Here’s something that I’m not sure if I’ve done in this space: shared a work I was literally listening to for the first time, all the way through, as I’m writing the post. I was on the way home from work and I heard a bit of a jubilant, almost jazzy work for orchestra, full of dance rhythms that seem almost Latino in character. I looked up the piece (that our phones can listen to a piece of music and identify it is one of the under-appreciated Great Developments Of Our Time), and I discovered that it does indeed quote extensively from Brazilian folk and dance tunes. The piece, called Le boeuf sur le toit, is by French composer Darius Milhaud.
Milhaud lived 1892-1974, and he is one of those Modernist composers of whom I know very, very little, despite his long life, his prolific output, and his influence on the music of the 20th century. Milhaud’s students included such modern music luminaries as Iannis Xenakis and Steve Reich, along with jazz and pop composers Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach. Milhaud spent time in Brazil, hence his incorporation of that nation’s tunes into this work.
Le boeuf sur le toit is a short ballet intended by the composer to be used as a soundtrack for the films of Charlie Chaplain, in the style of a fast and cheerful round that seems to cycle all around a particular dance floor. The energy starts from the very first bar, and just keeps right on dancing, all the way through. I also love the little off-key asides throughout, as if the dance is being joined by someone with no rhythm, and the song is being sung by someone with no pitch. Those touches remind me of Beethoven’s off-the-beat dance tune from his Sixth Symphony.