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Darius Milhaud and the Americas

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Darius Milhaud was an influential 20th-century composer. He was born on September 4, 1892 and lived in the Provence area and in Paris. Due to a medical condition, Milhaud did not fight in the Great War; instead he spent two years in Rio de Janeiro working as Embassy-Secretary to Paul Claudel.

Portrait photograph of Darius Milhaud from 1923 in black and white.
Darius Milhaud. Photograph from 1923. Source: Wikimedia,

When WWII broke out and France was occupied, Milhaud emigrated with his wife to the United States. Following WWII, he resided and worked in the United States and in France. From 1947 to 1971 he alternated each year to work as professor at Mills College in Oakland California, and at the Paris Conservatory. Milhaud died on June 22, 1974 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Brazilian music, as Milhaud experienced in 1917-1918, played a significant role in his own compositional development: “I was very much impressed by the great tropical forest and by the folklore, which is so rich,” he stated in an interview. He also described the time right after the First World War as joyful and with great hope for lasting peace. During that period Milhaud became part of Cocteau’s Parisian circle and of Les Six (group of composers); the artists, musicians and writers enjoyed many inspiring and collaborative evenings together.

Black and white imageg of Avenue Rio Branco in Rio de Janeiro, taken between 1909 and 1919. Glass negative
Brazil. Ave. Rio Branco, Rio de Janeiro. Between 1909 and 1919. Glass negative. Source: Library of Congress,

One of Milhaud’s best-known works, Le boeuf sur le toit, was premiered in Paris in February 1920 as a ballet-pantomime on a scenario written by Jean Cocteau. The lively Brazilian melodies and rhythms are very prominent in this work, and he wrote: “I was intrigued and fascinated by the rhythms of this popular music […] still haunted by the memories of Brazil, I assembled a few popular melodies, tangos, maxixes, sambas and even a Portuguese fado, and transcribed them with a rondo-like theme recurring between each successive pair.”

Two more examples strongly reflect Milhaud’s inclusion of Brazilian melodies and rhythms in his compositions: Saudades do Brazil written 1920/21 and Scaramouche composed in 1937. The Saudades do Brazil (Greetings from Brazil) consist of 12 piano pieces each named after one district of Rio, and he dedicated each piece to a different person, including Arthur Rubinstein, Ricardo Viñes, and Paul Claudel. Scaramouche is best known in its version for two pianos. Milhaud wrote the original composition for saxophone and orchestra as incidental music for a Molière production entitled Le Médecin volant (The Flying Doctor) performed at the Théâtre Scaramouche in Paris.

Jazz music presented another early, major musical inspiration for Milhaud. Milhaud first encountered original jazz music in London, after which he visited the United States to hear more. He considered jazz to be a seminal art form influencing European music. He recalled: “When I arrived in New York, I had told the newspapermen interviewing me that European music was considerably influenced by American music. But whose music? They asked me, Macdowell’s or Carpenter’s? Neither the one nor the other, I answered, I mean jazz.” In another interview with a Harvard Crimson reporter from 1923 he explained further: “It is my desire and my purpose to infuse a new spirit, the spirit of jazz, into the classic art of music. […] I am firm in my belief that jazz will constitute the basis of the future schools of American and European music. Jazz has many redeeming features, for in it there is a certain warmth, an enthusiasm, a dissonant quality, a vitality of rhythm, which is not foreign to the newer musical tendencies of Paris.”

A night-club map of Harlem, 1933
A Night Club Map of Harlem, 1933. Source: Library of Congress,

In 1923, Milhaud included jazz idioms in his composition La création du monde for 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. The piece was premiered by the Ballet Suédois in Paris in October 1923. Milhaud stated: “At last in La création du monde, I had the opportunity I had been waiting for to use those elements of jazz to which I had devoted so much study. I adopted the same orchestra as used in Harlem, seventeen solo instruments, and I made wholesale use of the jazz style to convey a purely classical feeling.”

Another example for his love of jazz can be heard in his Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra from 1941, dedicated to Benny Goodman. Other North American music inspired Milhaud; he included American folk music in his Kentuckiana-Divertissement, and wrote Musique pour la Nouvelle-Orléans, Carnaval à la Nouvelle-Orléans, Music for Boston, and Opus Americanum No. 2.

In addition to composing, conducting and performing music, Milhaud was an inspiration to composers including Aaron Copland, Dave Brubeck (who was also his student), Iannis Xenakis, Steve Reich, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Milhaud received numerous honors as commander of the French Legion of Honor, officer of the Brazilian Order of the Southern Cross, member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, from the Swedish Music Academy and the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome, and others. And yet, there is more to discover about the composer whose works mentioned here reflect a love for France and for the Americas.

Here are works in the NLS Music Section from Darius Milhaud for your consideration:

Braille Scores

Alameda. From Four sketches for piano. Paragraph format. (BRM24571)

Le boeuf sur le toit. Arranged for piano four hands. Section by section format. (BRM34883)

Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, dedicated to Benny Goodman. Arrangement for clarinet and piano. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM19406)

The Household Muse. Suite of 15 pieces for piano. Bar over bar format. (BRM24813)

Pastorale. For organ. Bar over bar format. (BRM04201 and BRM20345)

Pièces, op. 122. Touches noires. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM22861)

Saudades do Brazil, Op. 67. Suite de danses, 1er recueil. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM24426)

Scaramouche. For two pianos. Bar over bar format. (BRM24677 v.1  and v.2)

Scaramouche. Arranged for saxophone and piano. Bar over bar format. (BRM04186)


Jazz Joins the Classics: French Composer Darius Milhaud Discusses His Experiments with Jazz (1969). Interview with Darius Milhaud. (DBM00133)

If you would like to check out some braille or audio books, learn more about the NLS Music Section, or learn about downloading music materials from BARD, feel free to give us a call at 1-800-424-8567, extension 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].

Comments (2)

  1. Thank you for this wonderful portrait of Darius Milhaud. He was a very fine and extremely prolific composer whose oeuvre deserves more attention than the half dozen or so works that occasionally appear on programs. His music covered all the emotions, but unlike many of his 20th century contemporaries, he included in much of his work a playful, almost childlike joy and innocents that can bring a smile to the listeners face.

    • Thank you so much for your comment. There is a lot of joy in much of Milhaud’s work. He wrote wonderful melodies, often based on folk songs from the Provence and from Brazil, and likely on children’s songs. In 1923, Milhaud wrote about the importance of melody when he discussed polytonality and atonality in the Revue Musicale: “The polytonal or atonal character of a work is determined much less by the process of writing than by the essential melody which is its source and which alone comes from the heart of the musician. It is this absolute necessity, organic to the initial melody, which prevents these processes from congealing into a still-born system. The entire life of a work depends only on the melodic invention of its author, and polytonality and atonality can only supply a larger field, richer means of writing, a more complex scale of expression for his sensitivity, his imagination, and his fantasy.” This translated quote is from Marion Bauer’s article published in The Musical Quarterly in 1942. Today you can still hear Milhaud say with emphasis that “the most important element in music is melody” in the interview from 1969, available on (DBM00133). Thank you again.

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