Have you ever wondered what gives certain composers their unique sound? Why is it that you can turn on the radio in the middle of some composers' works and spot them immediately?
It depends on the composer, of course. But it's usually a combination of a couple of things: Favorite melodic shapes. Characteristic harmonies. Identifiable rhythms. A unique way of writing for the orchestra, the piano, the voice. And speaking of voice, some composers just seem to have one. When their music starts, it's like a friend has just entered the room. You know who it is without having to look up.
And some of the most identifiable composers are those intriguing figures that populate the second rank — not suitable, perhaps, for everyday listening, but adding flavor and color to the classical menu. Leoš Janáček. Frederick Delius. Philip Glass. And today's big birthday composer, Darius Milhaud.
The most prolific member of the composers group "Les Six," Milhaud once said that he "composed music the way a tree bears fruit." And what a crop! — over 450 works in all genres, including operas, ballets, film scores, symphonies, concertos, chamber works, piano pieces, songs, choral music...you name it, he did it. We'll enjoy a few juicy fruits today, including the Scaramouche Suite, the jazzy ballet La création du monde , the Suite française and the Suite provençale.
So what's the recipe for Milhaud's secret sauce? Well, let's taste...there's a cup of neo-classicism, a tablespoon of impressionism, several shakes of jazz, a twist or two from the Brazilian spice grinder, and of course, the unmistakable aroma of garrigue, the dried herb blend of Provence. The proportions vary from piece to piece, but those are the basic flavors. Oh, and there's one more thing which gives Milhaud's music its vinegary tang, and which you can also make at home. You'll need a keyboard and two performers, though one pianist with a bit of training can pull it off. So could two singers with excellent pitch and powers of concentration, but keyboard is lots easier.
Now, have both players take a seat at the piano, and both play, at the same time, the melody of "Happy Birthday." The catch is that the pianist on the left will play it in the key of C major, starting on G. The one on the right will play it in the key of F major, starting on C. It's all white keys for both pianists except for the "right" pianist's B-flats on the fourth and last "happy." Ready? OK, give it a go. Cool effect, isn't it? A little medieval, a little modern — it turns the Hill sisters' hardy old tune into something quite different. Let's give our new piece a name...how 'bout something like "Fanfare à la manière e pour l'anniversaire de Darius Milhaud."
Congratulations! You have just committed an act of polytonality. Don't worry, it's legal around here, or at least I think it is. And to say that Milhaud used polytonality in his music is like saying Bach was known to write a fugue or two, or that Muddy Waters may have done some blues in his day. Yes, Milhaud occasionally went a little heavy on the sauce. Like MSG or salt, polytonality can be overused and even perhaps cause headaches and hypertension. But in moderation, it adds a lip-smacking piquance that makes us come back for more. Which we will on Wednesday, with occasional return visits in future days of classical music on WFCR.