Darius Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde: “In the Beginning, there was Jazz”  

Trinity Le, CFK Intern

Born in France in 1892, Darius Milhaud was a prolific composer, conductor, and teacher who embraced many international influences in his music. He was associated with a group of composers known as “Les Six” (The Six) who were known for their compositions featuring dry and aloof moods as well as everyday music that one could hear on the street corner, at the circus, stadium, school, or local café. During a brief stint as a secretary for the French ambassador of Brazil, Milhaud was exposed to and inspired by Brazilian music styles such as the great Carnaval parades, Samba, and other regional dances. After returning to France, he would continue to synthesize Brazilian-inspired elements into his compositions, publishing these pieces for both solo piano and orchestra.  

      Milhaud’s love affair with jazz sparked during a trip to London in 1920, where he heard a performance by Billy Arnold’s Novelty Jazz Band. He was struck by the freedom of the harmonies and melody lines, as well as their exciting rhythms, observing that “Their constant use of syncopation in the melody was done with such contrapuntal freedom as to create the impression of an almost chaotic improvisation, whereas in fact, it was something remarkably precise.” Spurned by inspiration, Milhaud traveled to Harlem, New York to experience the authentic sounds of Jazz, listening to a variety of different ensembles and making careful notes and observations. A year later, Milhaud penned one of his most famous works; the heavily jazz-inspired la Creation du Monde (Creation of the World), as a commission for the Ballets Suédois.  

      La Creation du Monde is written in 6 continuous parts, inspired by African legends that detail the creation of the world. Jazz-inspired musical features are scattered throughout this piece, including syncopated and off-beat rhythms, improvisatory melody lines, and different instruments weaving in and out as if in conversation. The first movement is mysterious and churning, depicting the world before creation. The second movement introduces nature: insects, birds, plants, and trees with energetic and earthy sounds. In the third movement, the first humans are created to the soundtrack of a rowdy folk-dance, and these humans fall in love in the final two movements, ending the piece with a sweet and quiet kiss.  

      Despite an overall negative and elitist attitude many classical musicians held towards jazz, Milhaud would continue to use jazz elements throughout his compositions, and he held a deep respect for the music style for the rest of his life. After moving to the US during WWII, Milhaud began teaching at multiple institutions, his most famous student being jazz pianist and composer, David Brubeck. Brubeck credits Milhaud with inspiring him to pursue jazz and setting him on the right path, and he was so grateful for his support that he named his first son after him! 



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Darius Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde: “In the Beginning, there was Jazz”