Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Milhaud's Symphony No. 1: "Choose Your Own Subtitle"

Unsung Symphonies is happy to welcome Louis Epstein, a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at Harvard University. Louis is writing a dissertation on funding for music composition in interwar France and has been promising to redress our shameful lack of Gallic symphonies over here for quite some time. It's worth the wait, as Louis's comprehensive take on Milhaud's First Symphony speaks to many of the problems at stake in 20th Century symphony composition (and reception) that we're constantly negotiating here at our blog!

Legion are the symphonies whose legacies depend, in part, on epic and provocative subtitles: “Farewell,” “Eroica,” “Titan,” "Apocalyptic" to name but a few. Darius Milhaud’s Symphony No. 1 bears no such subtitle – one possible reason for its relative obscurity to date – but I hope to change that now. As I reinvent the historiographical legacy of Symphony No. 1, I’ll audition three possible subtitles, each one more epic and provocative than the last.

I. Milhaud Symphony No. 1: “Post-Neoclassical”

Milhaud, along with Stravinsky, was one of the major practitioners of the neoclassical aesthetic in music in the 1920s and 1930s. Eschewing huge ensembles, overwrought sentimentality, and “German” heaviness, Milhaud’s first attempts in the “symphonic” genre were his Six Petites Symphonies, which were really chamber works whose titles implied rejection, rather than embrace, of the symphonic ideal. To a certain extent, Symphony No. 1 continues in this vein by problematizing sonata form[1] and frequently employing chamber ensembles within the orchestra. The opening of the symphony is its most concentrated neoclassical moment: the winds carry the accessible theme, accompanied by pizzicato strings whose primary purpose seems to be staying out of the way.

The symphony’s neoclassical veneer persists through the first movement with but a few scratches. By the opening of the fourth movement, however, Milhaud’s exposed, tormented spirit is on display with a heavily orchestrated theme at odds with the typical neoclassical (read: “French” or “Stravinskian” ) priority of emotional detachment.

Yet following this moment, Milhaud turns his back on overwrought emotion, investing in sincerity and reduced orchestral forces once again.

Moments like these make Milhaud’s Symphony No. 1 an excellent candidate for the moniker “Post-neoclassical.” Unlike Stravinsky, Milhaud seems content to harness neoclassicism selectively, diverging from the aesthetic when needed to achieve contrast, or to heighten emotion, or to give all members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (the commissioning body) something to play. And the most evidently post-neoclassical move of all – writing a program symphony! – inspires my next proposed subtitle:

II. Milhaud Symphony No. 1: “Deliverance

To Milhaud, his wife, and their son, this symphony was a ticket out of the crumbling French republic at the beginning of the Second World War, delivering the family from (certain) evil and (likely) death. Frederick Stock (conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) commissioned the symphony from Milhaud in mid-1939 to celebrate the organization’s 50th anniversary.[2] When the Germans invaded France, capturing Paris and forcing the capitulation of Mar'echal Petain, the Milhaud family fled, crossing the border into Spain and from there Portugal. Milhaud used newspaper articles and correspondence with his manager to prove that he had composed a symphony for an American orchestra and was expected to attend its premiere, and this was enough to earn him a coveted visa. The family exited Europe through Lisbon, arriving in New York on July 15, 1940.

The context of the war emerges audibly – even programmatically – throughout Milhaud’s symphony. The end of the otherwise serene first movement tempers its innocent, pastoral topic with rumblings of something dark in the cellos and bass clarinet.

The second movement opens with a fulfillment of that sinister promise. After the first presentation of a violent, angular theme, Milhaud offsets it against itself by half a measure, marking with a very real displacement the confusion and despair of wartime. It's worth comparing several recordings to see how this effect can be exploited. The first is Michel Plasson’s 1992 performance with the Toulon Symphony, which softens the drama of this moment through technical polish.

In the second, Leopold Stokowski’s 1943 performance with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the manic tempo accentuates the uncertainty of Milhaud’s melody - appropriate for a wartime recording.[3] If you learned about this Milhaud symphony through Stokowski’s recording, you would be forgiven for immediately associating it with World War II - this performance drips with violence and pathos.

Following the pastoral first movement, the martial second movement easily might evoke the trampling of the folk by an invading force. The languorous and melancholy third movement suggests dejection, resignation, and calm uncertainty. We've already heard the beginning of the fourth movement, a musical representation of servitude if ever there were one. Following this theme, though, another emerges - a peppy sea-shanty in the winds.

Near the end of the movement, the two themes compete for preeminence. In the battle between Germanic heaviness and an Anglo-Saxon-influenced folk tune, only one can survive . . .

To find out which theme wins, you'll have to take a listen on your own (or just think about who won the Second World War). Then again, there's a strong chance that this theme - and the whole symphony - isn't about the war at all. The dates of the symphony tell the story. In his autobiography, Milhaud reports that due to illness and writer’s block, he didn’t start composing until after war had broken out, in November 1939. (So it is about the war!) Consistent with Milhaud’s general compositional facility, he finished the work in short order on December 19th, 1939, meaning he wrote the entire thing during the so-called “dr^ole de guerre” in France, before the German invasion, and well before Milhaud knew he would need to flee the country.  So a program that traces the various stages of the war – calm, defeat, desolation, ending with a battle between servitude and liberty – seems historically inaccurate, even if it does make for a nice story.

Still, there’s no denying that Symphony No. 1 deserves the subtitle “Deliverance.” For one thing, the work undoubtedly saved Milhaud and his family. And even if its content couldn’t possibly comment on the war at hand, there’s no reason it can’t make more of a universal claim - maybe something timeless about good vs. evil. This, too, is a projection not easily born out by the historical record, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.

This admission brings me to my final subtitle proposal.

III. Milhaud Symphony No. 1: “American

Yes, Milhaud was born in France and spent his entire life a French citizen. Yes, this piece was composed entirely in France. Yet what could be more American than a classic immigration tale in which an upstanding individual flees persecution only to make a major contribution to the culture of his adopted land? Milhaud even considered Symphony No. 1 to be his first “Opus Americanum,” his first work (of many) to be premiered, printed, and promoted in the United States. Pace Milhaud, I would argue that his first “American” music dates from the late 1910s and early 1920s, when he became fascinated by Harlem jazz.[4]. And Milhaud didn’t merely essentialize “America” as a one-trick, jazzy pony. His particular brands of polytonality, syncopation, orchestration, and interest in rural musics all constitute affinities between his work and canonical “American” modernist music of the early 20th century. A particularly representative moment comes in the middle of the first movement:

The third movement seems to constitute the greatest nod to Americana, with its omnipresent blue notes, “Summertime”-like languor, and emphasis on wind timbres.

Ultimately it’s less important that the piece sound American (since we still don’t really know what “America” sounds like) than it is that the piece and its composer stake out a clearly defined place in American musical culture. With a commission and premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and an early second performance by Stokowski and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Mihaud's musical style clearly appealed to American tastes. Through his many years of teaching at Mills College, his numerous commissions by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and a surprising number of other American orchestras (San Francisco, St. Louis, New Orleans, and more!), Milhaud’s music did more than interlope on American musical life – his work helped define it.

My subtitles for Milhaud's First Symphony highlight how reception can color our perception of a piece, and they point to an age-old dispute about the nature of "programmatic" music. (Does the Eroica sound heroic if we don't know the title?) In truth, one could audition any number of subtitles for any symphony - but only time will reveal which subtitle proves most apt. For Milhaud's Symphony No. 1, will it be "Post-neoclassical," "Deliverance," "American" - or would you choose something entirely different?
--Louis Epstein

1. Recapitulations are only nominally related to expositions; themes come in Mozartian groups rather than Beethovenian oppositions. See Roger Nichols, Liner Notes to Michel Plasson recording.
2. Stock also commissioned Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, Miaskovsky's Symphony No. 21, Harris's American Creed, Kodály's Concerto for Orchestra, Glière's Fête ferganaise Overture, Casella's Symphony No. 3, and Walton's Scapino Overture – plenty of fodder for future Unsung Symphonies posts! See http://cso.org/uploadedFiles/8_about/History_-_Rosenthal_archives/Frederick_Stock.pdf
3. It’s worth noting that the second recording can be found on the same album as two other Stokowski wartime performances, one of Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 1 “Exile” (see what I mean about epic subtitles?) and Copland’s Symphony No. 2 “Short” (not so epic).
4. In fact, Milhaud’s efforts at incorporating elements of jazz into art music predate those of Copland, Virgil Thomson, and other American composers who knew his music