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


The Boeuf chronicles

Sitting out the war: Milhaud at Mills College.

Daniella Thompson

11 June 2005

Just as World War I was the agent that brought about Darius Milhaud’s two-year sojourn in Brazil, World War II made it necessary for him to seek refuge in the United States. “I am a Frenchman from Provence, and, by religion, a Jew” is the first sentence in the composer’s autobiography, Notes sans Musique (1949), expanded and republished as Ma Vie Heureuse in 1974, the year of Milhaud’s death.

Being a Frenchman, Milhaud was safer during the 1930s than his German Jewish counterparts, many of whom left their native land as soon as Hitler had seized power in 1933. Kurt Weill fled to France in March 1933, and in 1935 he and Lotte Lenya sailed to New York, where Weill would carve out a second career as a Broadway composer. The conductor Otto Klemperer left Germany a month after Weill and took over the baton at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Albert Einstein renounced his German citizenship in ’33 and moved to Princeton. Arnold Schoenberg emigrated in 1934, eventually becoming a professor at UCLA. Hanns Eisler, who left Germany in 1933, spent most of the 1940s in the United States, as did Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno. Hannah Arendt, who arrived in 1940, would remain in the U.S. for the rest of her life. Lesser known scholars found teaching positions in southern Black colleges like Howard University, Hampton Institute, and Tougaloo and Talladega Colleges, as documented in the PBS film From Swastika to Jim Crow.

The outbreak of WWII found the Milhauds in the family’s country estate, L’Enclos, on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence. Milhaud recalled in his autobiography:

The day before we left for Aix, I had a telephone call from Paris from the manager of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, asking me on behalf of Frederick Stock to compose a work for the fiftieth anniversary of the orchestra. When we arrived in Aix, Vladimir Golschmann came to see me to ask for a Fanfare for the sixtieth anniversary of the Saint Louis orchestra. Morini’s letters proposing a tour in the United States were growing more and more pressing. But the international situation was growing too dark for me to take such a decision. I fell ill into the bargain, and it was from my sickbed that I heard on the wireless the news of the invasion of Poland, which led to the declaration of war by England and France.

Editor’s note: Vladimir Golschmann had conducted the first performance of Le Boeuf sur le Toit or The Nothing-Happens Bar on 21 February 1920.

The young Milhaud and his parents at L’Enclos (from Paul Collaer: “Darius Milhaud”)

With the exception of a trip to Paris to attend the première of their opera Medée, the Milhauds and their son Daniel remained at l’Enclos. With mounting trepidation they followed the Battle of France, the fall of Paris, the advance of the Germans, and maréchal Pétain’s decision to stop the fighting. Milhaud reminisced:

I had had too many contacts with German, Austrian, Czech and Italian refugees not to have a very good idea of what an occupation would mean. I realized that the capitulation would prepare the soil for Fascism and its abominable train of monstrous persecutions. Madeleine proposed that we should leave the country. I was powerless, incapable of running away, or even hiding if need be, but such a decision was a bitter pill to swallow.... When one of our young friends, who was later to become a very gallant member of the Resistance, said to Madeleine, who was confiding in him how much she was worried: ‘All we’ve got to do is to drop England and sign a fifty-year pact with Germany!’ she realized the full horror of our situation and set to work immediately to organize our departure. Already all the Consulates were besieged by a tightly-packed crowd of British citizens trying by every means possible to get out of France. At Cook’s, where we booked seats on the Clipper, we met the Werfels who were in despair because they had been refused visas because of their nationality— they were Czechs. In desperation, they took a taxi to Bordeaux, where they hoped to get their papers. Sadly, and with forboding, we took our leave of them.... For us, however, everything went off well. I had in my possession all my correspondence with my manager and pre-war newspaper articles announcing my symphony, so that the American visa was granted immediately. As for the Portuguese visa, the official at the Consulate was kind enough to give it to me without even telegraphing his government.

Igor Stravinsky (left) and Nadia Boulanger (right) visiting the Milhauds at Mills, October 1944 (publicity photo)

There followed a drive across the border and several eventful train rides through Spain to Lisbon.

At Lisbon, we rushed to the Clipper Office, but our tickets were no longer valid. They had been paid for in Marseilles, and the franc had lost its value. We had no means of making up the difference in price, having only brought out the sum authorized by the government, namely twelve thousand francs for the three of us. We had not even enough money to book a passage by boat. While we waited on events, we moved into a little hotel. I wrote letters to Kurt Weill, to my manager, to Mrs. Reis, to Pierre Monteux and Mrs. Coolidge. I told them where we had got to, and these good friends set about organizing a future for me in America.

The Milhauds were finally able to obtain money for the transatlantic passage from the Baronne Goldschmidt-Rothschild, in exchange for money that Milhaud’s father sent to the baronne’s gardener in Toulon.

On board the Excambion, I was handed a telegram from Mills College offering me a teaching post.1 [...] When we arrived in New York [on 15 July 1940], my faithful friends Kurt Weill and his wife, Lotte Lenya, were standing at the quayside to greet us.

1 My name had been put forward by my friends, Pierre Monteux, Robert Schmitz and the members of the Pro Arte Quartet.

Editor’s note: Like Milhaud, the conductor Pierre Monteux came from an ancient Provençal Jewish family. At the time, he was the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. The Pro Arte Quartet had been artists in residence at Mills in the 1930s.

Courtesy of Claude Torres

Right: Milhaud at home in Oakland, 1950 (photo: Imogen Cunningham)

Dave Brubeck with Milhaud at Mills College

From 1940 to 1947, the Milhauds resided in a house that Mills College had built for them on campus. They were more fortunate than lesser-known artists and intellectuals, who found themselves without sponsorship and no prospect of work that would make possible a visa to the U.S. In the letter below, written on 3 June 1941, Milhaud replies to a French professor who had asked him to intervene on his behalf. The composer assures his correspondent that he will not fail to indicate his capacities as professor should the occasion present itself, but doesn’t conceal from him the slim chances of obtaining a post.

Scan courtesy of Marty Jourard

From 1971 on, Milhaud taught alternate years at Mills and at the Paris Conservatoire until poor health forced him to retire. Among his Mills students were Livingston Gearhart, Dave Brubeck, David van Kriedt, Burt Bacharach, William Bolcom, and Steve Reich.

French film stars Françoise Arnoul, Micheline Presle, Gérard Philippe & Jean Marais and film director Jean Renoir visit Milhaud at Mills on the occasion of the second San Francisco Film Festival in 1958. Josepha Heifetz plays the piano. (from Paul Collaer: Darius Milhaud; scan courtesy of Claude Torres)

Madeleine Milhaud was her husband’s collaborator, muse, and confidante. During the war years at Mills, Madeleine was kept very busy, as her husband recalled in My Happy Life:

Madeleine taught every year in the Maison Française, and also gave classes in dictation and literature at the college in the winter. She produced French plays, a task that involved complicated problems, for none of her actresses had studied dramatic art and they were handicapped still more by speaking in a foreign tongue. Nevertheless, by dint of patient rehearsal and hard work, the performances were excellent. She has produced plays by Molière, Regnard, Labiche, Superviello, Vildrac, and others, with music by Lully, or scores specially composed by Brubeck, Jones, and Livingston Gearhart. Life was hard for Madeleine: there are no servants in the United States except at wages higher than the salaries of university professors, allowing for the fact that they also have to be fed and housed. I admire my American colleagues who lend a hand with the housework. Madeleine has had to cope with it all unaided: cleaning, buying provisions, cooking, and washing up—and we always have a constant stream of visitors. She also acts as chauffeur for me, and has to snatch a few moments here and there for her own work and reading. You see that the title of the little piano suite I wrote for her, La Muse Ménagère, is no fanciful allusion.

La Muse Ménagère, Op. 245 was composed in 1944 and bears a dedication to M.M.M.M. In his book Darius Milhaud, Paul Collaer called the suite “a calm, intimate evocation of family life,” adding:

This beautiful expression of appreciation has a confidential quality. Most of the fifteen pieces could even be described as “silent music,” meaning the kind of silence that descends on a household toward evening, when thoughts turn inward, few words need to be exchanged, and all is at peace. This music of intimacy, tenderness, and affection requires very few notes. But for the performer who brings the music to life, each note has deep, emotional reverberations. Published in America under the title The Household Muse, this is not a work for the concert hall. It is the private diary of a tranquil, loving, protected home and needs to be performed in a similar atmosphere. In order to appreciate its evocative quality, one should play it as though for oneself. It is a moving experience on a quiet evening to read through the several sections entitled “Poetry,” “Music together,” “Evening quietude,” and “Reading at night,” to penetrate the veiled, vague murmurs of the “Fortune teller,” to conjure up the image of the beloved muse herself in those sections entitled “The kitchen” and “Doing the washing,” and to discover with amusement the turbulence of “The son who paints.”

The 1945 score cover of La Muse Ménagère incorporates a cat’s face into the guitar illustration (one of the cat’s eyes serves as the guitar’s sound hole) in honor of the Milhauds’ cat, inspiration for the suite’s tenth piece. Milhaud recorded the suite on a Columbia LP (ML 43 05) that was released in 1950, with reissues in 1976 and 1981. It was subsequently recorded by pianist Grant Johannesen (1921–2005) on a Turnabout LP (TVS34496) and reissued in the VoxBox 2-CD set dedicated to Milhaud (CDX 5109). Pianist Françoise Choveaux included it in Volume 2 of her Milhaud Complete Piano Works. For its Darius Milhaud retrospective in September 1998, Mills College commissioned its alumna, the dancer Molissa Fenley, to choreograph La Muse Ménagère. Carl Banner’s piano recording of the entire suite may be downloaded in seven mp3 files from the Washington Musica Viva website.

While at Mills, Milhaud composed many others works and saw many of them performed. Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra made a specialty of Milhaud’s early Symphonic Suite No. 2 Protée, which they played memorably and recorded in 1945 in an RCA album of three 78-rpm discs.

‘Protée,’ album recorded by Pierre Monteux & the San
Francisco Symphony

The CD Milhaud at Mills: A Celebration in Song is a recording featuring selected songs he had composed between 1914 and 1942, performed by members of the Mills Music Department. Listen to audio samples.

Milhaud’s 60th birthday party at Mills, 1952. Standing, l to r: Leland Smith, Jerry Rosen, Nathan Rubin, Darlene Mahnke, Dave Brubeck & Jack Weeks. Lower row, l to r: Anne Kish, Katherine Mulky Warne, Milhaud, Betsy Barker, Ted Hoffman, Dick Collins, Leone La Duke Evans & Dave van Kriedt. (from Paul Collaer: “Darius Milhaud”)



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