August 5, Birthday of Betsy Jolas (b. 1928)

Born in Paris between WWI and WWII, Betsy Jolas grew up in an enviable milieu. Her mother was a well-known translator and her father founded the literary magazine, “transition,” which published James Joyce’ Finnegan’s Wake as a “Work in Progress.” Her studies at the Paris Conservatory were interrupted by WWII and she and her family decamped to the US, where she completed her studies at Bennington. After the War, in 1946, her family returned to Paris, where Jolas continued her studies at the conservatoire with Darius Milhaud, Simone Plé-Caussade and Olivier Messiaen. She replaced Olivier Messiaen at the conservatory and has been on the faculty there since 1975. She has won many prizes and is both a Chevalier in the French Légion d’Honneurand and is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Points d’aube

String Quartet No. 3

D’un opéra de voyage (1967)

Quatuor II for soprano, violin, viola & cello


POINTS D`OR concerto for saxophone(s) & 15 instruments

April 19, Birthday of Germaine Tailleferre (1892 – 1983)

If the name, Germaine Tailleferre, sounds familiar, it’s because she was hailed by Jean Cocteau as being one of “Les Six” (the six), all 20th century composers active in Paris between the two World Wars. The others were:  Georges Auric (1899–1983), Louis Durey (1888–1979), Arthur Honegger (1892–1955), Darius Milhaud(1892–1974), and  Francis Poulenc (1899–1963).  

She was born Germaine Taillefesse (ass cutter) but changed her name to Tailleferre (iron cutter) because her father refused to pay for her studies at the Paris Conservatory where she won prizes for Solfège and later piano playing. There she met most of the composers in The Six and palled around with them and other painters, writers, and poets in Montmartre and Montparnasse between the wars.

The Six didn’t collaborate much and didn’t collaborate much, nor did they copy each other or try to outdo one another like Picasso–a contemporary–did with Matisse or Braque. She was friends with and encouraged and probably influenced most by Ravel, which I hear a lot of in her music.

She married an American, cartoonist Ralph Barton, and moved to Manhattan in 1925. The marriage ended after they returned to France and Barton, a manic-depressive, committed suicide.

In 1942, she fled France, first to Spain, then Portugal, and finally Philadelphia. Along the way, she had to abandon unpublished manuscripts of a substantial number compositions. After the war, she returned to France where she flourished composing up to her death.

Youtube has about 50 pieces of her music. You really should poke around and listen.

Concertino pour harpe et piano (1927)
Pastorale (1919)
Rêverie (1964)
Sonata per 2 pianoforti (1974)
Image (1918)
Partita Pour Piano (1957)

Darius Milhaud: Scaramouche

I just heard this piece performed by two teenagers on a radio program called “From The Top.”  The melody is not new to me, but I always assumed it was by Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” or something by Louis Gottschalk, maybe the first American in Paris.

Anyway, I was happy to hear that it was Darius Milhaud, who was one of “The Six,” that is six 20th Century composers active in Paris early last century.  They included, Georges Auric (1899–1983), Louis Durey (1888–1979), Arthur Honegger (1892–1955), Darius Milhaud (1892–1974), Francis Poulenc (1899–1963), Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983).

This is fun, uplifting music and if you explore more of Milhaud, whom I’ve written about before, I’m sure you’ll be enchanted by him as well.

Iannis Xenakis: Rebonds 2

This is day 24 of the A-toZ Challenge in which I attempt to blog every day (excepting Sundays) during the month of April. During this month, I am curating a collection of “classical” music pieces, which are lesser known or by lesser known composers (to me at least).  Today’s composer is Iannis Xenakis (1922 – 2001).

Xenakis was a French-Greek polymath, who studied architecture under Le Corbusier and music under Messiaen.   Actually, how he found Messiaen is interesting.  He tried studying under Nadia Boulanger who rejected him, Arthur Honegger, who did the same, Darius Milhaud, who must have been puzzled with him. Poor dears, they tried to teach him harmony. Frustrated, a friend of Boulanger’s recommended him to Messiaen, who later said this of Xenakis.

“I understood straight away that he was not someone like the others. […] He is of superior intelligence. […] I did something horrible which I should do with no other student, for I think one should study harmony and counterpoint. But this was a man so much out of the ordinary that I said… No, you are almost thirty, you have the good fortune of being Greek, of being an architect and having studied special mathematics. Take advantage of these things. Do them in your music.”

So that is what he did. Back in the 1970s, because he was hip and I think he was teaching at my university at the time, I bought one of his albums, of which I remember absolutely nothing. So, today, it’s like listening to him for the first time, and I find this piece, one of his more accessible.

Claude Debussy: L’Isle Joyeuse

The first time I heard L’Isle Joyeuse, I almost jumped out of my chair. This happened at a piano recital in the library of Notre Dame university in South Bend, Indiana around 1972. A local pianist had put together a program of selected works by Debussy. I don’t remember what he else he played, but when he started my ears perked up. By the time he had finished, I was agog. First, because the piece was pure electricity, and second because I had no idea that my “boring” little community had pianists of this caliber.

L’Isle Joyeuse had another effect on me: it made me take note of the work of French composers. Until that time, I’d listened to few works outside of the three big “Bs” of German music-Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Oh, I did become fascinated by the Eastern Europeans–Rachmaninoff, Borodin, Tchaikowsky and Liszt–but I considered these to be in the same tradition of the Germans:  encapsulating the Sturm und Drang that was raging in my adolescent brain-box.

Debussy’s music was a conscious revolt against the Germans. By the end of the 19th century, their sensibility had reached a peak in what Stravinsky called the “tyranny of the Wagnerian system” whose operas were hyper-romantic, multimedia events, which–I’m sorry for showing my philistinism here–I wouldn’t really call subtle, or light, or joyous. Stravinsky in his ” Poetics of Music” describes creativity thus: “it always goes hand in hand with the gift of observation. And the true creator may be recognized by his ability always to find about him, in the commonest and humbles thing, items worthy of note.”

Perhaps that hold the key to what drew me to Debussy and then to French classical music. Debussy as I said before tried to capture in his music what the visual artists of his day–Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir–had succeed in doing by inventing Impressionism. Debussy’s music tries to capture the beauty in the world around us and the emotions that nature invokes in us. His contemporaries, Ravel and Satie and heirs, Poulenc, Milhaud, and (I know he was Russian but he spent a lot of time in Paris) Stravinsky, all seemed to carry on that lightness, spontaneity and joy, which paradoxically, we find in people who are really grounded in the here and now.

The liner notes on my copy of L’Isle Joyeuse says it was inspired by an Impressionist canvas. Which one, it does not say. The translation of the title, “The Joyous Island,” makes me think of an uninhabited, Eden-like tropic island, where animals and birds roam free and in a primeval state of grace. The piece starts out with a kind of shy, high trill, which makes me think of a hesitating animal, like a deer, coming out of woods. Then starts a little melody, sounding something like a jig, which, keeping with the animal image, makes me think of fawns gamboling in a pasture. This eventually expands into a lush, chromatically rich interlude, full of beauty and life. I feel the sun and smell the surf and the heady perfume of wildflowers when I hear this.

It also gives me a rather humorous image of Debussy thumbing his nose at all those stuffy Wagnerian operas. In a way, that is one of the most charming things about the French: despite the chaos of the world around them, they insist on retaining their culture through which they appreciate great works of art, music, and gastronomy. In that way, they affirm life and rejoice in simply being alive. How can anyone fault that?

Darius Milhaud: La Creation du Monde

I wanted to write a bit more about Milhaud today, not just to describe this extraordinary piece, but also to pay homage to the music label, Nonesuch.

When I started collecting classical music, I was, after all, in my teens and from a working class family. I had odd jobs—mowing lawns, life guarding, etc.—but when I went into record stores I was astounded at how much classical disks cost—at least double the price of popular albums. My friend, Kerry Wade, had a copy of La Creation Du Monde on the budget label, Nonesuch, which—if my memory serves me correctly—were about half the price of records on the big labels.

Nonesuch was an amazing company, and they seemed to have found an interesting niche. The artists on Nonesuch recordings were rarely the big names like Heifitz, Karajan, Rubenstein, or the New York Philharmonic, all of whom were busy, in the 60s and 70s turning out the same set of standard repertoire recordings as every other violinist, pianist, or orchestra. My Nonesuch copy of La Creation Du Monde, for example, was conducted by Milhaud himself, with the Orchestra du Theatre des Champs-Elyssees, which theatre is where he premiered Le Boeuf in 1919. Nonesuch, by not courting the big names, was able to carry works of less popular composers and artists, and therefore probably did more to bring classical music to a wider audience than any other company.

There is some irony here, especially with regards to La Creation Du Monde. Milhaud was deeply influenced by Jazz, which he first heard in London in 1920. He then visited New York and was taken to a number of Jazz clubs in Harlem where the music electrified him. Supposedly he sat in the front row taking notes. When he returned to Paris he wrote La Creation Du Monde and announced that European culture was now being influenced by American culture for the first time. That was about the time that Hemingway and the “Lost Generation” flocked to Europe, which also resulted in flourishing of the arts on both sides of the Atlantic. So La Creation Du Monde is a piece of three continents—Africa, North America and Europe. Milhaud was World Music before World Music was cool.

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, when I was growing up in northern Indiana in the 1960s.

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 le 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. A few years ago, when my daughters were in middle school (that is around my age when I first heard it), I pulled Le Boeuf 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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