Milhaud Little Symphony no. 5, op. 75, ‘Tentet’

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

(cover image by Samuel Zeller)

Here we are at Milhaud’s op. 75, the opus number right after his fourth. It was composed in 1922. As the previous little symphony was for strings only, this one is for winds only: piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, B flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and 2 horns. It’s the first (and only?) of the half dozen, to my knowledge, that was commissioned, here by Marya Freúnd, Milhaud’s friend and a soprano. She performed the premiere of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, which Milhaud himself conducted. Who knew?

It does seem odd that she would commission a piece for which there’s no part for soprano, though.

Deborah Mawer is quoted in the Wikipedia article as saying the work includes:

chromaticism bordering on atonality, a distinctive jazz-inspired modality, and a surprising aleatoric element, bound together by neoclassical aesthetic.

If that weren’t enough, Wiki says that “All three movements use a motivic cell construction, scalar chromatic motion, and predominantly contrary motion between voices.” That last one makes the most sense, but… How does one bind all that up together into a six-minute work? Let’s find out. There are three movements, by the way, as follows, with time estimates from Wikipedia:

  • Rude (1’15”)
  • Lent (3’30”)
  • Violent (2’10”)

Basically it sounds (even more) like everyone is doing their own thing in the first movement. There’s much less baroque and a bit more jazz to this sound, but it has the characteristic near-atonal, semi-chaotic fragrance we whiffed in the other works, with some repeated patterns. Wikipedia discusses “a motif beginning on G with alternating minor seconds and octaves in the oboe” and its inversion in E-sharp (yes, that’s F), but… just listen to it.

The second movement, Lent, features larger intervals than the previous movement’s motivic cell, with “major thirds, minor thirds and major seconds.” Wiki says that this “creates a checkerboard pattern,” whatever that means. It’s explanations or analyses like this that confound rather than compel. There’s lots of slithering, to be honest, trills and lots of chromaticism.

The finale, violent, at least gives us some more readily identifiable “motivic cells,” this jumpy figure from the clarinet. If i had to use words to describe this movement, or rather a word, it wouldn’t be violent; perhaps bouncy or lively, but that doesn’t necessarily sound… polished. Are all these titles tongue-in-cheek, then? I don’t know.

Is this entire series of works tongue-in-cheek? I don’t think so. It’s a nice small canvas to be able to do something that might be overwhelming in another medium, with a larger scope. So that’s that.

Stay tuned, then, and/or brace yourself, for the final installment in this little set of half-dozen little symphonies. Thank you so much for reading.

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