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


The Boeuf chronicles, Pt. 5

How the Ox got its name,
and other Parisian legends.

Daniella Thompson

6 May 2002

Le Groupe des Six
(Jacques-Émile Blanche, 1922)

Soon after his return from Brazil, Milhaud and five other young French composers—Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Tailleferre—formed Les Six, a group in which the poet and playwright Jean Cocteau served as an important catalyst. In Notes Without Music, Milhaud described the group’s regular Saturday evenings:

The formation of the Group of Six helped to draw the bonds of friendship closer between us. For two years we met regularly at my place every Saturday evening. Paul Morand would make the cocktails, and then we would go to a little restaurant at the top of the Rue Blanche. The dining room of the Petit Bessonneau was so diminutive that the Saturday customers filled it completely. They gave free rein to their high spirits. We were not all composers, for our numbers also included performers: Marcelle Meyer, Juliette Meerovitch, Andrée Vaurabourg, Irène Lagut, Valentine Gross, Jean Hugo’s fiancée, Guy Pierre Fauconnet; and writers: Lucien Daudet, Raymond Radiguet, a young poet who was brought to us by Cocteau. After dinner, lured by the steam-driven roundabouts, the mysterious booths, the “Daughter of Mars”, the shooting galleries, the games of chance, the menageries, the din of the mechanical organs with their perforated rolls seeming to grind out simultaneously and implacably all the blaring tunes from the music halls and revues, we would visit the Fair of Montmartre, or occasionally the Cirque Médrano, to see the Fratellinis in their sketches, so steeped in poetry and imagination that they were worthy of the Commedia dell’Arte. We finished up the evening at my house. The poets would read their poems, and we would play our latest compositions. Some of them, such as Auric’s Adieu New York, Poulenc’s Cocardes and my Boeuf sur le toit were continually being played. We even used to insist on Poulenc’s playing Cocardes every Saturday evening: he did so most readily. Out of these meetings, over which a spirit of carefree gaiety reigned, many a fruitful collaboration was to be born; they also determined the character of several works strongly marked by the influence of the Music Hall.

Stéphane Villemin added in Les Six, le Coq et l’Arlequin:

Les soirées se terminent chez Darius Milhaud ou au bar Gaya pour écouter Jean Wiéner jouer de la musique nègre. Cocteau lit ses derniers poèmes. Milhaud et Auric, rejoints par Artur Rubinstein, jouent Le boeuf sur le toit à six mains. Cette pièce de Milhaud, créée en 1920 au Théâtre [sic] des Champs-Élysées avec la présence sur scène des fameux frères Fratellini, va devenir le morceau à succès des samedistes. Si bien que le propriétaire du fameux bar Gaya donne à son nouveau restaurant rue Boissy-d’Anglas le nom de Boeuf sur le toit. Jean Wiéner et Clément Doucet font le reste pour faire de cette adresse un lieu de rencontre à la mode.

The evenings would end at Darius Milhaud’s or at the Gaya bar, where they listened to Jean Wiéner play black music. Cocteau would read his latest poems. Milhaud and Auric, joined by Artur Rubinstein, played Le Boeuf sur le Toit six hands. This work, mounted in 1920 at the Théâtre [sic] des Champs-Élysées with the famous Fratellini, would become the hit of the Saturday parties—so much so that the owner of the famous Gaya bar gave his new restaurant on the rue Boissy d’Anglas the name Le Boeuf sur le Toit. Jean Wiéner and Clément Doucet did the rest to make this address a fashionable meeting place.

According to Maurice Sachs in Au Temps du Boeuf sur le Toit—his mock-journal of the years 1919 through 1929, published in 1939 (Nouvelle Revue Critique)—Gaya moved to 28 rue Boissy d’Anglas (see photos of the new establishment) on 15 December 1921 and was renamed Le Boeuf sur le Toit because its manager, Louis Moysès, believed that Cocteau would bring him luck. The bar quickly became one of the most fashionable nightspots in Paris and remained so through the late ’20s, until Moysès was forced to move it to several successive locations. The restaurant exists to this day, but with no trace of its former bohemian effervescence and social cachet. An account of its changing fortunes is given in Les dîners du samedi, 1918–1920 by Marie-Christine Movilliat.

So popular was Le Boeuf sur le Toit in its heyday that Maurice Sachs wrote in 1928: “[...] other justly famous restaurants whose names are still remembered by all or that are still in open and will remain so for a long time seem to have existed only before or after the old Boeuf.” The name was adopted by restaurants and cabarets in various French and Belgian cities. Jazz musicians who played in other Parisian venues gathered at Le Boeuf sur le Toit to jam after they had finished their paying gigs. To this day, jam sessions in France are called Boeuf, and jamming is faire le Boeuf or taper le Boeuf.

Le Boeuf sur le Toit achieved such legendary status that it ended up becoming a symbol for Paris in the 1920s and led to the common misconception that Milhaud’s rondo had been named after the bistro rather than the other way around.

“Le Boeuf sur le Toit” by Jean Hugo

Tune No. 5: “O Boi no Telhado” (1918)

In Notes Without Music, Milhaud wrote: “I called this fantasia Le Boeuf sur le toit, which was the title of a Brazilian popular song.”

The tango “O Boi no Telhado” (The Ox on the Roof) by José Monteiro, aka Zé Boiadêro, was launched at the 1918 carnaval and rarely heard of since. By now it’s so thoroughly forgotten that only a handful of people would be able to recognize its melody.

The song’s claim to fame is so intrinsically tied to Milhaud’s piece that most listeners who know of it automatically assume that “O Boi no Telhado” is the recurring rondo theme in Le Boeuf sur le Toit. In fact, the tango’s section A appears just once, at 2:19 min. into Louis de Froment’s recording, played by the brass in counterpoint with “O Matuto” in the strings.

Only one recording of “O Boi no Telhado” was ever made, in which the same section A quoted by Milhaud is noisily and repetitively played by the Naval Battalion Band, probably in 1918:

Autor: José Monteiro
Título: O Boi no Telhado
Gênero: Tango
Intérprete: Banda do Batalhão Naval
Gravadora: Odeon
Número: 121432

Listen to an excerpt from this recording.

Original score cover (Brasil 1920–1950: Da Antropofagia a Brasília)

The piano score published by Viúva Guerreiro & Cia.* and by Casa Bevilacqua provided no lyrics, but Edigar de Alencar included them in his book O Carnaval Carioca Através da Música (1965), in the chapter 1918–1919:

Nesse carnaval aparece igualmente um samba de Zé Boiadero (José Monteiro) com o título de O BOI NO TELHADO. Editado pela casa Viúva Guerreiro & Cia., traz ainda a designação de tango, mas ao fim da parte musical há uma nota: “Peçam às bandas de música para tocarem êste samba gostoso” (sic):

Vem mulata ter comigo
Vamos ver o Carnaval
Eu quero gozar contigo
Esta festa sem rival.

Vem cá, vem cá, vem cá
meu bem.
Como eu não há

Pula, pula, perereca
E segura esta boneca
Vem cá, vem cá, vem cá [bis]

Segura o cabrito [bis]
O boi é bem manso [bis]
Mulata cutuba [bis]
Aguenta o balanço [bis]

Essa composição possuía mais versos e contava três partes de acôrdo com o figurino em voga. O título lembrava festanças e estórias do nordeste e em nada se relacionava com o texto, mas era pitoresco e de côr claramente folclórica. O BOI NO TELHADO não registra sucesso no carnaval. Todavia, liga-se em definitivo à famosa suite de Darius Milhaud, com a mesma denominação (Le Boeuf sur le Toit), editada em Paris no ano seguinte (1919).

Publicity card for the restaurant Le Boeuf sur le Toit

The motif of a cow on the roof is a universal one and appears in Chinese, Welsh, and Norwegian tales, American rural and urban folklore, and countless restaurants around the world. Had the melody of “O Boi no Telhado” been as endearing as its title, perhaps we might still be singing it today.

= = =

* Although Viúva Guerreiro & Cia. published “O Boi no Telhado,” at least one of the firm’s catalogs curiously lists the tango as the creation of Cardoso de Menezes Filho, composer of “A Mulher do Bode.”



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