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Full title: La création du monde (The Creation of the World), Op. 81
Length: 16 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, alto saxophone, bassoon, horn, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, percussion (cymbals, drum set, metal blocks, snare drum, tabor, tenor drum, tambourine, wood block), piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances of the complete score
Darius Milhaud's infatuation with jazz began in 1920, at a concert given in London by an American band. Two years later he was in New York, haunting the dance halls and theaters of Harlem. As the composer would recall, "In some shows the singers were accompanied by flute, clarinet, trumpets, trombone, a complicated percussion section played by one man, piano, and string quartet." Among the shows was Liza (by Maceo Pinkard, immortalized as the composer of "Sweet Georgia Brown" and, for Al Jolson, the infamous "Mammy"), whose instrumentation Milhaud adapted for La création du monde, which was written for and first performed by the Ballet Suédois in 1923 in Paris, to a scenario by the Swiss poet and novelist Blaise Cendrars on an African creation myth. The ballet began with three African gods of creation on the stage conjuring trees and animals into being with rituals and spells. Male and female dancers emerged as the deities created humankind; the ballet ended with a solitary couple left on the stage after group dances representing desire and mating. The French cubist painter Fernand Léger - himself interested in primitive African art - designed the sets.
The saxophone theme of the introduction and the following section - led by the double-bass - are among the most original uses to which Baroque form has been put, a jazz prelude and fugue, reaching a spectacularly chaotic climax: Dixieland run amok. The two preceding themes are quietly restated, giving way to a meditative oboe melody that suggests at once the blues and the shepherds' music of the composer's native Provence; then another brisk dance launched by strings and piano; a cheeky clarinet concertino; then a rackety recollection of the fugue, and a lyrical coda which brings this brightly inventive, prototypical work of "classical jazz" to a quiet close.
-- Herbert Glass, a former critic-columnist for the Los Angeles Times, is English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival. He contributes to numerous periodicals in the U.S. and Europe.