Milhaud -- La création du monde

As the new sound of jazz swept over America in the 1910's and 1920's, one European country took special notice: France. Intrigued by the upbeat rhythms and cheeky "blue notes," several French composers incorporated jazz elements into their otherwise serious music. The result is an impressive collection of brilliant works, by a host of French composers, which synthesize the jazz idiom with the "Classical" tradition. The movement even exerted an influence on the staid figure of Igor Stravinsky, whose early successes had come in Paris and who remained connected to the city well into the 1930's. Like all artistic exploration on the cutting edge, the hybridized style had its detractors, who charged that uninspired composers were merely latching on to the latest trend in order to draw attention to their music.

Milhaud, whose teachers included Paul Dukas, had already achieved recognition as such a "crossover" composer, particularly with his amusing ballet Le boeuf sur le toit ("The ox on the roof," named after a fashionable Paris café). In 1922, the composer toured the United States and heard "authentic" jazz for the first time, on the streets of Harlem. The following year, he completed La création du monde ("The creation of the world"), which is cast as a ballet in six continuous scenes.

The introduction, before the curtain, is slow-moving and mysterious; the rhythm shows only minimal evidence of jazz influence, but the harmonies give a clearer indication of the kind of music that will follow. The introduction comes to rest on a timpani roll, and then the first scene begins with a flashy solo on the string bass metaphorically remaining true to the work's ostentatious title by infusing the piece with the "new life" of this different style. The remaining scenes each focus on one or two new melodies, with elements of the introduction frequently returning to confirm their influence. The ending of the piece is, in some ways, similar to the beginning, but the puzzling dissonance that characterized the opening measures has given way to the easy-going feel of this new, "laid back" musical style.


1998-99 PCO repertoire