Darius Milhaud: Le Boeuf sur le Toit

There is a Japanese proverb that goes something like: “When the student is ready, the Buddha will appear. The origin of the word Buddha means “to wake up” and people think of the Buddha as a great teacher. And what is a great teacher but someone who wakes you up? Why this saying resonates with me is because-while reviewing all the pieces that I intend to write about-I have come to value my great luck in finding people who have either taught me about or exposed me to new pieces of music. Kerry Wade probably wouldn’t want to be called a Buddha, but he was one for me.



One day, on a visit to his house, Kerry pulled out an album and said “You have to listen to this!” It had two works on it by Darius Milhaud, Le Boeuf sur la Toit and La Creation Du Monde. Milhaud was a 20th Century French composer and a member of Les Six, a group of six avant gardecomposers who hung out together in Paris early in the century. (The other five were Durey, Honegger, Tailleferre, Auric and Poulenc.)

Kerry gave the disk a spin and the most unique music started, which instantly made me laugh. Milhaud wrote Le Boeuf after returning from Brazil in 1919 where he worked as the secretary of the ambassador from France, Paul Claudel, the writer and brother of the subject of the movie Camille Claudel. The work is based on a Brazilian dance-hall melody Milhaud heard in a Brazilian bar he used to frequent called Le Boeuf sur la Toit (trans. The Ox on the Roof). It is a raucous, discordant piece, which every time it starts to slow down, Milhaud jump starts it by repeating the melody–a galloping tune blasted out by the trumpets. He does this twelve times, on each occasion changing key.

The liner notes on my copy, directed by Milhaud himself, states that the composer received a commission to write this piece for a Charlie Chaplin silent short film, but it was never used. It does have a comic feel to it.

I sometimes wonder how this piece was received by the critics. Of course, since the debut six years earlier of Stravinski’s Rites of Spring, the public was probably ready for anything. The French surrealist poet (and writer, and painter, and film maker), Jean Cocteau, was so taken by the piece that he produced it as a ballet performed by a troop of clowns and acrobats, with the stage design having been done by the painter Raoul Dufy.

Since the advent of CDs, I don’t get a chance of listening to my old vinyl disks any more, which I’ve relegated to a shelf in my basement. I pulled Le Boeuf out the other day, however, to give it a spin. My daughters laughed at it and my wife asked what it was. Nice to know that it still surprises people after all these years.

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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