up about half the playing time of this symphony, at nearly three minutes. It sounds like silken textures being slowly spun by English horn and bassoon. There’s something of Stravinsky here, maybe, although not as eerie as his opening of The Rite of Spring. Strings again seem to interfere with the mood, adding a fragrant and yet still somewhat acidic note to the palette. There is here a suppleness, a softness to the music, even if it isn’t lush in the traditional sense.

The final movement has the same ‘joyeux’ marking as the first movement, with an ostinato in flute, and if you didn’t hear Stravinsky before, you should now, at least if you are familiar with his L’Histoire du Soldat of the same year. The similarity isn’t just because of the small ensemble, or even the harmony, but especially its march-like bounce. Granted there’s no percussion in Milhaud’s symphony (or any of the set), but its overall cheerfulness may make it the most palatable of the entire symphony.

Can you hear a difference in these two works though? At the very least, it’s a little more adventurous. We’ll talk about the merits of listening to these works and what we can enjoy from them as a whole in the article for the sixth tomorrow evening, but for now, it’s more than enough to think of them as little bite-sized bursts of color and texture. Stay tuned for the article on the third, ‘Serenade,’ later this evening, and thank you for reading.



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