One of my favorite composers is the Frenchman Darius Milhaud [1892-1974]. Had I been a serious student of music, I would certainly have discovered that he was still at Mills College (Milhaud taught there between 1947 to 1971). But I was an English major (sigh) and didn't pursue this other side of my interests. I took piano lessons for a while as a child, then gave it up in frustration; but then, in my teens, I resumed on my own, struggling to play boogie-woogie, stride and jazz, eventually moving on to favorite classical keyboard pieces. Among which were those by the French Modernists, beginning with Chabrier and Debussy, and then Satie, Milhaud, Poulenc, Severac, Ibert, Faure, Ravel, etc.
Like most classical enthusiasts, I became familiar with Milhaud's warhorses, the Creation du Monde, Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit, his Four Seasons, and so on. One could hardly not notice how bright, charming, and clever his mind was, his innovative orchestrations, his audacious combinations, and rapid modulations--all thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan! But the piece (or collection of pieces) that caught my attention was his Saudades do Brazil , a suite of twelve pieces (dance numbers, in essence) originally composed for piano, and later orchestrated by the Composer. Milhaud had taken the rare opportunity offered by Paul Claudel (a French diplomat and poet [1868-1955]) to go to Rio de Janeiro, to be Claudel's diplomatic secretary at the French Consular Mission, a post that lasted two years. Milhaud's Saudades are a paean to, and an appropriation of Brazilian rhythms and melodic style, to modernist techniques (in particular, poly-tonality--which had been and would continue to be a signature aspect of Milhaud's compositions).
Saudade is a Portuguese word with interesting meanings. Wikipedia has a whole article on it here, and it roughly translates as "the love that remains"--a recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again. This nostalgic longing I take to signify Milhaud's sweet memories of Rio at the beginning of the outset of the Modern Age, his love of the lyrical charm of native Brazilian musical culture (familiar to those who know the work, for instance, of Villa-Lobos), a zesty, throbbing, energetic contrapuntal style. In the painting shown below [Saudade (1899), by Almeida Junior], a young woman laments an absent lover, reading perhaps, a letter from him.
When the world was smaller--before the advance of transportation, commercial aviation and rapid communication--exotic fantasy and fascination with the faraway and unfamiliar was a major preoccupation, not just of the leisured classes, but of all levels of society. Stories about foreign places and the intriguing exploits of adventurers, exploration, souvenirs of difference, and examples of other, non-Western forms of literature and musical culture captured people's imaginations. As they still do today, but it's not quite the same. In 1920, a genuine original Brazilian dance ["Gavea" #6 of the Saudades do Brazil] inspired by the Bohemian quarter of Rio, must have seemed as exotic as a meterorite to Western audiences. Its sunny, suave, sexy, audacious syncopations sound as fresh and uncompromising (and sophisticated), today, as they were when they were written almost a century ago.
I'm not alone I'm just the only one awake
It is drizzling down on the heads of the sparrows
How odd to be sitting inside something you've made
Just sitting and talking
The four white walls bow to me
I get up to get a banana but they are too green yet
All the way from green Panama or someplace
On cool storage freighters
"Across the Sea" & "Just For Me"
Memories are floating up to the surface
As I gaze into the pool of melancholy
I think a little bit about my Stepfather
Sporting white bucks in Buenos Aires in 1925
And I think a little bit about figs
The kind I used to step on barefoot when I was a boy
I listen to the rain make corrugation sounds in the hollow drain pipe
The rhythm so strangely syncopated and other-worldly
Transported to a distance place
Far from here
Where the soft rain is making a mulch of the earth
And sleep is a kind of slow run towards Summer
The poem reads to me now as a kind of lullaby, lull - a - by, lulling by, a lull (or pause) that passes by the by, lulling you to sleep, perchance to dream. Milhaud's Saudades, though they're ostensibly dance numbers, with a kind of agitated rhythmic character, are lyrically mournful, as a Saudade would be. I like to think that when he wrote these, in the year after he'd returned to Europe, he was summoning from memory the exotic world he'd seen and heard and tasted in Brazil.
Years later in his life, my Stepfather would play tango recordings on our turntable, and a misty expression would cloud his countenance. I'm not sure, but I suspect he may have had a romantic interlude which he was remembering, or perhaps it was just the atmosphere of a place and a time, long since evaporated.
I'll have future posts about Milhaud and his music down the road.