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Masterpiece Theatre: Part Two - Milhaud's La Création du monde




Milhaud discovered American jazz in a 1920 visit to London, where he encountered Billy Arnold's Novelty Jazz Band in a Hammersmith dance hall. By the time he arrived in New York two years later for a series of engagements, he was claiming that European composers, including himself, were strongly influenced by American jazz (even though the only evidence available consisted of very short pieces by the likes of Satie, Auric, and Stravinsky). In New York, he haunted Harlem clubs and bought as many jazz records as he could. Upon his return to Paris, Milhaud was primed to write a lengthy, jazz-inspired score and saw his chance in a collaboration with Swedish producer Rolf de Maré, designer Fernand Léger, writer Blaise Cendrars, and choreographer Jean Börlin. The subject was nothing less than the creation of the world, as seen through African myth. Léger based his scenery and costumes on African art, and Milhaud took his inspiration from the African American music then in the air: jazz. He created a score for 17 solo instruments, including saxophone, and made liberal use of syncopation and near-chaotic counterpoint with the feeling of jazz improvisation (all the notes were written out, however). The score falls into five sections performed without breaks, always underlined by percussion instruments (here including the piano) that evoke both African drums and American jazz styles. The more animated the music becomes, as in the fugal second section, the more frenetic, syncopated, and outwardly jazzy it grows. The slower, quieter passages early on have less to do with African or American styles, aside from the occasional blue note. Throughout, Milhaud makes liberal use of polytonality, as is the case with all his mature music. The curtain rises on darkness, through which can be dimly perceived in inchoate mass of human bodies. Soon, the African gods of creation, Mzamé, Mebère, and Nkwa materialize and through their incantations, various forms of life begin to emerge from the mass of bodies: trees, animals, and ultimately a man and woman. The couple performs a sassy, syncopated dance of creation; the music becomes gentler and the man and woman are left alone on-stage to welcome the first spring.

[Article taken from All Music Guide]

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I love this ballet! It seems that Milhaud isn't talked about too much on Talk Classical, but that's okay. Hopefully, this thread will get the ball rolling in his favor. He's a marvelous composer and this ballet La Création du monde would be a great introduction to those of you that don't know his music. There's nothing in the repertoire that sounds anything like it. I would say it's probably the work that has also fared the best on disc. There are dozens (perhaps even more) of performances of it. My top pick for performance goes Munch with the Boston SO on RCA.

What do you guys think of this work?
 

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It's a very fun piece that has a very different approach to jazz from, say, Gershwin. I bet it would be amazing to see, but as far as I can tell there isn't a lot of 20th century ballet performed in my neck of the woods.

Anyone who enjoys this would also like Milhaud's slightly earlier ballet Le Boeuf sur le Toit, which draws on Brazilian popular music as Creation du monde draws on popular music from Harlem.

Great choice to highlight! I'll have to listen to it again.
 

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I completely agree about La Creation..., it was my introduction to Milhaud via some bits of it on an Angel Records promotional disk way back in the dim reaches of history*. Le Bouef is almost as good. There is an excellent Chandos recording with Yan Pascal Tortelier which has both works along with Poulenc and Ibert.

* That record also introduced me to the Ravel Left Hand Concerto.
 

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I have a recording with Bernstein conducting the Orchestre National de France. It's part of a mega-box set of 20th century music, so I don't have Le Bouef paired on the original album.

It was not easy finding a recording of the ballet. I think the embedded one uses the original choreography. Borlin is credited in the notes. The costumes are certainly Leger-ish.


Edit - It occurs to me that the video might be offensive to some. I leave it to the moderators' discretion as to whether it should be removed. @Art Rock

I wish I could find a recording of Kenneth MacMillan's version.
 
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