Milhaud’s Technique of Combination: Tonal Juxtapositions in the String Quartets

Society for Music Theory, 4 November 2021.

This paper analyzes three types of dissonant structural combinations in Darius Milhaud’s string quartets: juxtapositions of harmonies, of discrete tonal melodies, and of formal plans. None of the most thorough analytical studies of Milhaud’s work—Paul Cherry (1980), Jeremy Drake (1989), Deborah Mawer (1997), Barbara Kelly (2003)—explore combination as an overarching technique. Yet scrutinizing the quartets shows how Milhaud conjoined progressively larger tonal structures throughout his life—first chords, then melodies, later forms—seeking a uniquely French style of dissonance, rooted in the tonal tradition. These conclusions support François de Médicis’s (2004) argument that contemporary criticisms of Milhaud’s alleged “atonality” were motivated more by antisemitism than by aesthetic values.

I begin by interpreting the vertical sonorities in Milhaud’s second quartet as concatenated pairs of triads, labeling them with ordered pitch class intervals that indicate the separation of their chord roots. This analytical strategy demonstrates that Milhaud contracts and expands the separation of combined harmonies for dramatic effect, punctuating significant formal events. I conclude the presentation by considering how, in the fourteenth and fifteenth quartets, Milhaud graduates from combinations of harmony and melody to juxtapositions of whole tonal forms, borrowing from disparate periods of musical history. Because the fourteenth and fifteenth quartets yield the Octet when they are performed simultaneously, these pieces exhibit especially productive misalignments of formal design and fascinating conflicts in their orchestration. In all, I argue that “combination” is a constant theme throughout Milhaud’s seemingly inconstant compositional output.