Parallel tonalities in a time of infighting and disarray

Broken. © Charles Thibo

Puzzled and enchanted – I felt like Alice after she fell through that rabbit hole. A very strange world, very different from what I knew up to then. I found familiar elements too, the language to Dmitry Shostakovich and Bela Bartok came to my mind. Pleasing sounds, interesting constructions, and now, after many weeks of listening to this piece, it almost feels like I had been born on the other side of the rabbit hole.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), one of the most important French composer of the 20th century, wrote a string trio (Op. 274) in  1947, just after World War II, that truly defied me. I listened to it many times after the recording of the Jacques Thibauld Trio has been released in July, but its deeper meaning escaped me for some time. I found beauty and tenderness, I found disturbing and frightening elements, but how am I supposed to fit it together? Perhaps the composer’s biography would give me a clue?

Fleeing the Nazi extermination policy

Milhaud came from a Jewish family from the Provence and studied under Paul Dukas and Vincent d’Indy at the Paris Conservatory. With the outbreak of the war and Nazi occupation of two-thirds of France he had to flee into exile in the United States. In 1940 he became professor at Mills College, Oakland, California. In 1947 he returned to France and started to teach at the Paris Conservatory too. From then on he would teach on both sides of the Atlantic.

The war had left France politically divided if not fragmented. Those who had fought in the Résistance tracked down and ostracized anyone suspected of having colluded with the Nazis. The French Communists, often wartime heroes, fought the conservatives for their social policies and the refusal to withdraw from France’s colonies on the one hand and they fought other leftwing parties in what they deemed the final battle for a Socialist Soviet Republic of France on the other hand. Any intellectual, any artist was pushed to take sides: us or them.

Joy and sorrow, hope and horror

“Chamber music is a genre with which one can express one’s deepest feelings”, Milhaud once said and perhaps he tried to express the disarray he witnessed in France after World War II and his own emotional confusion. The joy to be back home, the relief to have escaped the Holocaust, the wish to participate in the reconstruction of a broken society, the repulsion triggered by the bitter political infighting and settling of personal accounts.

The first movement of Milhaud’s string trio has a jolly tune as its backbone, expressing a somewhat naive peace of mind linked to a calm life in a rural area. But this theme is broken by a dissonant melody, an alien body. This construction gives the movement a great deal of tension and volatility. One of the hallmarks of Milhaud’s works is polytonality, the simultaneous use of different keys. The second movement has a slow introduction, suggesting sorrow over a lost paradise. The slogan “You cannot write poems after Auschwitz”, popular in Germany after the war, comes to my mind. Of course you can, just as you can write music after Auschwitz.  But is it true that the Holocaust constitutes an unparalleled crime in the history of mankind.

The third movement has a curious title: “Sérénade. Alerte” There is a serenade-like base line, sketched by the violin’s pizzicato* and broken by another melody, the “alert”, played by the other two instruments. This part reminds me a lot of Shostakovich’s string quartets. The fourth movement “Canons” and the fifth “Jeu fugué” uses composing techniques from Baroque church music, the canon and the fugue, particularly easy to match with the principe of polytonality. The distinct melodic lines, set in different tonalities in the fourth movement allow for a very solemn and comforting harmony. This movement is certainly my favourite part. The last movement’s tempo is similar to the first’s and so is its mood. A kind of artificial joy, like laughing while in fact you would like to cry.

A very moving piece. And definitely an impulse to explore Milhaud’s music more deeply.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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