Milhaud was able to compose anywhere, anytime, and he left an enormous bounty of works in every genre and medium – 16 operas, 18 string quartets, 12 symphonies, 28 film scores, 21 concertos, 17 ballets, dozens of songs, children’s music, and on and on in bewildering profusion. He was a pioneer in the exploitation of jazz, aleatoric techniques, and polytonality. He traveled widely and often, always alert to musical inspiration wherever he was.
Most of those film scores – director Jean Renoir’s Madame Bovary is probably the most famous – were composed in the 1930s, a period when Milhaud also wrote incidental music for nearly 30 plays. One of those was Jean Anouilh’s popular Voyageur sans bagages (Traveler Without Baggage, 1936) about an amnesiac World War I soldier. Milhaud reworked material from that incidental music as this four-movement Suite.
The “Ouverture” suggests the sassy, ironic approach Milhaud took, neo-classically Stravinskyan in spirit, but with a vernacular edge. The lovely “Divertissement” is a gracious reverie, instrumentally poised and largely unconflicted in style or content. “Jeu” returns to the crisper world of the first movement, basically a brittle hoedown for the violin and clarinet alone, in the form of a scherzo and (much more lyrical) trio, with the return of the scherzo abruptly abbreviated.
The last movement, nearly as long as the other three movements combined, brings more somber material to the fore in the Introduction, before romping in the Finale, which has its own references to the tune of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” as well as a suave contrasting theme reminding us of Milhaud’s time spent in Brazil.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.