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Darius Milhaud in 1926

Darius Milhaud in 1926

This weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts (beginning on Thursday, 19 February 2015, conducted by Stéphane Denève) include the stylized jazz of Darius Milhaud‘s score for the 1923 ballet La création du monde. Commissioned by the Ballets Suédois, a short-lived rival to the more famous Ballets Russes, La création du monde joined a long line of artworks and spectacles in which European artists leveraged the perceived frisson of non-European cultures. Africa inspired La création du monde: writer Blaise Cendrars fashioned a scenario from African creation myths he collected for his Anthologie nègre; artist Fernand Léger based his set and costume designs on African sculpture. The goal was less authenticity than shock. (Milhaud recalled Léger rejecting designs because they were “too bright and ‘pretty-pretty.’”)

Milhaud brought jazz into the mix. He missed the first Parisian vogue for jazz (he was in Brazil, serving as secretary to the French ambassador, playwright Paul Claudel), but was smitten after hearing it in London; he later traveled to New York and visited jazz clubs in Harlem. Jazzy touches were already commonplace back in Paris, but Milhaud wanted something closer to the source. He favored the tumult of the improvisation he heard in Harlem over the tightly arranged stylings of the largely white bands that played in Europe; La création du monde is fully composed, but its Baroque-inspired prelude-and-fugue form was designed to capture jazz’s contrapuntal frenzy. Milhaud was determined to get the sound right, limiting the strings to single players – letting winds, piano, and percussion dominate – and prominently featuring the saxophone, its tone (as Milhaud described it) “squeezing the juice out of dreams.”

The score also preserves a fluid moment in the history of art. As the twentieth century progressed, modernism and popular culture became adversaries, but, at the time of La création du monde, modernists could engage with pop on terms that were equal parts celebration and sabotage. Milhaud’s music pushes against both sides: the orchestra sounds like a jazz band, the jazz band plays like Bach, Bach underpins a pagan ritual, the ritual fuels Parisian fashion. Every element tries to reshape every other by force of collision. (Not incidentally, La création du monde premiered on a double bill with Within the Quota, scored by Cole Porter.)

The revolution didn’t pan out – commercial forces commodified jazz, cosseted classical music into plush escapism, and ensured a long estrangement between pop and the avant-garde. But La création du monde still shouts an objection with atypical style.

Matthew GuerrieriThe Boston Globe