On January 8, 1998, I met with Madeline Milhaud at her apartment in Paris to discuss the history of the viola works of her late husband, Darius Milhaud. We began by talking about the three works for viola and piano that were dedicated to Germain Prévost in 1944. Prévost was the founding violist of the Pro Arte Quartet, the world's longest standing quartet (founded in 1919) which has been in residence at the UW-Madison for over 50 years. These works were all premiered at the UW-Madison in 1944 and are of particular interest to me since Madison is where I grew up and first studied the viola. Excerpts from the conversations I had with Mrs. Milhaud in regards to these works appear below:
Martinson: How did Darius and Germain Prévost meet?
Mrs. Milhaud: In 1919 or 1920, Darius was invited for some concerts in Brussels by a very good musician and musicologist, Paul Collaer, who was also a professor in chemistry. Later on he became the director of the Belgian radio. Over the years, Darius became extremely friendly with him. He happened to go to Brussels from that moment on very often. Darius met several other players, and amongst them, the members of what will become the Pro Arte Quartet. Of course at that time, they were moneyless, and they made money as they could, playing in cafes or movie theaters, or that type of thing. But very soon, they were really known as a quartet. They were marvelous musicians, and they had that exceptional quartet quality that they played classical music as well as they did contemporary music. So that is absolutely sure. Darius was very fond of them, and he organized their first concert in Paris. And I think they were very thankful for that. Later they went to America, and it is thanks to Mrs. Coolidge who sponsored their first year in the states. They became really more or less the quartet of Mrs. Coolidge as long as they were all four alive.
So when Onnou, the 1st violin died, Germain Prévost, the viola player, who was extremely sentimental, commissioned works in order to celebrate the memory of Onnou. For a certain time, they were able to play with someone else in the space. Germain then played for the movies, and as a gentleman, was extremely fond of women. That's one of the reasons why Milhaud gave to the piece the "Four Faces" or the "Four Characters", one from Brussels, one from Paris, one from Wisconsin
and one from California!
Martinson: So are these definitely women that Darius knew?
Mrs. Milhaud: Oh, they are pure imagination, not like Mr. Clinton [laughter]- musicians are more discreet.
Martinson: And what about the Sonatine for violin and viola written for Laurent and Germain Prévost?
Mrs. Milhaud: All those pieces were written in order to please Germain and his sentimentality-- and he was somebody who was true to a friend.
Martinson: Did Darius know Alpohonse Onnou as well as Germain, or was he friends with them both?
Mrs. Milhaud: No, I think we were more friendly with Germain because he lived a long time in California after leaving the quartet. Otherwise, the others were just friends. You know, quartets don't stay one night in the same place. I recall when we went to the states in 1928, we met them, oh
someplace in New York. But as they didn't have anything to wear, they didn't take anything to be washed, and they brought back everything dirty to Belgium after their tour. And it happened that they had a few buttons missing, and as I was a woman, they all came to me with their shirts and jackets. It was hairy!
Martinson: In the 3 works for viola and piano (Sonata No. 1, Sonata No. 2, Quatre Visages), did Germain Prévost make any requests of Darius as far as the style of the pieces was concerned, or were the styles completely Darius's idea?
Mrs. Milhaud: They were completely Darius's ideas. Milhaud was a studied violinist and violist since he was a child. I think he knew far more than anybody did. He would ask for assistance if he needed as he did in the concerto for harmonica. Then, of course, if he wasn't sure
and in this case he liked to know how far he could go with it. But I think for violin, cello, and viola, he was quite all right. And I think also his teacher, when he was 11 or 12 years old, took him in a quartet as a 2nd violin. He studied and sight-read all classical quartets, and discovered the Debussy quartet. For him it was absolutely a revelation. So I have the impression that work was a grand influence. It did have a great influence on Milhaud and was one of the reasons why he wrote so much chamber music.
Martinson: Did you attend any of the premieres of the viola works in Madison when they were played?
Mrs. Milhaud: Well you know, I lived with Milhaud for 50 years, so god knows what I saw and did, it's impossible to tell you, but I don't think so. The only thing I could speak about, because I must say I was rather astonished, was when he wrote the 14th and 15th quartets [which can be played together as an octet] because he had a little book. It had 8 lines, and there's not one mistake, and it ends on the last page of the book. So for that, I was rather surprised because it was a rather difficult work as one can play it as an octet and one can play it as a quartet, so this I remember. I could mention also that it explains the importance Milhaud gave to the quartet. Two cases, in a newspaper article that Jean Cocteau published, as Milhaud's friend of his generation not attracted so much by chamber music, Darius wrote, "I shall compose 18 quartets". But of course the people thought "Aah-aah-aah
to have one more than Beethoven". But it was not true, it was just for the fact to show the importance that he gave to that. On the other hand, I must say that the dedications of the quartets have a reason, and are evidence of all his admiration for a person or a friendship or a date. The first is to celebrate the memory of Paul Cézanne and the last is in memory of his parents. You can notice in the dedications, the 13th quartet is dedicated to me because 13 has always been a lucky number for us. Then there is one for our 25th anniversary of our marriage, and there is one in memory of Fauré.
Martinson: In regards to the 1st sonate, do you know where Darius acquired these 'anonymous' tunes?
Mrs. Milhaud: I don't know who is the author of these tunes. I think he found them in the Méjanes library in Aix-in-Provence. But I know they are rather anonymous, I admit--but I prefer the 2nd sonate.
Martinson: I like them both. I think violists tend to prefer the first one more, but I like the 2nd too--it is a little more unusual.
Mrs. Milhaud: Yes, it is more Milhaud-like.
Martinson: About the 1st sonate, the tunes which are used sound very "Milhaud-like", I'm not sure if it is the tunes, or if it is in the accompaniment, but I was wondering if you think he used often these kinds of borrowed tunes in his other music?
Mrs. Milhaud: Milhaud was not against the fact of using a folk tune, or old tunes, as long as one kept one's freedom and one's personality. Of course, that's what Stravinsky did, and how many other composers did it in the past? So he considered that he was absolutely free to do whatever he liked with those tunes, and sometimes he made a sort of 'salad' with 18 tunes or 20 tunes--he loved to do that! In the Bruxelloise movement of the Quatre Visages, there are a few notes of the national anthem of Belgium. He quotes that in the Quatre Visages. It is a sort of [she winks] when you do this. . . but nobody knows that.
Martinson: Do you know if Germain played or promoted the 1st sonate more than the 2nd sonate?
Mrs. Milhaud: I don't know.
Martinson: For the Sonatine for violin and viola, the book doesn't list any commission- but the music lists a dedication to Laurent and Germain Prevost. Was this piece a gift?
Mrs. Milhaud: Well certainly. It's the same thing, all of those pieces were written for the memory of Onnou.
Martinson: The Sonatine for viola and cello (dedicated to Murray Adaskin and Jim Bolle), what insights can you share on that work? Do you remember the premiere?
Mrs. Milhaud: Yes, it was at that university that has a strange, strange name
Saskatoon. Adaskin was a teacher in Canada, a rather good violinist, and he studied in Santa Barbara with Darius. Yes, we met him there. I don't suppose Darius asked for some money. Jim Bolle was also a composer and a Milhaud student.
Martinson: Could you give me any insights on the two viola concertos that Darius wrote?
Mrs. Milhaud: Well, the first concerto was written for Hindemith. He played it with Monteux in Amsterdam. After Hindemith played it, he asked Darius to reorchestrate it in order to have a smaller orchestra. But he never played it [the reorchestrated version]. Of course it was a present from Milhaud to Hindemith.
Martinson: I know that Hindemith's Konzertmusik for viola and large chamber orchestra was dedicated to you and Darius.
Mrs. Milhaud: Yes, we knew him rather well--very strange character. You know, Hindemith didn't work so well [as a violist]; he played as a composer. In fact after the rehearsal in Amsterdam, Monteux said to Hindemith, "Now go in your room and study". He did really!
Martinson: The Viola Concerto No. 2 was written for William Primrose. Did he perform this very often?
Mrs. Milhaud: I don't think so. Milhaud wrote the concerto, which is more difficult than the first, but because Primrose was a very good player, in fact it's certain that for Darius, it had an influence if the person was a good player, why not ask him to do the difficult things that Darius wrote. As long as you are a virtuoso, you are supposed to play that.
Martinson: So Primrose commissioned this work from Darius?
Mrs. Milhaud: Yes, he did. We met him when he was teaching in Aspen. We were 20 years in Aspen, I think he began in 1950 until about 1970.
Martinson: How would you characterize Darius and Primrose's relationship, as friends, or colleagues
Mrs. Milhaud: They were friendly, but I think nothing else. It depends on the disposition of the composer. Milhaud was a real man, not serious, did his job, in fact as a craftsman, not a man who has lowered his standards.
Martinson: Did Darius write these viola works with the viola in hand?
Mrs. Milhaud: Certainly not. Milhaud wrote extremely fast, but it was usually after he meditated and thought about the work for weeks, and sometimes years, but he was lucky enough when it was ripe, to be able to write it the right way the first time. And as he had an extraordinary technique, he never avoided difficult things. He wrote it because it was a sort of 'game'. Like the 14th and 15th quartets, who'd imagine doing a thing like that. And how many times did he write a fugue because he wanted to write a complicated fugue? In fact, it was his life and he enjoyed it.
Martinson: Did he ever play these on the viola?
Mrs. Milhaud: No. You know in fact, he didn't play very well. He stopped playing after the war, because when he went to Brazil in 1917 for a year, he was able to give concerts for the war benefit, the Red Cross, and this type of thing. But I recall a concert, it must have been in 1920, the Sonate for 2 violins of Honegger, played by Honegger and Milhaud
and they played so horribly, that they both decided to put down their violins forever [laughter].
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