:: The articles in this series were originally
:: published in Daniella Thompson on Brazil.


The Boeuf chronicles

Au Temps du Boeuf sur le Toit
2. First performance of Le Boeuf sur le Toit.

Daniella Thompson

5 August 2003 [revised 4 July 2005]

Poster for the first performance of “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” (Crépineau collection)

The events leading to the première of Le Boeuf sur le Toit were described by Milhaud in his autobiography (see The Boeuf chronicles, Pt. 15 & 16). In his book Darius Milhaud, Paul Collaer added the following observations:

Milhaud gave [the score] its definitive title when it was first presented at the Comédie des Champs-Elysées theater in 1920, during that fascinating period when the musical antics of Les Six had put all Paris into a state of shock. Cocteau staged it as a pantomime for acrobats and clowns. The outrageous action was performed in slow motion, like a dream sequence while the music, in complete contrast, rushed full speed ahead. Fauconnet designed marvellous masks; after his death, Raoul Dufy took over his job, finishing not only the design of the costumes, but the painting of the décor as well. The pantomime was entrusted to that wonderful family of clowns the Fratellini, whose childlike sense of wonder seemed to transform the whole world into one great, magical plaything.

Detail from the first-performance poster

I shall never forget one day when the three brothers, Paul, François, and Albert, had some time off from a performance they were doing at the Palais de Cristal in Marseilles. We met them at the station in Aix and then accompanied these incredible individuals as they wafted down the Cours Mirabeau. Suddenly, the attention of every denizen of the street was riveted on them, not due to any special effort on their part to get attention, but because they were so deeply immersed in their world of fantasy that they drew others into it. When they arrived at L’Enclos, they emptied their pockets of all sorts of toys and trinkets. Then they cavorted into the garden, squealing with delight as they discovered fruit that was not displayed in neat boxes under the glare of electric lights, and as they found that if one squeezed these beautiful pieces of fruit in a certain way, they would jump up like frogs.

The Fratellini brothers visiting Milhaud at L’Enclos, the Milhaud family’s country estate, 1920 (Darius Milhaud archive)

For a long time, painters, writers, and composers made special trips to the circus to see these superb performers, who inspired many an artist. In turn, the Fratellini were influenced by some of the painters. Their interpretation of one of the scenes in Le Boeuf sur le Toit was in every way similar to the shadings, the pure line, and the rhythmic discipline of a Picasso work.

The performance at the Comédie des Champs-Elysées theater proved to be an especially fortuitous collaboration. What remains from it today is the exuberant music, Cocteau’s writing, Dufy’s sketches, and also, in Milhaud’s Etudes, a marvellous description of the Fratellini performing their outrageous skit Miousic at the Medrano Circus.

At first considered an amusing trifle, Le Boeuf sur le Toit has taken its place as one of Milhaud’s most frequently perfomed and recorded orchestral works.

Detail of Milhaud’s handwritten 1919 score

Milhaud’s handwritten 1919 score (Darius Milhaud archive)

Note: The photographs on this page were part of the exhibition Au Temps du “Boeuf sur le Toit” 1918–1928, on view between May and July 1981 at the Centre d’Art Plastique Contemporain Artcurial, 9 avenue Matignon, Paris, and printed in the exhibition catalog, from which they were scanned.



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