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A Jewish Sacred Music Composer

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Fifty years ago, on June 22, 1974, Darius Milhaud passed away in Geneva. He often referred to himself as “a Frenchman from Provence and, by religion, a Jew.”[1]

Born in 1892 in Aix-en-Provence, southern France, Milhaud received his musical education at the Paris Conservatory and the Schola Cantorum. In 1916, he embarked on a journey to Brazil as the secretary of poet Paul Claudel († 1955), who was serving as an ambassador at the time. Throughout his career, Milhaud cultivated friendships with the writer Jean Cocteau († 1963) and the composer Erik Satie († 1925). Additionally, he became a member of the influential group of French composers known as Les Six.

During World War II, Milhaud sought refuge in Oakland, California, where he both taught and continued composing. In 1947, he eventually returned to Paris, securing a composition chair at the Conservatory. His music is distinguished by an eclectic fusion of diverse cultural influences, ranging from jazz to South American folklore and the historical avant-garde of the twentieth century. His extensive repertoire includes nine operas, sixteen ballets, twelve symphonies, chamber music, and more. Milhaud was celebrated for his technical prowess coupled with a sharp sense of humor.

Between October 17 and 21, 1954, Milhaud composed the Trois Psaumes de David for an unaccompanied mixed choir, dedicating them to his friends, the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Mount Angel in Oregon, USA. This work stands as a unique piece within Milhaud’s repertoire, juxtaposing Gregorian chant with sections of four-part polyphony.

In a letter dated September 20, 1954, written by Milhaud to the composer Francis Poulenc († 1963) from the abbey, the origin of this composition is revealed:

Dear Francis, […] Upon arriving at Mills [College in Oakland], still having 8 days ahead of us, we came to the Benedictines of Mount Angel. For 2 months, one of the Fathers who oversees the Gregorian chant, like at Solesmes, has been writing to me to persuade me to compose a Mass with free polyphony in response to Gregorian elements (like Palestrina’s Magnificat and Victoria’s Masses). I came to visit him and explained that I could not compose a Mass. He pointed out that Bach, Beethoven [sic], and Stravinsky are not Catholics. Nevertheless, I explained to him that the polyphonic principle was fascinating but that my faith did not allow me to feel it was right. So we decided that I would compose for his abbey the Psalms of David on the same principle (Gregorian chant alternating with free polyphony). Some, like Psalm 50 and the Miserere from the days preceding Easter. And for my religious conscience, in these Psalms, I feel in my element. This Father loves your music; he knows your Mass, your Stabat. I talked to him at length about you, and he promised to pray a lot for your healing. I also pray for you often, but perhaps you will be more sensitive to the prayers of a Benedictine Father than to those of an old Israeli friend who can only offer you his immense and deep affection. This abbey is an admirable landscape. To come here, it was 3 days by car (700 miles); we crossed immense forests of these great redwoods, giant trees, millennia-old, straight columns, sentinels of time. My dear Francis, I embrace you. Mady too. We love you so much.[2]

The Latin text consists of Psalms 51 (50), 150 and 114-115 (113). The first Psalm is “the Miserere, the penitential Psalm, that is so much beloved, sung, and meditated upon. It is a hymn raised to the merciful God by the repentant sinner.”[3] Following this, the piece concludes with a verse from the Funeral Mass (Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis). Structured with polyphonic sections in 6/8 time, the piece maintains a tranquil atmosphere, primarily characterized by homophony (harmonized melody). The prevalent key within the four-part sections is G major, while the Gregorian tone remains in VI mode, consistently on G. Modulations to other keys, primarily related by thirds, occur, with polytonality (the blending of two or more different keys) appearing in only two sections. Formally, the piece comprises three parts with a coda, and the musical material of the first four parts is reprised in reverse order for the final part, all while abstaining from using the Gregorian chant as a cantus firmus (long notes serving as a basis for the counterpoint of other voices).

The second piece is based on Psalm 150, described as “a festive hymn, an ‘alleluia’ to the rhythm of music. It sets a spiritual seal on the whole Psalter, the book of praise, of song, of the liturgy of Israel.”[4] Milhaud’s composition, concise and consisting of only two polyphonic sections, adeptly captures the jubilant essence of the Psalmist’s call to praise, with lively passages brimming with vocal virtuosity. The choral sections traverse various modes centered around A, with certain passages featuring polyphony. The incorporation of chromaticism and the utilization of open chords contribute to the piece’s harmonic richness and complexity.

Psalms 114-115, where “the voice of the Psalmist expresses gratitude and love for the Lord after he has granted his anguished plea,”[5] form the concluding piece. In this movement, Milhaud uses the tonus peregrinus in the Gregorian chant. It stands out as the longest piece, characterized by its heightened dissonances. The Gregorian tone serves as a cantus firmus in two polyphonic sections, and the formal structure is less strict than the Miserere. The polyphonic sections are centered around D, with Psalm 115 displaying a wider modal variety. Once again, there is a rich variety in texture and effective contrasts.

In conclusion, the Trois Psaumes de David stand as a testament to Milhaud’s remarkable ability to fuse varied musical influences into a captivating and distinct expression. Through his compositions, Milhaud underscores the universal potency of creativity and spirituality in the realm of art.

Photo credit.

[1] D. Milhaud, Notes sans musique, Juillard, Paris 1949, p. 11.

[2] Francis Poulenc: Correspondance 1915-1963, ed. Hélène de Wendel, Éditions du Seuil, Paris 1967, p. 227; our translation.

[3] John Paul II, General Audience, May 8, 2002.

[4] John Paul II, General Audience, February26, 2003.

[5] John Paul II, General Audience, January 26, 2005.

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