OP0648. LES MALHEURS D'ORPHÉE / LE PAUVRE MATELOT (both Milhaud), recorded 1956, w.Milhaud Cond. l'Opéra Ensemble; Jacqueline Brumaire, Jean Giraudeau, Claudine Collart, Xavier Depraz, André Vessierès, etc. (France) Adès 13.284. Very long out-of-print, Final Copy! - 3129671328422
“Milhaud was no dabbler when it came to operatic output. His total operatic catalogue runs to no fewer than fifteen works. The two operas presented on this Accord disc are chamber works using an orchestra of thirteen instrumentalists although LE PAUVRE MATELOT was originally laid out for full orchestra. His other chamber operas include L'ABANDON D'ARIANE, LA DÉLIVERANCE DE THÉSÉE and L'ENLÈVEMENT D'EUROPA. LES MALHEURS D'ORPHÉE was premiered on 7 May 1926 at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brüssels. The libretto is by Armand Lunel (1892-1977), a childhood friend of the composer. LE PAUVRE MATELOT was premiered on 16 December 1927 at the Opéra-Comique, Paris. The libretto in this case was initially written by Cocteau for an abortive operatic project by Auric.
Misadventure or tragedy. Call it what you like these two operas have plots with a bitter twist in the tail. In LE PAUVRE MATELOT the dénouement involves the sailor returning home in disguise and being killed by the wife because the ‘cock and bull’ story he has cooked up is so good that the loving wife needs to ‘do-in’ the stranger to rescue her husband from debt. In the other, Orpheus and the gypsy Eurydice elope to the mountains. There Eurydice dies of a mysterious malady and her body is carried away by mourning animals. Orpheus, distraught, returns to his village where Eurydice's sisters, believing he has killed Eurydice, kill him and too late realise their mistake.
As for the music, in the case of LES MALHEURS D'ORPHÉE there is no prelude - we are straight into the singing - a complex ensemble that smacks of Poulenc and includes chattering Rio-style rhythms. Track 8 has plenty of Stravinskian skirl and impact similar to the punchy attack in LES NOCES and in OEDIPUS REX (tr. 15). The animals’ cortege for Eurydice wails and ululates. The mourning chorus and funeral cortège of Eurydice are sometimes performed as freestanding concert items.
In LE PAUVRE MATELOT Milhaud weaves together authentic sea shanties and his own original material. ‘Blow the Man Down’ puts in a strong and boozy appearance in the scenes running up to the killing. However there is plenty of variety here. For example at tr. 22 there is some gorgeous folksy singing from the soprano, Canteloube-style. The feel of this serenata-style piece links with Vaughan Williams’ contemporaneous operas SIR JOHN IN LOVE and POISONED KISS.”
- Rob Barnett, musicweb-international
“Darius Milhaud, the composer who helped overturn traditional French music in the 1920s, was a famously prolific composer who tossed off new works at a speed and with the apparent ease associated with predecessors such as Rossini, Mozart and Boccherini.
A burly, bearlike figure, he presided in the early twenties as senior over a loosely knit band of rebel composers who came to be known as ‘The French Six’. Several of the group shared with Milhaud a disdain for what they felt was an overly solemn attitude toward music. He, in fact, was denounced for ‘frivolity’ for works in which he would use, as texts, prosaic lists of farm machinery or flower catalogues.
His best-known works in this iconoclastic period of his career, and possibly the ones that will insure him a place in composing history, are the jazz-influenced ‘Création du monde’ (1923) and ‘Le Boeuf sur le toit’ (1920), which used Brazilian folk tunes and rhythms and caused a scandal at its Paris premiere.
‘The Six’, though never a school in the usual sense, shared an admiration for jazz and cabaret music. Taking the eccentric composer Erik Satie and the impresario Jean Cocteau as their prophets, they reacted against the academic glibness and conservatism of the older generation of French composers epitomized by Franck and D'Indy.
Milhaud, however, was more than a high-spirited trifler. In 1915, he wrote stage music for Paul Claudel's translation of the ‘Choephori’ of Aeschylus, experimenting with an ‘orchestration of stage noises’ that included the sounds of whistling winds, human groans and cries of despair. Fifty years later such noninstrumental sounds, in works of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and others, came to be part of the common language of the avantgarde.
When Milhaud's autobiography, NOTES WITHOUT MUSIC, was published in English translation in this country in 1952, Aaron Copland summed up in these words: ‘Others write music to express themselves; Milhaud, like no other composer I know, writes music to celebrate life itself’. And in his celebration of life through music Milhaud was extraordinarily fecund. He wrote more than 400 works, including 12 symphonies, 18 string quartets, (of which Nos. 14 and 15 may he combined to make an octet), 34 concertos, 15 operas, 19 ballets and 25 film scores.
Milhaud once explained the diversity of his music: ‘I have no esthetic rules, or philosophy or theories. I love to write music. I always do it with pleasure, otherwise I just do not write it. I have always made it my business to accept musical jobs of every kind. Naturally, there are certain types of work that I prefer, but a composer should do everything with application, with all the resources of contemporary technique at his disposal. He can then hope that, after a life of hard work, he will see some works survive’.
Those who saw him at work said he never changed a note once it was down on paper. No rough drafts, no scribbling in notebooks, as with Beethoven and others. Milhaud did not compose at the piano, but simply wrote swiftly, as if transcribing from another copy, having the piece firmly composed in his head, like Mozart. He refused to discuss his style, insisting that ‘every work brings its own style, its own form; you cannot talk about a style’.
Milhaud fled France in 1940 soon after the Germans had occupied the country. On the ship bringing him from Lisbon to New York he received a cable offering him the teaching position at Mills College that was to provide his permanent link to America. Prominent among the other American schools at which he taught from time to time was the Aspen Institute in Colorado, to which he returned summer after summer for many years.
Milhaud moved back and forth relentlessly between Europe and America in the last two decades of his life. From 1947 on, he alternated each year between teaching posts at Mills College, in Oakland, CA (with which he had been associated since 1940), and the Conservatoire Nationale de Musique in Paris. Through all this, only one thing could keep him from composing - the arthritic pain in his hands.
Unlike Brahms, who before is death burned piles of manuscripts he regarded as inferior, Milhaud seemed uncritical of his own work. Although his pieces often appear on concert programs, it is their overall workmanship rather than any individual brilliance that characterizes them, and may be regarded as Milhaud's best chance for survival in repertory. As a seminal figure in modern music, however, he has an already secure place.”
- THE NEW YORK TIMES, 25 June, 1974