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


The Boeuf chronicles, Pts. 15 & 16

The policeman’s death & the tanguinho.

Daniella Thompson

28 June 2002 (revised 24 July 2005)

Raoul Dufy’s drawing for “Le Boeuf”

In the unpublished article Influence of Latin-American music on my work, written at Mills College in 1944, Milhaud wrote:

My work was greatly influenced by the memory of Brazil which I had loved so much. After my return to France I thought often of the lively rhythmic maxixes and of the more nonchalant airs of the tangos. I considered making a sort of rhapsody based on the airs which I had heard there but treated very freely. I wanted a piece of uninterrupted movement, colorful and torrential. I was reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s films. Later I gave it the title of an old Brazilian air, Le Boeuf sur le Toit, and as a subtitle “Fantaisie for the movies.”

In Notes sans Musique (1949) Milhaud added:

I called this fantasia Le Boeuf sur le toit, which was the title of a Brazilian popular song. I thought that the character of this music might make it suitable for an accompaniment to one of Charlie Chaplin’s films. At that time, 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. To begin with, we needed some form of financial backing. Jean took the seating plan of the Comédie des Champs-Elysées to the Comte de Baumont, who undertook to book in advance, at a high price, the boxes and the first rows of the stalls. A few days later, as if at the wave of a magic wand, the whole theatre was booked up, and the Shah of Persia even paid ten thousand francs for a front seat from which he could not see a thing, but was himself in full view of everyone. The expenses of the show being covered, all that remained to be done was to set to work.

Milhaud, Cocteau & Poulenc

Cocteau produced a pantomime scenario which would be adapted to my music. He imagined a scene in a bar in America during Prohibition. The various characters were highly typical: a Boxer, a Negro Dwarf, a Lady of Fashion, a Red-headed Woman dressed as a man, a Bookmaker, a Gentleman in evening clothes. The Barman, with a face like that of Antinous, offers everyone cocktails. After a few incidents and various dances, a Policeman enters, whereupon the scene is immediately transformed into a milk-bar. The clients play a rustic scene and dance a pastorale as they sip glasses of milk. The Barman switches on a big fan which decapitates the Policeman. The Red-headed Woman executes a dance with the Policeman’s head, ending up standing on her hands like the Salome in Rouen Cathedral. One by one the customers drift away, and the Barman presents an enormous bill to the resuscitated Policeman.

Jean had engaged the clowns from the Cirque Médrano and the Fratellini to play the various parts. They followed implicitly all the extremely precise orders he gave them as producer. Albert Fratellini, being an acrobat, could even dance on his hands around the Policeman’s head. In contrast with the lively tempo of the music, Jean made all the movements slow, as in a slow-motion film. This conferred an unreal, almost dream-like atmosphere on the show. The huge masks lent peculiar distinction to all the gestures, and made the movement of hands and feet pass unperceived. Guy Pierre Fauconnet designed them, as well as the costumes. We got together one Sunday at my place to arrange the entrances and dances in accordance with my score, as well for Fauconnet to draw the characters as Jean described them to him. We worked so late that I offered to put Fauconnet up for the night, but he refused and preferred to go home to Montparnasse, after arranging another rendezvous with us. He did not turn up. Anxiously, Jean rushed to his house and learnt that the poor fellow had died trying to light a fire. He was, unknown to us, extremely ill, apparently having an enlarged heart. In him we lost a very dear friend. This was the first loss our little group was to sustain. Later we were to lose Meerovitch, Radiguet, Emmanuel Fay, Nininha Guerra...

Raoul Dufy agreed to take over the work on the scenery for Le Boeuf, keeping our friend’s masks and designs for the costumes. [...]

The Fratellini

We announced three performances of Le Boeuf. Cocteau was so nervous that he was afraid no one would come after the first, which was not open to the public. He persuaded Lucien Daudet to send three hundred pneumatiques (express letters) each entitling the bearer to a “little box.” There was an indescribable crush at the doors which only the skillful handling and diplomacy of Lucien Daudet, who consented to take charge of the situation, managed to keep in hand.

The program included Trois Petites Pièces Montées, especially written by Erik Satie for our show, Auric’s Fox-Trot and Poulenc’s Cocardes sung by Koubitzky, accompanied by violin, trumpet, clarinet, trombone and big drum. Golschmann conducted our orchestra of twenty-five instruments. This isolated demonstration was taken by both critics and public as a declaration of aesthetic faith. The light-hearted show presented under the aegis of Erik Satie and treated by the newspapers as a “leg-pull,” was regarded by the public as symbolizing a Music Hall Circus system of aesthetics, and for the critics it represented the so-called post war music ...

The Ba-Ta-Clan theatre, Paris

The ballet enjoyed immediate success, repeated at the London Coliseum in July 1920. In October of the following year, Madame Bénédicte Rasimi, director of the famous Ba-Ta-Clan vaudeville theatre (at 50 Boulevard Voltaire in the Bastille quarter), produced an abridged music-hall adaptation, which she included in the revue Ah oui! and would mount again in Rio de Janeiro during the troupe’s South American tour of 1922.

The Brazilian press did not take kindly to this Boeuf production. In an article entitled “O Brazil atrozmente injuriado em Paris,” the newspaper O Imparcial reported on 5 August 1922 (a day before Ba-Ta-Clan began its month-long Rio engagement) that two Brazilians, one of them being the diplomat Navarro da Costa, had seen this “scene of insults to our country” in Paris. The only comment on the music was made in passing, noting that the orchestra played “maxixes brasileiros e batuques africanos.” Milhaud’s borrowing of Brazilian tunes wasn’t mentioned. What annoyed the Brazilians was the Nothing Doing Bar environment, characterized as a “botequim ignóbil, sujíssimo,” as if the presence of Brazilian music had automatically turned the Prohibition-era American bar devised by Cocteau into a low-class Brazilian botequim and thus besmirched Brazil’s image abroad.

O Imparcial, 5 August 1922

According to O Imparcial, the stage characters in Le Boeuf sur le Toit caricatured the Brazilian population: “The fellow with the green face and oilskin dress coat obviously represents our ‘élite,’ pretentious, ridiculous, defined by vice. Does the red-headed woman, who in one scene puts her legs up in the air, represent the Brazilian woman? The negroes, without doubt, represent the majority of the Brazilian population.” The newspaper also asserted that at the end of the Boeuf sketch, one of the actors unfurled an enormous sign proclaiming “El Brasil.” This assertion has never been substantiated.*

Madame Rasimi hastened to dispatch a reply to the press, which was published in O Paiz on 6 August. The letter stated that Ba-Ta-Clan had never offended or ridiculed Brazil in any of its revues, that the ultramodern pantomime Le Boeuf sur le Toit parodies the American Prohibition law, and that this sketch, already mounted in New York, is not offensive to the United States, either. Mme. Rasimi’s reply apparently mollified the cariocas, for the Ba-Ta-Clan tour was a hit.

A clip from Mme. Rasimi’s letter to the press (O Paiz, 6 August 1922)

In Rio de Janeiro, the Ba-Ta-Clan company mounted four successive revues at the Teatro Lírico. The productions were Paris Chic (6–14 Aug.); Pour Vous Plaire (15–21 Aug.); V’la Paris (22–29 Aug.); and Au Revoir (30 Aug.–3 Sept.). Le Boeuf sur el Toit was included in Paris Chic. V’la Paris, a revue in two acts and 31 scenes, premiered eight days after the Oito Batutas had returned from Paris. Madame Rasimi wasted no time and engaged the group to constitute Scene 32 in her show. Beginning on 24 August, the Batutas played in V’la Paris the same repertoire they had played at the Shéhérazade in Paris. When this production was replaced by Au Revoir, they continued their act for the four-day run, but did not join the company when it moved on to São Paulo, since they were engaged to perform at the Centennial Exposition.

Ba-Ta-Clan returned to Rio in 1926, staging the revue C’est Paris at the Teatro Lírico. This time, Madame Rasimi asked the drummer Carlos Blassifera (“Carlito”) to form a jazz combo that would accompany the troupe on a tour of São Paulo, Salvador, and Recife, with the possiblity of traveling to Europe. Aside from the leader, Carlito’s Jazz-Band included Donga (guitar & banjo), Sebastião Cirino (trumpet), Augusto Vasseur (piano), João Wanderley (violin), Orosino de Souza (saxophone), and Zé Povo (trombone). Following the stage run of C’est Paris in Lisbon, the band was let go and traveled to Paris on its own. There the Brazilian ambassador, Souza Dantas, arranged for them to play a three-month engagement at the cabaret Palermo in Montmartre. The band’s Parisian name was Carlito et son Orchestre. In late January 1927, following a gig at the Café Anglais, Donga and Wanderley left the group, returning to Brazil on 10 February. Carlito’s Jazz-Band remained in Europe until 1939, when the outbreak of WWII prompted the musicians to return home.

The 1926 Latin American tour was a commercial flop, plagued by local insurrections and other unforeseen obstacles. Madame Rasimi was eventually forced to give up her Paris theatre, which would be converted into a cinema in 1930. In 1975, the Bataclan [sic] was reopened as a music venue. Among the Brazilian acts who performed there are Seu Jorge and Neguinho da Beija-Flor. The French-Brazilian connection is maintained by the Brazilian bar Beco da Cachaça, located next door to the theatre at 44 Boulevard Voltaire.

Tune No. 15: “La Mort du Policeman” (unidentified)

This unidentified number has the galloping verve of a czardas. In Cocteau’s ballet, it was played during the policeman’s death by decapitation. In Louis de Froment’s recording of Le Boeuf sur le Toit, the tune begins at 8:42 minutes.

When Milhaud wrote that he had used “even a Portuguese fado” in Le Boeuf sur le Toit, he didn’t specify which tune the fado was. It is natural to assume that the tune in question is Nazareth’s “Ferramenta,” which bears the subtitle ‘fado.’ However, Alexandre Dias points out that Tune no. 15, played in slow tempo, sounds like a fado. Who knows? An investigation of fados of the early 20th century might yet reveal this tune among them.

Tune No. 16: “Tanguinho meio choro” (unidentified)

Tune no. 16, which sounds like a tanguinho, appears at 9:06 min. into the Froment recording. This tune is played in counterpoint with tune no. 15.

As the musicologist Manoel Aranha Corrêa do Lago points out, “it would seem consistent to assume that the few segments in Le Boeuf that remain unidentified should present similar characteristics to those that have been identified, i.e., that they should also be quotations from complete sections belonging to other Brazilian pieces, printed no later than 1919.”

= = =

* Information about the reaction in O Imparcial was provided by Elizabeth Travassos and Manoel Aranha Corrêa do Lago in the article Darius Milhaud e os “compositores de tangos, maxixes, sambas e cateretês” (Revista Brasileira XI:43, April-May-June 2005). The authors relied on research by Anaïs Fléchet for her doctoral thesis La réception des musiques brésiliennes en France au XXème siècle. Additional information was provided directly by Dr. Fléchet.


Copyright © 2002–2016 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.