Monday, July 02, 2007

Landmarks (25)

Darius Milhaud: Six Symphonies pour petit Orchestre (1917-23)

1 Le printemps op. 43 (1917) (4')
2 Pastorale op. 49 (1918) (4')
3 Sérénade op. 71 (1921) (3')
4 Dixtuor à cordes op 74 (1921)(6')
5 Dixtuor d'instruments à vent op. 75 (1922)(5')
6 (pour soprano, contralto, tenor, basse, hautbois et violoncelle) op. 79 (1923)(6')

In his landmark Treatise on Orchestration (1935-43, in four volumes; the lack of an English tradition is a loss, likewise the lack of a translation of Hans Kunitz's 13(!) volume Die Instrumentation)), Charles Koechlin devotes a section to the modern chamber orchestra, with Schoenberg's (first) Chamber Symphony getting its due regard, but not without first discussing Milhaud's Little Symphonies, which both because of and in spite of their modest scale and unusual instrumentation, constitute a far more fundamental challenge to the symphonic tradition than Schoenberg's, which, after all, accomplishes essentially everything that had become necessary for a Symphony to do, even in the non-stop (one can't quite say "one movement") form and condensed orchestration.* Milhaud, in contrast, jetisons all that had attached itself, like barnicles, to the symphonic genre and, at once, jumps back to baroque origins, prior to establishment of the tonal expectations which would come to underly the sonata function, while at the same time pushing tonality in a direction implied by contrapuntal thinking, but decidedly unhistorical, and that is parallel- or polytonality; prior to the establishment of the "standard" orchestral ensemble (these instruments, in these sizes, in these groups, in these numbers); and prior to the generous time scale of a tradition infected with the masterpiece ethic.

That said, these little symphonies are both strange and delightful, a reminder that at any moment in music history there is always an alternative path.

* In his own writings on polytonality, Milhaud drew his own contrast to his Viennese contemporaries, hearing their music as inheriting and continuing the Wagnerian chromatic tradition while his own music represented a continuity with French diatonic and modal traditions, a polemic no doubt containing a nationalistic aspect, perhaps in parallel to Schoenberg's own interest in demonstrating that his techniques could insure the hegemony of his own national music.

1 comment:

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