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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 The Cult of the Commonplace
Richard Taruskin
From Subject to Style: Surrealist “Classicism”From Subject to Style: Surrealist “Classicism”

ex. 10-7 Francis Poulenc, Les mamelles de Tirésias, Prologue, 4 to 6

Milhaud’s version of surrealism, unlike Poulenc’s, sought to penetrate the sound-substance of his music and become in itself an attribute of style. For that reason, Milhaud’s achievement is often taken more seriously than Poulenc’s both by historians in the tradition of the New German School, who place the highest premium on technical innovation, and by neoclassicists who insist on musical “purity.” Inspired by some famous passages in the music of Stravinsky (the C/F♯ fanfares in Petrushka) and Richard Strauss (the necrophiliac kiss in Salome, the ending of Also sprach Zarathustra), Milhaud was impelled to devise a systematic theory of “polytonality,” which could be described as a technique for creating collages of keys. He gave the theory a thorough, even somewhat pedantic exposition in an article, “Polytonalité et atonalité,” which he published in La Revue Musicale, the leading French musicological journal, in 1923. Putting his theory in apposition—hence in competition—with Schoenberg’s, Milhaud distinguished them by asserting that “between polytonality and atonality there are the same essential differences as between diatonicism and chromaticism.”15 Polytonality is thus diatonicism multiplied. Milhaud justified it, in time-honored fashion, by tracing it back to Bach (or rather, to strict or “real” counterpoints at intervals other than the octave). But the lineage thus claimed is not convincing: tonal counterpoint is always ready to make adjustments (e.g., “tonal answers”) to insure the perceptual ascendancy of a single tonic. At the opposite logical extreme, the mixture of all twelve diatonic tone centers in one stew, polytonality arrives at the same maximum (or meets the same limit) as atonality; to quote Milhaud’s article, it “encroaches on the domain of atonality.” In Milhaud’s actual compositions, however, this never comes close to happening, because, unlike Schoenberg, Milhaud was uninterested in technical maximalism. Instead, as a little survey of Milhaud’s polytonal practices will reveal, polytonality made it possible to construct unheard-of harmonies by juxtaposing simple melodies and chords in novel combinations that acquired their piquancy precisely from the recognizability of their homely sources. It was another case of a calculated incongruity that replaced everyday reality with an alternative or magical sur-reality by building fancifully on the real listening experience of real audiences. Rather than polytonality, a term that still offends many theorists who believe (not unreasonably) that combined chords still have single roots, Milhaud’s technique might more accurately have been called “polydiatonicism.” But the term “polytonality” is probably here to stay, one of the many misnomers that conventional practice has adopted and ensconced in use beyond hope of correction. We have been coping more or less successfully with “Gregorian chant” for a thousand years, so there is no need to complain.

Milhaud’s first crop of polytonal experiments dates from around 1918, when the composer returned to France from Brazil, where he had been serving as secretary to his older friend the poet Paul Claudel (1868–1955), a professional diplomat, who had been appointed cultural attaché at the French embassy in Rio de Janeiro. These early works combined polytonality with exotic South American subject matter. They include a mystical ballet, L’homme et son désir (“The man and his desire,” 1918), to a scenario by Claudel, which portrayed the Brazilian floresta, or tropical jungle, in animistic terms, Milhaud’s percussion-heavy polytonal score suggesting the luxuriant growth of vegetation. But they also included the entertaining Saudades do Brasil (“Memories of Brazil”), a suite of dances for piano in which vivid recollections of urban popular music are given a surrealistic twist.

Ipanema (Ex. 10-8), the fifth item in the suite, is a samba named after one of the districts of Rio de Janeiro. It could be argued that the harmonies at the opening, in which E♭-minor and F-major triads are reciprocally superimposed every two bars, is not polytonal in any functional sense, since neither harmony is established as a functional tonic. In the middle section, however (mm. 35 ff), the superimposed chords—C and G♭, as in Petrushka—are each given dominants. The functional independence is resolved, however, and again, reciprocally, ten bars later.

From Subject to Style: Surrealist “Classicism”

ex. 10-8a Darius Milhaud, Saudades do Brasil, V (Ipanema), mm. 1–9

From Subject to Style: Surrealist “Classicism”

ex. 10-8b Darius Milhaud, Saudades do Brasil, V (Ipanema), mm. 33–55

More abstractly (or at least less exotically) conceived is the Fourth String Quartet, op. 46 (1918). At the outset (Ex. 10-9), the keys of F major and A major are maintained in a functional equilibrium. Neither one is established by harmonic cadence, but the seven-bar diatonic theme, played first in F in the outer voices and then by the inner voices in A, has clearly functional harmonic implications—as it must, if the idea of polytonality is to have any perceptual validity. The third-relation between the tonics is stable throughout the movement. Still, all discrepancies are reconciled at the end, which is unambiguously in F.

From Subject to Style: Surrealist “Classicism”

ex. 10-9 Darius Milhaud, String Quartet no. 4, I, mm. 1–15

Some might argue that only the surrealistic collage technique saves the simple dance tune from banality. But one could just as well turn that around and say that only the banality of the dance tune saves the polytonal texture from unintelligibility. As in Poulenc’s more conceptual surrealism, Milhaud’s functional surrealism depends as much on the ordinariness of the components as on the extravagance of their juxtaposition. The commonplace and the fantastic—or if you prefer, the hackneyed and the preposterous—achieve, ideally, a state of synergy or symbiosis.

Perhaps the ultimate in polydiatonic counterpoint is reached in the third of Milhaud’s tiny chamber symphonies, subtitled Sérénade (1921), which Milhaud proudly quoted as the culmination of his little theoretical treatise of 1923. Like Stravinsky’s Sérénade en la, Milhaud’s six chamber symphonies, composed between 1917 and 1923, were written so that they could each be recorded on a single 78 RPM side (twelve inches in this case, lasting no more than four minutes). The opening four-bar phrase of the first movement in no. 3 (Ex. 10-10a) pits a simple E-major tune in the clarinet against an equally simple D-major tune in the bassoon. The pair of tunes in differing keys works as a kind of “module,” constantly reappearing in various configurations as the basis for the counterpoint. In m. 9 (Ex. 10-10b) it is played down an octave by the bassoon and cello, against a descending scale in the flute and an ascending arpeggio in the viola that by itself would be assigned to the key of B♭ major. According to Milhaud’s own analysis in the Revue Musicale article, the violin modulates from F major to C major in m. 10, and the clarinet’s chromatic scale is to be considered a support for the violin’s F major.

In m. 13 the modular pair is transposed and placed in the extreme outer voices: flute in G major against double bass in C. The bassoon can be construed as playing in D major. At m. 23 the upper voice of the modular pair appears alone in F major in the cello, against an A-major tune in the violin. The passage from m. 17 to m. 30, in which this partial appearance is the only direct reference to the modular pair, might be described as a development section, in which case the reappearance of the original modular pair at m. 31 is the recapitulation.

From Subject to Style: Surrealist “Classicism”

ex. 10-10a Darius Milhaud, Symphony no. 3 (Sérénade), mm. 1–4

The second movement is a study in tritone relationships à la Petrushka: B against F, with the F given a “mixolydian” E♭ that concords punningly with the D♯ of B major). The two keys are the mediant and submediant of D, which prepares the way for the finale, in which (a somewhat Lydianized) D major comes through clearly as the dominating key. Thus the whole little symphony can be seen as tending toward its final cadence in good “tonal” fashion, in which case the polytonal texture is perhaps best read as an embellishment or a refreshment of a basic D-major tonality.

From Subject to Style: Surrealist “Classicism”From Subject to Style: Surrealist “Classicism”

ex. 10-10b Darius Milhaud, Symphony no. 3 (Sérénade), mm. 9–16

Refreshment, indeed, seems to have been Milhaud’s aim. “The resources of polytonality,” he wrote, “enrich the expressive resources of music.”16 Its use “adds subtlety and sweetness to pianissimi, while to fortissimi it lends greater pungency and force.” Above all, it renewed the possibility of writing simple diatonic melodies and ordinary chords that would be transfigured by their context, just as surrealism, with its uncanny juxtapositions, gave new life to figurative painting—the painting of real objects, rendered with craftsmanly verisimilitude—in an age of burgeoning cubism and incipient abstraction. The commonplace, the unremarkable, the stock of everyday life were all “rehabilitated” (the word is Cocteau’s) within an art that, recovered from “decadence,” no longer sought the rare, the recondite, or the occult, and no longer aspired to high eloquence or grandiosity. With high eloquence and grandiosity went romantic aspirations to the sublime. The French music of the postwar period was a desacralized art, an art brought down to earth, a thing made pour plaire—“to please”—that is, to exist in and adorn the lives of its users.


(15) Darius Milhaud, “Polytonalité et atonalité,” Revue musicale, Vol. IV (1923); trans. R. Taruskin in P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents (2nd ed., Belmont, CA: Thomson/Schirmer, 2007), pp. 400–01.

(16) Ibid., p. 401.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 The Cult of the Commonplace." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 The Cult of the Commonplace. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 The Cult of the Commonplace." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010006.xml