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


The Boeuf chronicles

Milhaud & Rubinstein in Rio and Paris.

Daniella Thompson

Artur Rubinstein and Darius Milhaud, Rio de Janeiro, 1918 (Rubinstein: My Many Years)

The Polish pianist Artur (later Arthur) Rubinstein made Darius Milhaud’s acquaintance in Rio de Janeiro, while he was on his first South American concert tour in 1918. Their first meeting occured at dinner in the house of the composer and pianist Henrique Oswald (1852–1931), incorrectly identified by the name-dropping Rubinstein as “the director of the National Conservatory, Maestro Oswaldo” (in 1903–06, Oswald had been director of the Instituto Nacional de Música, and at the time of the meeting he served as a professor in that institute).

Here is Rubinstein’s account of that meeting, included in his autobiography, My Many Years (Knopf, 1980):

The director of the National Conservatory, Maestro Oswaldo, a charming gentleman in his sixties, invited me for dinner and to spend an evening among the prominent musicians in town. This was a good chance to learn about musical life in Brazil. The host, hostess, and a score of guests occupied a long table; I was seated in the center between two important composers, professors of harmony and counterpoint, Francisco Braga and Alberto Nepomuceno. As usual with musicians, the conversation became quite lively after the first glass of wine, with many amusing stories, mostly anecdotes about opera singers along with good imitations of them. I reciprocated by telling a few of my own best ones with great success. At this our good humor began to turn into slight pandemonium with everyone trying to tell a better one and all shouting at the same time.

At the other side of the table sat a man who so far had hardly smiled. The expression on his face fascinated me—he looked more Brazilian than the others, who were mostly of Portuguese or Italian descent. But this quiet man had a round, clean-shaven, full face, a darker complexion than the others, and sad, intelligent eyes. What struck me most about him was his fluent French. During a quieter moment I addressed him: “Allow me to compliment you on your French; I have never heard a foreigner with such a command of this beautiful and difficult language.”

He smiled. “I am a Frenchman,” he said quietly, “and am the private secretary of the French minister. My name is Darius Milhaud and I am a violinist and composer.” I had never heard of him.

“I was found unfit for military service,” he went on, “and was brought here by our minister, M. Paul Claudel, as his secretary but mainly as a collaborator.”

Claudel, Claudel … I thought. A few years before, Karol Szymanovski, while we were spending the summer at his family’s estate in the Ukraine, had given me two small books to read; their author was a Paul Claudel. Both were drama and I remember their titles: L’Otage and L’Annonce faite à Marie. After reading them with great interest I was convinced that the author had lived during the Napoleonic era. His style had something of a Chateaubriand or a Stendhal. I knew no more than that about him.

“Is the minister M. Claudel a descendant of the famous dramatists?” I asked Darius Milhaud. He was puzzled. “I don’t know of any other dramatist of that name but our minister.”

“This is fantastic,” I said excitedly. “I loved those two dramas and was sure that the author had written them at the beginning of the nineteenth century.” Darius Milhaud gave out his first hearty laugh. “This is the best story of the evening. I must call the minister and tell it to him.” While we all had our coffee, he came back and said excitedly, “Claudel was so enchanted with your story that he is coming right away to join us.”

A half hour later, the minister plenipotentiary of France entered the room. “Please excuse me for coming uninvited but I couldn’t resist Milhaud’s description of the party and watt to meet your guest of honor, Mr. Rubinstein,” he said in a precise and clipped voice. Then he whispered to Milhaud and me, “Allons-nous-en; on va souper.”

Paul Claudel looked rather more like a provincial squire than a diplomat. Tallish with square shoulders and an embonpoint, he frightened me a little. I felt that he would not tolerate contradiction, but his round peasant-like face with its large brow was illuminated by a noble temperament. We took leave of our charming hosts in haste, went out to the street, and entered the official car of the ministry. “Go to the restaurant on the roof where we went the other night,” he said to his driver. A few minutes later we stopped at a house where an elevator took us all the way up to the roof. We entered a restaurant under the open sky; some people at two or three tables were finishing their meal. Seated at a table lit by one candle, Claudel took charge. He recommended a Brazilian dish, vatapá, which is so hot that it can be swallowed only when accompanied by a soft side dish, and with it you must drink a strong white wine. Hot and strong are understatements; when I swallowed the first big spoonful of vatapá, I jumped out of my chair with tears in my eyes and had to get rid of it in some corner of the roof. Claudel enjoyed this as a personal triumph. “I told you it was pretty hot!” I learned my lesson and continued to eat this volcano more cautiously. Three glasses of the strong beverage did their work. By then, we were the only occupants of the roof with one or two waiters in attendance. Taking advantage of this, M. Claudel began to recite poems of Arthur Rimbaud in his sharp penetrating voice and Milhaud and I were carried away by his fine performance. Fired by the wine, he then gave us a brilliant recitation of a passage from his latest book, for which Milhaud was to compose the music. This impressed me even more than the Rimbaud. The great writer felt elated; we had fruit on the table. He picked a small bunch of grapes, went to the border of the roof, and took aim at a passerby in the street. Missing him, he rushed for another bunch and this time hit a woman on the head. She started to scream and wave her fist at her invisible assailant, who was thoroughly enjoying his prank on the roof. A few people gathered and one of them called a policeman. The woman demanded the arrest of the grape thrower. After a while our waiter showed in a stern, dark policeman who came straight to our table and demanded in a threatening voice: “Who is the one who threw grapes on a lady who was passing by peacefully?” Claudel rose majestically to his feet and said in French, “My friend, I don’t understand a word of Portuguese, so if you have something to ask me, get an interpreter.” He added more loudly, “Eu ministro da Francia.” Milhaud, who knew some Portuguese, explained quickly that one of us wanted to grab a bunch of grapes from another and it flew over the side. “So do not annoy the ambassador of France.” The policeman retired with great obeisance.

“Milhaud, vous fêtes un bon diplomate,” said Claudel graciously. We let on insecure legs. The driver drove the two Frenchmen home and was told to take me to my hotel at Tijuca.

They became great friends. Back in Paris after the war, Rubinstein’s first call was to Milhaud, who the very same afternoon took him to the Bar Gaya and introduced him to the other members of Les Six as well as to Jean Cocteau and Jean Wiéner.

As Milhaud maintained in his autobiography, Notes sans Musique (1949), he intended Le Boeuf sur le Toit to be a musical accompaniment for one of Charlie Chaplin’s films. “At that time” he wrote, “the silent films were accompanied by fragments of classical music, rendered by large or small orchestras, or even a single piano, according to the financial means available. Cocteau disapproved of my idea, and proposed that he should use it for a show, which he would undertake to put on. Cocteau had a genius for improvisation! Hardly had he conceived the idea of a project than he immediately carried it out.”

Rubinstein presents a different scenario. His account reveals that Milhaud and Cocteau first presented Le Boeuf to Serge Diaghilev, who turned it down:

Diaghilev’s long exile from Russia had created a sort of divorce between him and his native country. After the war, much influenced by Jean Cocteau, he commissioned ballets by Auric and Poulenc. Apropos, I remember a funny incident. Strolling along the rue de Rivoli, I met Jean Cocteau, who asked me, “Tu vas chez Misia?” I was just back from a weekend at the Melchior de Polignacs’ at Reims, where we had orgies of écrevisses au champagne, “No, I am not invited,” I answered.

“This is absurd,” he said. “Come with me, she will be delighted to have you. She has Diaghilev, Massine, and Eric Satie to hear a ballet by Milhaud which he will play four-hands with Auric and hopes to have included in Diaghilev’s next season.” This sounded too interesting to miss. We entered the Meurice, where Misia had a lovely apartment, and found the company already assembled. I was heartily welcomed by everybody but Milhaud and Auric, who showed great disappointment at seeing me. While tea was served Cocteau took me to another room. “Arthur,” he said, “please don’t make any remarks after hearing the music. Milhaud composed the ballet which he calls Boeuf sur le toit using nothing but Brazilian tunes, most of which he composed by himself, but there are also some popular ones from Brazil and he is deeply alarmed that you might reveal it in front of Diaghilev, as you are the only one who might recognize them.” I promised, crossing my heart, not to say a word. We settled around the piano and Milhaud and Auric gave us a lively performance of this most engaging music. Diaghilev and Massine listened impassively, as they always did on such occasions.

The first words came from Diaghilev: “Est-ce que tout cela est original?” Milhaud, with the expression of a schoolboy caught copying his neighbor, answered weakly, “Practically everything…” That did it. It was fatal. Diaghilev had had to pay royalties for the tunes of living composers that Stravinsky had used lavishly in his ballets, so he had an alert ear for anything of that kind.

The issue on Diaghilev’s mind was not plagiarism but royalties. Could that have been be the reason for Milhaud’s keeping mum about his sources?

Cocteau wasn’t bothered by such considerations. Rejected by Diaghilev, he did the next best thing and mounted Le Boeuf sur le Toit independently.

I thank Eric Crawford for sending me the photo in 2003 and Alexandre Dias for bringing Rubinstein’s reminiscences about Milhaud to my attention.



Copyright © 2003–2020 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.