Suite Française is a true classic of the wind band repertoire and a personal favorite of mine that I have been studying on and off for years and have conducted twice in concert. It hasn’t appeared on this blog until now only because I have known that it would take a tremendous effort to really do this piece justice, even in my relatively un-scholarly format, as evidenced by the three days it has taken me to put this post together. I hope that what follows proves enlightening for the uninitiated.
Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) was a prolific French composer and teacher and a member of Les Six early in his career. He was born to Jewish parents and grew up in Aix-en-Provence, France. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire, graduating in 1915. His composition career took off from there. He traveled to Brazil (Rio) and the United States (Harlem), where he heard the uniquely New World sounds of Brazilian music and American jazz, both of which would influence his compositional style. The Harlem experience inspired him to write the jazz-tinged ballet La creation du Monde in 1922, before even American composers were making serious efforts to blend jazz with concert music. The Nazi occupation of France put Milhaud in serious danger: not only was he a prominent Jewish figure, he also was often confined to a wheelchair due to severe rheumatoid arthritis. He fled for the United States 1940. While there, he secured a teaching position at Mills College in Oakland, California, where his notable students included Burt Bacharach, William Bolcom, Peter Schickele, and Dave Brubeck. Once France was liberated, he resumed his career there, alternating years at Mills College and the Paris Conservatoire from 1947-1971. His music further distinguished itself through its unique and unabashed use of polytonality. Milhaud wrote two autobiographies. The first (1953)was called Notes Without Music. Despite having dodged Nazi persecution and spent years in pain confined to a wheelchair, Milhaud titled the second (1972) Ma vie heureuse (My Happy Life). He died in Geneva at age 81.
There are several internet biographies of Milhaud. See Wikipedia, Naxos, Universal Edition, the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, the Music Academy Online, and American National Biography Online. Also, Milhaud’s former student Dave Brubeck offers reflections on his beloved teacher in this movie clip and this very moving audio excerpt (the Milhaud section starts around 14 minutes in).
Milhaud wrote Suite Française in 1944 on a commission from Leeds Music, which published the piece in 1945. They were looking for a piece fit for high school bands, and Milhaud delivered beautifully. It was premiered by the Goldman Band in New York City on June 13, 1945. Milhaud also created versions for orchestra and for 4-hands piano, although the wind band version came first. Says Milhaud of the piece (from the band score):
For a long time I have had the idea of writing a composition fit for high school purposes and this was the result. In the bands, orchestras, and choirs of American high schools, colleges and universities where the youth of the nation be found, it is obvious that they need music of their time, not too difficult to perform, but, nevertheless keeping the characteristic idiom of the composer. The five parts of this Suite are named after French Provinces, the very ones in which the American and Allied armies fought together with the French underground of the liberation of my country: Normandy, Brittany, Ile-de-France (of which Paris is the center), Alsace-Lorraine, and Provence (my birthplace). I used some folk tunes of these provinces. I wanted the young American to hear the popular melodies of those parts of France where their fathers and brothers fought to defeat the German invaders, who in less than seventy years have brought war, destruction, cruelty, torture, and murder, three times, to the peaceful and democratic people of France.
In addition to the folk tunes (which I will discuss below), Milhaud provided some melodies of his own. Each movement is uniquely of its place, as you will see in the videos below. “Normandie” uses two lively Norman folk songs: “Germaine”, about a warrior coming home through the eyes of a young woman; and “The French Shepherdess and the King of England“, about a comic meeting between the two title characters. Milhaud added some original material to help him depict the region where so many American servicemen landed in France during World War II:
A fog-horn announces the beginning of “Bretagne“, a province with deep ties to the sea. The movement uses the sea shanties “La Paimpolaise” and “Les marins de Groix“, as well as “La chanson des metamorphoses“, a song that imagines the singer’s lover transformed:
“Ile-de-France” depicts the bustle of Paris with lively, largely carefree folk material. It begins with “A ma main droite j’ai un rosier” (I tend a rosebush with my right hand), a children’s round that alternates bars of 3 and 2, and which Milhaud sets in 4 while still retaining the accents of the original. The lyrical melody that soon crops up is “Voici la Saint-Jean“, a summer festival song. “La belle au rosier blanc” (The Fair Maid of the White-Rose Tree) also make an appearance:
“Alsace-Lorraine” takes a more melancholy turn, suggesting distant artillery fire around a solemn funeral procession, fitting for a region that borders Germany and was taken over during the war. Still, the movement’s ending suggests hope and triumph to come. The main melody is apparently a Milhaud original. The primary countermelody that sounds so distant desolate at first is “Voici le moi de Mai” (Here is the month of May), a spritely tra-la-la of a tune. The clarinet interlude in the middle comes from “Le mois de Mai”, a different but still spritely festival tune:
I owe a large debt to Robert Garofalo’s fantastic study guide on this piece, without which I would not have been able to even begin identifying the folk material in the suite. His book goes much farther than this page in giving background information and context. Here is a look at some of the folk songs that he names:
I. NORMANDIE – Sadly, none of these songs seem to be recorded in internet form.
“La Paimpolaise”, of which Milhaud only uses the major-key refrain (presented first in this performance):
“Les marins de Groix”, which Milhaud slows down dramatically. If you listen carefully, you’ll recognize the tune as the oboe solo from the Suite:
III. ILE DE FRANCE
“A ma main droite j’ai un rosier”:
“Voici la Saint Jean” seems to be one set of lyrics with several different tunes attached. Here is one that closely resembles that which Milhaud used. Listen carefully to the top vocal and you’ll hear it:
“Magali,” sung simply, in English, as part of wind ensemble concert involving this piece:
Additional material on Suite Française can be found at the Wind Repertory Project, this program notes wiki, and the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra Blog. In addition, Tim Reynish has a nice page with interpretive notes on the piece, and David Whitwell wrote a paper on it. Finally, see the full score of the orchestral version with Leonard Bernstein’s markings at the New York Philharmonic Archive.