Darius Milhaud is a composer who was born to a Jewish family in 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. 1909-1939). His encounters with other composers, such as 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 its 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 as a professor of music 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 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 compositions. 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] a rhythmic alertness” (141) along with his embrace of disparate influences (Brazilian sambas, American jazz rhythms, etc.). Several of these works were also collaborations with other members of Les Six, such as 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, such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a connection that would ultimately assist in his exit from France in 1940, or were written for religious services, such as Service Sacré (1947).
No matter the context, Milhaud’s musical work constantly reflected his personal background. For instance, Marion Bauer reflects that “[n]ot 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). Le Carnaval d’Aix is an example of Milhaud’s celebration of his hometown inspired by his time in Brazil. Many of his operas, such as Médée (1938) see mythological narratives or folk narratives rendered in the French language — and through Provençal melodies and settings. Other writers, such as American composer Aaron Copland note the influence of Milhaud’s Jewish heritage on his 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 impact on Milhaud and therefore Milhaud’s artistic work; per her research, “the worsening international situation . . . also precipitated a depressive episode and, with it, an inability to compose. He [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 emotionally and creatively from the political burdens surrounding him.
Per Maher, Milhaud did not initially travel to Oakland directly but instead began his trip to the United States by staying for several days near Chicago. In this escape from France, Milhaud was accompanied by his wife, Madeleine and his son, Daniel; Madeleine had collaborated with her husband as a librettist for his operas. He would leave France in the summer of 1940 for the East Coast of America. Per Maher and the Milhauds’ description, the acquisition of entry visas for the United States was facilitated by Darius’s connections abroad. Milhaud and his family were also able to receive assistance from Hiram Bingham IV, then American Vice Consul in Marseille; during the war, he also assisted other notable Jewish artists and thinkers such as Marc Chagall and Hannah Arendt to escape from the war.
The Milhauds arrived in Oakland and Milhaud began teaching in Mills College’s Fall 1940 semester. In the obituary that he wrote for Milhaud in The Musical Times, Ronald Crichton notes that “Pierre Monteux and other friends had [collaborated and] obtained . . . a teaching post” (684) for Milhaud at the campus. 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.
Ultimately, Milhaud became an instructor of music, while Madeleine taught the French language and drama. Maher writes that “[t]he 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, which was situated particularly in Los Angeles, Milhaud thus sought a way to establish and celebrate his heritage in the East Bay — as a musician and as a Jewish Frenchman from Aix-en-Provence.
It is difficult to determine a specific date for the “launch” of 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 — and he was soon noted for his precocious talents in performance and composition. At age 17, he moved from Aix-en-Provence to study at the Paris Conservatory. According to Bauer, instructor Xavier Leroux encouraged Milhaud to pursue composition. Milhaud continued to compose throughout the 1910s; by the 1920s, 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 its rejection 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, operas, and 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 trips to Brazil and 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. . . .[H]is subjectivism, his violence, and his strong sense of logic . . . are indications that the Jewish spirit is still alive in him. (Copland, Our New Music 83)
For French and American music 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 heritage.
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 of sets and costumes for student plays performed at Mills, demonstrates his efforts to maintain 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 heritage through their academic work. Later musical programs from the 1950s 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 relaunch his musical career in Oakland — and begin artistic collaborations with the American community. He would continue to sustain his transatlantic connections through his trips between Oakland and France after 1947 — collaborating with musicians and artists both from the United States and France.
Darius Milhaud and his family arrived at Mills College around the time of the construction of the campus’s Faculty Village, a neighborhood dedicated for faculty living on campus. Most of the homes in Faculty Village were built during the 1930s and 1940s by Walter Ratcliff Jr. 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 pianist Elie Robert Schmitz 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.
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. 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” (Farrow Jorrens 22). In this regard, the Faculty Village was central to the Milhauds’ work, both as artists and 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. Long before the United States introduced greater accessibility requirements with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Darius Milhaud and his family had 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 adjoining Ensemble Room at the building’s southeastern end.
Despite his restricted ability to move, Milhaud also regularly enjoyed traveling. Though mostly noted for his travels between the United States and France, with some visits to Switzerland, Brazil, and Israel and performances, Milhaud sought to establish connections in the community in the San Francisco Bay Area as well. For the Milhauds, religion played an important role in bonding with community. While he identified as Jewish, Milhaud did not regularly attend synagogue services; 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 Street 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.
Mills College has an established reputation as a space for new and developing musical voices. While Milhaud did not see himself as an experimentalist, his work has impacted the school’s emphasis on avant-garde and experimental composers and compositions — musicians who, as he did in his experimentalist past, 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, an East Bay native and popular songwriter Burt Bacharach to composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
Though he humorously reflected that he had only won one real “prize” — a composition prize at the Paris Conservatory in 1915 — he was recognized internationally for his contributions to music and music education. 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” (“Darius Milhaud, Rebel Composer, Dies”). Milhaud’s music continues to be performed at Mills and worldwide. The Milhauds remain a celebrated family in Mills College’s history — and by Oakland’s and international music communities at large.
- Mills College as a professor of music.
- Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue located at 2808 Summit Street, Oakland, CA 94609.
~ by Camille Brown ~
Bauer, Marion. “Darius Milhaud.” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 2, 1942, pp. 139-59.
Brin, David M. “Walter Ratcliff and the Master Plan for the Mills Campus.” Mills Quarterly, vol. XXIV, no. 2, 2005, pp. 20–23.
Copland, Aaron. “The Lyricism of Milhaud.” Modern Music, vol. 6, no. 2, 1929, pp. 14-19.
—. Our New Music: Leading Composers in Europe and America. Whittlesey House, 1941.
Crichton, Ronald. “Darius Milhaud.” The Musical Times, vol. 115, no. 1578, 1974, pp. 684–85.
“Darius Milhaud, Rebel Composer, Dies.” New York Times, 25 June 1974, p. 40.
Farrow Jorrens, Katherine. “An Ode to Our Madeleine — Exultant at 100!” Mills Quarterly, vol. XC, no. 2, 2001, pp. 22–23.
Maher, Erin K. Darius Milhaud in the United States, 1940-71: Transatlantic Constructions of Musical Identity. 2016. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, PhD dissertation.
Milhaud, Darius. Ma vie heureuse. Zurfluh, 1998.