In the 1920’s, Darius Milhaud was part of an avant-garde group of French composers designated by the music critic Henri Collet as “Les Six.” This association was loose to say the least, and not unified, as The Mighty Five had been in Russia in a single mission. Sometimes they did collaborate with one another, but generally each composer was independent. The whole set only collaborated once on a set of piano pieces known as L’Album des Six. What they all agreed upon was to “refresh” French music with new artistic perspectives.
According to Milhaud, “Collet chose six names absolutely arbitrarily, those of Auric, Durey, Honegger, Poulenc, Tailleferre and me simply because we knew each other and we were pals, and appeared on the same musical programs, no matter if our temperaments and personalities were not all the same. Auric and Poulenc followed ideas of Cocteau, Honegger follower German Romanticism, and myself Mediterranean lyricism.” (Benjamin Ivry in Francis Poulenc).
Les Six socialized frequently, especially at the Gaya Bar, where Milhaud liked to hear Jean Wiener play “negro music” in a popular style. Black exoticism in dance and music was embraced by in-the-know Parisians. During the jazz age in Paris this music was often labeled “le tumult noir (the black noise).”
Wiener was also a composer who had a particular fondness for “the blues” and “hot American energy.” In his own works and concerts, he was a steady promoter of jazz. The new American sound was attractive to European tastes, even though it smacked of populism and a certain uneducated quality. In Der Steppenwolf, the main character expressed the jazz effect;“This kind of music, has always had a certain charm for me…Jazz was repugnant to me, and yet ten times preferable to all the academic music of the day… its raw and savage gaiety reached an underworld of instinct and breathed a simply, honest sensuality… Unblushingly negroid, it had the mood of childlike happiness.”
Milhaud was fascinated by American jazz and credited the (American) Billy Arnold’s Novelty Jazz Band as having introduced him to jazz when he heard them during his visit to London in 1920. He was particularly drawn to the freedoms of jazz and its rhythms. “Their constant use of syncopation in the melody was done with such contrapuntal freedom as to create the impression of an almost chaotic improvisation, whereas in fact, it was something remarkably precise.” In 1922 he came to New York and listened to many genres of jazz, paid close attention to the ensembles, and wrote musical sketches.
By the time Milhaud wrote his music for the ballet La création du monde 1923, he was writing for a well-established popular taste. The ballet references African creation myths taken from Blaise Cendrar’s Anthologie negre. Leonard Bernstein summarized: “The Creation of the World emerges not as a flirtation but as a real love affair with jazz.” Milhaud explained, “This is a work making wholesale use of the jazz style to convey a purely classical feeling.”
The ballet has five parts …
1. Chaos before Creation: slow and mysterious, gradually growing in intensity. Listen for elements of polytonality and the soft closure.
2. Lifting darkness and creation of trees, plants, insects, birds and beasts: jazzy solos for flute, oboe, and horn. Life and the making of it is an exhilarating and delicate process.
3. Man and woman are created: increase of movement and excitement, exuberant.
4. The desire of man and woman: beautiful seduction music from clarinet.
5. The kiss: a beautiful conclusion, introduced quietly by oboe, a bit of excitement, followed by softly fluttering flutes with a tender goodbye from the saxophone.