Milhaud Little Symphony no. 4, op. 74

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

(cover image by Daria Shevtsova)

The fourth little symphony was completed in 1921, the same year as the third. It’s longer than the previous works, at about six minutes, of which the second movement makes up about half. The work is scored for ten strings: 4 violins, and two each of viola, cello and basses.

The first movement is labeled ‘Ouverture’ and is marked ‘anime.’ We hear a much more baroque or classical era sound, if for no other reason than the strings seem to be working together rather than independently of one another. We hear a classical influence, but much in the way that Schnittke would present it to us, almost mockingly, because of the heavy presence of dissonance, again bordering on atonality. It’s like a polite but still mildly frenetic dance, followed by what sounds like it might actually be a second theme. (Contrary to Wikipedia’s note, the first movement is about 1:35 in length, not 0:45.)

This second movement feels very different from everything else in this set. It’s the first that even approaches something genuinely mournful or somber, and the bass solos here afford this movement a very solemn nature. This movement is subtitled ‘Choral.’

The final movement is labeled ‘etude,’ and also begins with double bass, higher voices entering later for a very contrapuntal but still… quirky finale. Christopher Headington, says Wiki, referred to this movement as “comic,” and probably not in a favorable way. G. W. Hopkins made note of the entire work’s “irritating antics.” That being said, it might be the most… traditional, or relatable, of the set so far.

There’s at least something of a “hey I sort of recognize that feeling/style” even if it’s a sarcastic caricature that does border on the unrecognizable. We are reminded yet again that these works are probably little for a reason, that Milhaud is juggling a number of ideas here, with polytonality and classicism… there’s an impulsive freedom in the work, not that they’re all improvised, but that Milhaud can accomplish here what would be really way too much in a standard-length symphony. It’s just enough, probably.

And on that note, we have two more of these little symphonies to talk about today, so stay tuned for those and thank you so much for reading.

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