Darius Milhaud was born to a Jewish family from Aix-en-Provence on September 4, 1892. Originally a violinist, Milhaud later focused his musical education on composition. His musical education took place first in Aix-en-Provence, then at the Paris Conservatory. Milhaud’s early career and reputation especially developed during his time in Paris (ca. 1910-1939). His encounters with other composers, like classmates Germaine Tailleferre and Arthur Honegger, in Montparnasse led to his partial renown as a member of “Les Six:” a set of composers noted for their unique modernist approach to music composition.

Milhaud moved to Oakland in 1940 in order to escape persecution and possible death as a Jewish man in Nazi-occupied France. He taught full time as a professor of music composition at Mills College from 1940 until 1947, a few years after the war’s end. In that year, he returned to France and began teaching at the Paris Conservatory. After 1947, he alternated between teaching at the Conservatory and at Mills; he retired from his post at Mills in 1971. Milhaud struggled with rheumatoid arthritis and mobility issues for much of his adult life (including his initial years at Mills). After many years of ill health, and many years of intense travel and creative work, he died on June 22, 1974 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Darius Milhaud was an exceptionally prolific composer, with 443 works attached to his name. From 1910 to 1973, he wrote countless operas, ballets, and other compositional forms. As a member of “Les Six,” Milhaud developed a unique and sometimes idiosyncratic musical voice. Marion Bauer notes his “clean-cut diatonic melodies, the individuality of his style, his independence of spirit … polytonal harmonization, [and] rhythmic alertness” (141) alongside his embrace of disparate influences (Brazilian sambas, American jazz rhythms, etc.) Several of these works were also collaborations with other members of “Les Six,” like Arthur Honegger. For his operas and ballets, Milhaud also collaborated with his wife and with writer and artist Jean Cocteau. Other works were commissioned by orchestras, like the Chicago Philharmonic that would ultimately assist in his exit from France in 1940, or written for religious services, like 1947’s Service Sacré.

No matter the context, Milhaud’s musical work constantly reflected his personal background. Carnavale d’Aix is an example of Milhaud’s celebration of his homeland. For instance, Marion Bauer reflects that “[not] a little of the charm of his native country and of its picturesque traditions seems to be mirrored in some of his works, especially in the character of his melodic line which, without much stretch of the imagination, may be regarded as having its roots in Provençal folk-songs” (140). Many of his operas (like 1938’s Medée) see mythological and folk narratives rendered through the French language – and through Provençal melodies and settings. Other writers, like American composer Aaron Copland, note the influence of Milhaud’s Jewish heritage on his melodic structures and approaches to mood. In either case, Milhaud’s musical production is perpetually linked to his cultural roots.

Though Milhaud had previously traveled and worked in the United States, he did not plan to live there for an extended period until World War II—particularly when Nazi forces began to arrive on French soil in 1940. During that time, Milhaud had been struggling with his physical health; his rheumatic illness affected both his mobility and his creative efforts. According to Erin Maher, the encroaching violence of the war also began to have a psychological and artistic impact on Milhaud’s work; per her research, “the worsening international situation … also precipitated a depressive episode and, with it, an inability to compose. [Milhaud] wrote to Henri Sauguet [a contemporary composer] in November: ‘I am in a mental daze, without reaction. I can only think about all of these young people who defend us and die every day’” (46). Working in the United States not only represented security for Milhaud and his family (of Jewish descent); it also represented an opportunity to heal physically, emotionally and creatively from the political burdens surrounding him.

Per Maher, Milhaud did not initially migrate to Oakland but instead began his immigration to the United States through a commission (and performance tour) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In this escape from France, Milhaud was accompanied by his wife Madeleine and his son Daniel; Madeleine collaborated with her husband as a librettist and costume designer for his operas. He would leave France in the summer of 1940 for the American East Coast. Per Maher and the Milhauds’ description, the acquisition of visas and exit permits was facilitated by Darius’ connections abroad. Milhaud and his family were also able to receive assistance from Hiram Bingham IV (then American Vice Consul of Marseille); during the war, he had assisted other notable Jewish artists and thinkers (like Marc Chagall and Hannah Arendt) to escape from the war (53).

The Milhauds arrived in Oakland during Mills College’s Fall 1940 semester. In his obituary for Milhaud in The Musical Times, Ronald Crichton notes that “Pierre Monteux and other friends had [collaborated and] obtained … a teaching position [for Milhaud]” at the campus (684). Erin Maher also notes that “[Milhaud’s] ties to the League of Composers were especially important in this regard, as was his association with the American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge” (35). Coolidge, herself a noted musician and Mills alumna, was also essential to Milhaud’s placement in Oakland. Milhaud also depended on his connections in order to receive steady housing during the family’s first year in Oakland; in his autobiography Ma vie heureuse (My Happy Life), Milhaud notes that the family lived with local friends before renting four homes over the course of their first year at Mills (224).

Ultimately, Milhaud became an instructor of music, while Madeleine taught French language and drama. Maher writes that “the relative isolation of Oakland was in some ways demoralizing, but it also enabled the couple both to create space for themselves in a smaller city … Self-identifying as an exiled Frenchman, Darius Milhaud aimed to ‘defend French culture’ through his position as a well-known composer” (3). Separated from much of the French diaspora in California (situated particularly in Los Angeles and San Francisco), Milhaud thus sought a way to establish and celebrate his heritages in the East Bay—as a musician and as a Jewish Frenchman from Aix-en-Provence.

It is difficult to determine a specific “launch” for an artist who had already enjoyed a great amount of success and appreciation (as noted by Maher and by Milhaud’s contemporaries). Therefore, one should note two “launches” for Milhaud’s career – the launch of his musical career in general and his launch as a United States-based artist. Per Marion Bauer, Milhaud himself had been raised in a family of amateur musicians – but he was quickly noted for his precocious talents in composition and performance (The Musical Quarterly 140). At age 18, he moved from Aix-en-Provence to study violin performance and string-quartet composition at the Paris Conservatoire. According to Bauer, instructor Xavier Leroux encouraged Milhaud to pursue composition (141). Milhaud continued to compose through the 1910’s; by the 1920’s, he had forged connections with composer Erik Satie and artist Jean Cocteau. Through these connections, he also became noted as a member of “Les Six” – a group of Paris-based composers noted for their rejections of earlier modes of composition (e.g., the impressionist style of Debussy).

As a result, Milhaud became both notable and notorious for his unique and dramatic compositional style in his symphonies, in his operas and in his smaller compositions. Furthermore, he became of particular note to American composers – particularly as they began to incorporate unorthodox styles (e.g., jazz) in their music. In 1941, American composer Aaron Copland remarked on Milhaud’s continuation of his idiosyncratic musical style. There had been little change in Milhaud’s musical approach to his works, though he had been impacted stylistically by journeys to Brazil and to the United States. More importantly, his work (whether composed in France or in the United States) continued to reflect his heritage: “[Several] moods are characteristic of [Milhaud’s] music: a violently dramatic and almost brutal mood … and a tender and nostalgic sensuousness. … Since this nostalgia is shared by none of his French confreres, I take it to be a sign of Milhaud’s Jewish inheritance … [His] subjectivism, his violence, and his strong sense of logic … are indications that the Jewish spirit is still alive in him” (83). For French and American musical critics alike, Milhaud’s musical perspective and personal heritage became inextricable; one could not listen to (or even write about) his music without considering his Provençal and Jewish history.

At the same time, one must also consider the impact of his exile in Oakland on his artistic practice – both in terms of his musical style and in terms of his access to collaborators (many of whom were based in France). In part, Milhaud’s initial life and career in Oakland were defined by his cultural isolation. Maher notes a correspondence from a family friend that illustrates his and Madeleine’s loneliness on campus: “Two days spent at Mills are enough to become aware of the Milhauds’ complete isolation [at Mills College]: no true friends, nothing but acquaintances, professors, students, and the ‘strays,’ which they call ‘leeches’” (76). Even so, Milhaud was able to sustain some connections with French artists; his work with painter Fernand Léger (who would serve as designer for several Milhaud operas performed at Mills) demonstrates his efforts to retain a connection with his French artistic community.

At the same time, Darius and Madeleine Milhaud continued to sustain their cultural practices as much as possible; they kept in contact with their French friends and family by letter, and (as noted by Maher) shared their language and history through their academic work. Later musical programs (from the 1950’s) also show that Milhaud began to collaborate with other local artists – including painter Ralph DuCasse and ceramicist/Mills professor Antonio Prieto. During his tenure at Mills College, Milhaud also taught alongside early experimental electronic composer Morton Subotnick. In this regard, Milhaud was ultimately able to re-launch his musical career at Oakland – and begin artistic collaborations with the American community. He would continue to sustain his transatlantic connections through his journeys between Oakland and France after 1947 – collaborating with musicians and artists both from France and the United States.

Darius Milhaud and his family arrived at Mills College around the time of the construction of the campus’ Faculty Village, a dedicated neighborhood for faculty living on campus. Most of the homes in Faculty Village were built during the 1930s and 1940s by Walter Ratcliff Jr (Mills Quarterly 23). However, the school was not able to secure housing for Milhaud and his family during his first year as an instructor in 1940. The Milhauds stayed with family friend and French-American pianist Élie Robert Schmitz (Maher 29) and his wife, Germaine; their daughter, Monique, had recently attended Mills as a music student. They later rented four local homes before receiving a more permanent home (Maher 59).

By 1941, Milhaud and his family were able to live in Faculty Village. Jim Graham, a long-time employee at Mills College, notes that Milhaud lived at house 14 – deeper into the neighborhood itself. Mills alumna Katherine Farrow Jorrens recalls that the Milhauds incorporated their living space in their interactions with students: “Madeleine often invited our group of devoted students to her home in Faculty Village for sunlit afternoon sessions on the patio, while Darius Milhaud, mostly confined to his wheelchair because of a crippling onset of arthritis, and his music students wrote and performed inside” (“Our Madeleine” 22). In this regard the Faculty Village was central to the Milhauds’ work, both as artists and as academics. For Darius, who struggled with massive pain and limited mobility from his rheumatic illness, the home was also the most accessible venue for instruction and creation.

Milhaud’s disability also impacted his movement around the Mills campus. As a professor of music, Milhaud worked in and around the school’s concert hall; this hall, now named for Mills alumna Jeannik Méquet Littlefield, was built by Walter Ratcliff Jr. in 1928 (Mills Quarterly 23). Long before the United States introduced greater accessibility requirements with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Darius Milhaud and his family were obligated to improvise in order to gain access to the greater Mills campus. Jim Graham recalls: “To get into the Concert Hall, [Madeleine] … would drive their 1958 Oldsmobile … to the back door, near the stage. In his wheelchair he would cross through the backstage, painfully walk down the four or five steps in the hallway on the north side of the auditorium … and then roll in through the side door and sit in the main cross aisle … By [the early 60s] he was teaching most of his (seminar) classes at home” (personal correspondence, 2018). In spite of the building’s inaccessible structure, Milhaud taught, worked and performed frequently in the Concert Hall and in the Ensemble Room adjoined at the building’s south-east end.

Despite his restricted ability to move, Milhaud also regularly enjoyed travelling. Though mostly noted for his world travels (between the United States and France, with some visits to Switzerland, Brazil and Israel) and performances, Milhaud sought to establish community connections in the California Bay Area as well. For the Milhauds, religion played an important role in bonding with the California community. While he identified as Jewish, Milhaud did not regularly attend synagogue services; on occasion, he and his wife would sometimes attend Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco. However, the family also engaged with Oakland’s Jewish community. Erin Maher especially notes the Milhauds’ early engagement with the Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue located on 2808 Summit St in Downtown Oakland: “Daniel Milhaud’s bar mitzvah was held at Oakland’s Temple Sinai in February 1943, and in December of that year, Madeleine Milhaud performed at the temple’s Hanukkah party” (158). Darius Milhaud would also compose music for synagogues (including the Temple Emanu-El) throughout much of his later career. In this regard, the Milhauds were ultimately able to establish new connections through their personal roots – whether engaging more directly with their French culture or their Jewish heritage.

Darius Milhaud established Mills College’s reputation as a space for new and developing musical voices. His work has specifically impacted the school’s emphasis on avant-garde and experimental composers and compositions – musicians who, like him, are interested in pushing the boundaries of their respective genres. Not only did he come to the campus as a prolific composer with a unique voice, but he also shared his extensive artistic experience with his  students. Milhaud would ultimately become equally notable for his role in shaping some of the most important musical voices of the mid- and late 20th century: from jazz pianist Dave Brubeck (also an East Bay native) and popular songwriter Burt Bacharach to composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich. 

Though he humorously reflected that he only won one real “prize” – a composition prize at the Paris Conservatoire in 1915 – he was recognized internationally for his contributions to music and music teaching. His obituary in the New York Times notes that he “was a commander of the French Legion of Honor, an officer of the Brazilian Order of the Southern Cross, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Swedish Music Academy and of the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome and the holder of honorary degrees from Lewis and Clark College and Brandeis University, among others.” Milhaud’s music continues to be performed at Mills and worldwide. The Milhauds remain a celebrated family in Mills College’s history – and by the Oakland and international music communities at large.


  • Mills College, as a professor of music
  • Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue located on 2808 Summit St, Oakland

~ by Camille Brown ~

External Links and Works Cited:

Bauer, Marion. “Darius Milhaud.” The Musical Quarterly 28.2 (1942): 139-159.

Brin, David M. “Walter Ratcliff and the Master Plan for the Mills Campus.” Mills Quarterly, Fall 2005, pp. 20–23.

Copland, Aaron. Our new music. Whittlesey House, 1941.

Crichton, Ronald. “Darius Milhaud.” The Musical Times, vol. 115, no. 1578, 1974, pp. 684–685.

Farrow Jorrens, Katherine. “An Ode to Our Madeleine: Exultant at 100!” Mills Quarterly, Fall 2001, pp. 22–23.

Maher, Erin K. Darius Milhaud in the United States, 1940-71: Transatlantic constructions of musical identity. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2016. Dissertation.

Milhaud, Darius. Ma vie heureuse: édition du 25e anniversaire de la disparition de DM (1974-1999). Zurfluh, 1998.

Citations of images

Barger, Alexa. “Plaque at Darius Milhaud’s home in Faculty Village.” 2018. JPEG file.

Cartier-Bresson, Henri. French composer Darius Milhaud. 1947. Magnum Images.

Cunningham, Imogen. Portrait of Darius Milhaud in Oakland. c. 1950. Mills College Library Special Collections, Oakland. Scanned by Alexa Barger. JPEG file.

Cocteau, Jean. Cover art for La création du monde, Darius Milhaud. 1959.

Cohen, Eleni. Milhaud’s home. 2015. Les amis de Darius Milhaud. JPEG file. 19 March 2018.

DuCasse, Ralph. “Portrait of Darius Milhaud.” Program for for the Milhaud Festival at Mills College, Oakland, 1963.

Jayjg. Exterior of Temple Sinai – First Hebrew Congregation of Oakland corner of 28th and Webster view. 3 August 2018. Wikimedia Commons. JPEG file. 19 March 2018.

Jones, Don. Darius Milhaud with wife Madeleine. 1950. Mills College Library Special Collections, Oakland. Milken Archive. PNG file. 19 March 2018.

Lipnitzki, Boris and Roger Viollet. Cocteau and Les Six. 1931. Getty Images. 19 March 2018.

Milhaud, Daniel. Portrait of Darius Milhaud. 1971. Wood and paint collage. Jeannik Méquet Littlefield Concert Hall, Oakland. (photog. by Alexa Barger).

No photographer attributed. Darius Milhaud, Fernand Léger and André Maurois in the Mills

College Art Museum, 1941. Set for La création du monde by Fernand Léger. Cited from

Akel, Joseph. “Experiments in the Fault Zone.” Frieze 160: Jan-Feb 2014. Web. 19 March 2018.

———————————. Darius Milhaud with students [Milhaud w Hawley.jpg]. c. 1950. Oakland. Carolyn Hawley. JPEG file. 19 March 2018.

———————————. Igor Stravinsky (left) and Nadia Boulanger (right) visiting the Milhauds at Mills, October 1944. Oakland. Daniella Thompson. 19 March 2018.

———————————. Madeleine, Daniel (né en 1930) et Darius Milhaud [FamilleMilhaud.jpg]. c. 1941. Le Deblocnot. JPEG file. 19 March 2018.

Special Collections, Oakland. Véronique Chemla. JPEG file. 19 March 2018.

———————————. Milhaud-Brubeck (Dave). n.d. Bibliolore. JPEG file. 19 March 2018.

———————————. Milhaud, prof à Mills College. c. 1950. Mills College Library Special Collections, Oakland. Véronique Chemla. JPEG file. 19 March 2018.

———————————. Milhaud’s 60th birthday party at Mills, 1952, incl. guests Leland Smith, Jerry Rosen, Nathan Rubin, Darlene Mahnke, Dave Brubeck & Jack Weeks. from Collaer, Paul. Darius Milhaud. Springer: 1988. Daniella Thompson [website.] JPEG file.

Torres, Claude [scan]. Visite à Mills College, à l’occasion du Festival du Film à San Francisco, 1958. Françoise Arnoul, Micheline Presle, Gérard Philippe, Jean Marais, Jean Renoir. 1958, from Collaer, Paul. Darius Milhaud. Springer: 1988. Daniella Thompson [website.]

Program for Two Chamber Operas by Darius Milhaud and Paul Hindemith at Mills College, Oakland. Music program, 1959.

Program for Mills College Summer Sessions, 1945. Mills College Library Special Collections, Oakland.

Citations of videos:

Darius Milhaud Part I: A Recollection of the Twenties. San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive, 26 Apr. 2012. Web. 07 May 2018.

Ina Culture. “Mort de Darius Milhaud.” Online video clip. YouTube. 9 July 2012. Web. 5 May 2018.

QueenReyes79. “Mills College Milhaud Concert – Carnival d’aix.” Online video clip. YouTube. 4 March 2009. Web. 19 March 2018.

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