Listening Log – [Pt. IV]- Darius Milhaud – Le boeuf sur le toit, Op. 58 (1920)


Darius Milhaud – Le boeuf sur le toit, Op. 58 (1920)

Listening Log – [Pt. IV]- Darius Milhaud – Le boeuf sur le toit, Op. 58 (1920). Throughout March- April 2020 Listened /watched (streaming) to youtube video: For copyright info and credits see information under video clip.

Le Boeuf sur le Toit starts very jolly with a folk-dance type theme playing a melody line which reminds me of pan flute melodies I have heard perform by Latin American bands. Quickly there’s a change of pace to a sultrier, tango-esque melody. The tango is performed in a style reminiscent to early Hollywood film soundtracks, with a more airy and romantic sounding lush string sound than is the norm in Argentine tango. There is a slight whiff of cultural appropriation here, and the tango is a bit over the top, bordering on parody.

The first dance theme returns again, this time brass instruments join the winds and strings. The section that follows sees a marriage between both the dance theme and tango theme, the tango melody playing at a softer dynamic underneath the more animated theme. It gives the impression of an exuberant carnival celebration.

In each new section a new Latin folk melody is introduced. When brass joins in the flavour is almost Spanish, but definitively at the very least Latin. These new animated and sultry sections keep alternating, new melodies being added to each section. On occasion an oompah rhythm gives a slightly comical feel to the piece. For all its kitsch and cultural appropriation, I find the music remarkably listenable and clever in its construction. It hangs together through many key changes and styles but never once becomes too disjointed or overbearing.

Subsequent to listening I researched a little about the history of the piece to see if I was correct about the Latin influence and it turns out that Milhaud had in fact lived in Brazil for many years prior to writing this work. It also seems like it was intended to be used for a soundtrack, first for a Charlie Chaplin film, but then appropriated for Jean Cocteau film instead. No wonder I heard both echoes of comedy and film music.

Quoting the liner notes of one of the releases:

Throughout his life Milhaud was an inveterate traveller, absorbing musical impressions and influences from many countries. Arriving in Brazil for the first time in 1917, as secretary to Paul Claudel who had just been appointed French plenipotentiary Minister there, an important period began for Milhaud in which he wrote many works in Rio de Janeiro. Two years later, at home in Aix-en-Provence, the Mediterranean sun doubtless reminded him of Brazil, and aspects of popular Latin-American life can be found in Le Bœuf sur le Toit. Using the title of a Brazilian hit of the day, The Ox on the Roof, Milhaud said he ‘assembled a few popular melodies, tangoed maxixes, sambas and a Portuguese fado, transcribing them with a rondo-like theme recurring between each successive pair.’

Le Bœuf sur le Toit is an unusual amalgam of material, not solely musical. At first it had no story, and Milhaud considered it might accompany a Chaplin film (hence the original subtitle), which was never tried in practice. Milhaud mentioned it to Jean Cocteau who proposed a balletic treatment which he would produce. Within days, Cocteau had funded the show by pre-selling seats to leaders of Parisian society; he then drafted a scenario to complement the music. As it transpired, the ballet was such a huge success that a new Paris night-club, opened soon after, took ‘Le Bœuf sur le Toit’ as its name. Milhaud was given life membership of the club which became very famous; from the mid-1920s Ravel was also a regular patron. But the music came first, and the work is usually heard today as a concert piece. (The orchestral version is recorded on Helios CDH55168.)

Despite its immediate, continuing popularity, and its deliberate music-hall atmosphere, the subtlety of the score is such that those concerned only with its surface bonhomie remain unaware of it. The structure is a rondeau-avec-reprises, a stylization of Rameau and Couperin; the reprise is the Brazilian-like opening rondo idea, an original tune by Milhaud (not, as often said, an existing popular theme) which recurs no fewer than twelve times, against which a succession of other tunes in popular style pass by. The rondo theme is polytonal in inflexion, and each tune in turn rises by a minor third from its predecessor, in groups of four, after which another idea modulates the music down a whole tone to begin the sequence over again in a new key. Thus the minor thirds rise C–E flat–G flat–A, then the transitional theme modulates to G from whence the minor thirds rise again: G–B flat–D flat–E. The transitional theme modulates downwards to D from whence the music rises in minor thirds: D–F–A flat–B. The transitional theme modulates from B to A, and a fourth sequence begins, rising from A to C. But as C was the starting-point, the work has now progressed through all twelve keys. A short coda ends this breezy score which is dedicated to Cocteau. Milhaud published several versions of the music: for violin and orchestra, for violin and piano (to which Honegger contributed the cadenza), and for piano duet.

from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 1998
Milhaud – Le boeuf sur le toit, Op. 58 (with score)
Or “The Ox on the Roof: The Nothing-Doing Bar,” 1920 ballet to a scenario by Jean Cocteau. Score of the piano duet transcription by the composer.
Ulster Orchestra Yan-Pascal Tortelier
Artist: Timothy Holmes
Album: Poulenc: Les Biches / Ibert: Divertissement / Milhaud: Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit
Licensed to YouTube by : NaxosofAmerica (on behalf of Chandos); UNIAO BRASILEIRA DE EDITORAS DE MUSICA – UBEM, BMI – Broadcast Music Inc., UMPG Publishing, LatinAutor – UMPG, LatinAutor, and 1 Music Rights Societies