Milhaud Little Symphony no. 6, op. 79

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

(cover image by Kawin Harasai)

So this one really tops them all, I think.

What do you to to top off a symphonic cycle, even if it’s just a collection of six miniature symphonies that would easily fit on one disc? Make the last one choral! Thanks, Luddy B.!

Milhaud’s op. 79 was composed in 1923 in New York City, with yet more influence from jazz, or so we’re told. It’s the only one of the six that never had a subtitle. The orchestration is fascinatingly odd, and it’s really barely even a symphony, being scored for solo oboe and cello plus chorus (soprano, contralto, tenor and bass). It’s also, as you will notice, heavily polyphonic (fancy word for ‘there’s lots of stuff going on sort of independently). The sixth is the longest of the set.

The first movement is in ABA form, and just…. whoa. The chorus, I should point out, is wordless, so there’s no text, just oohs and ahs and stuff, and they back an oboe solo at the beginning. The whole affair really just strikes me as odd.

This is the stop on the Milhaud bus where I feel like I must alight.

As is mentioned somewhere, likely on Wikipedia, the timbres and ranges of both the cello and the oboe sit very close to the human voice, and it creates this homogenous sort of…. clump of sound, but really, I can’t help but find it almost slightly comical, with the oohing and ahhing, without really any accompaniment. One would think the oboe and cello get choral accompaniment, but the voices come to the fore for me. In the central portion, the cello seems to be working against the whole bunch, and we return to opening material for a quiet close.

The second movement features pizzicato from cello, in what Wiki calls “jaunty.” There’s more polyphony… kind of like… Church jazz, for lack of a better term, but not really jazzy in the way that I think most people anticipate that word. There’s some conversation between the high and low voices, as they echo each other. Really, just follow the cello.

The finale is almost chant-like, but the oboe insists on jazzy phrasing to the point that it seems like someone didn’t get a memo, like a clueless, out-of-place member of a band in a Saturday Night Live skit.

What even is this?

If you hadn’t noticed, it is for me the least compelling of the six, or perhaps the most compelling if by compelling you mean confounding. For me, this would win the “most likely to be laughed at” award, but I’ll hold out hope that I’d be awed by it in the concert (or recital) hall. Who knows?

Well, that ends our six posts in two days on Milhaud, and skyrockets him way up in the tally of most posts on the blog, way past Stravinsky, Liszt (I think), and some others, who a normal person would expect to make more appearances than they have. In any case, that’s all for Milhaud for now, but stay tuned for much more French music this week. Thanks so much for reading.

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