One of the most prolific composers of the 20th century, Darius Milhaud was born in Marseilles, France in 1892. He studied violin as a child and attended the Paris Conservatory, where he studied piano and composition. He was part of the “Les Six” circle, a group of progressive French composers whose work was a reaction against Richard Wagner and the French Impressionist composers like Ravel and Debussy. Later Milhaud became enchanted with American jazz music and in 1939 he came to the U.S. and settled in Oakland, California, where he taught composition at Mills College. Milhaud taught popular composers such as Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach, among others.
The Dreams of Jacob came from a commission. In 1948 Milhaud was invited to teach at the Tanglewood Music Festival – summer home to the Boston Symphony. Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, a neighbor to Tanglewood, asked Milhaud to write a piece of music that could work as a dance and as a chamber piece. Scored for oboe and four stringed instruments, The Dreams of Jacob contains five movements and depicts the life of Jacob in the Old Testament. The oboe represents the voice of the divine in the piece.
The entire work is just over 16 minutes, with most of the movements under three minutes long. The first, called simply “Jacob’s Pillow,” begins with oboe in the upper-middle range and strings murmuring low, making the oboe stand out. The oboe has little quips of melody, moving and rhythmic as the strings engage in dialog with it in pizzicato and longer tones. The movement ends calmly, as if the oboe is suddenly tired of all the activity; the strings help put the oboe to bed.
The second movement, “The First Dream; the Angels’ Ladder,” is the longest, at about six minutes. According to the ballet scenario, “Jacob sees a ladder set up on the earth, and the top reaching to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it.” The strings play a line high in range that sounds eerie after all of the calm, low string lines in the first movement. The oboe is darker here and seems searching, never settling. The end comes after a pizzicato phrase on bass and a short, plaintive melody on oboe.
The third movement, “Prophecy,” begins with cello. The bass enters and the two play a descending scale, almost ominous in mood. In this movement, “the Promised Land is defined. The Lord tells Jacob that the land on which he lies will be his and his children’s.”
In the fourth movement, “Second Dream: Fight with the Dark Angel and Benediction,” the strings create a mad chase of rhythmic motion in which the oboe occasionally jumps and turns. After the struggle, Jacob wins the Lord’s blessing as the oboe plays a calm and sunny line.
The final movement, “Hymn to Israel,” celebrates Jacob as patriarch and the promise of Israel. The movement finds the divine voice of the oboe playing in rhythmic unison with the strings at many moments, stretching toward the heavens and sounding both earnest and playful.
- Jessie Rothwell