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“The Rest is Noise”, Part 1: Darius Milhaud

July 25, 2009

I’ve been reading Alex Ross‘ history of  20th century music, The Rest Is Noise, for what seems like forever.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a drag or heavy-going.  It’s just that it’s so packed full of information on so many fascinating characters within their equally  fascinating social contexts that I keep finding myself wanting to go back and re-read chapters.  Also, the bibliography is an absolute treasure trove of interesting-sounding memoirs, biographies and historical studies.  It’s got to the point now, at the end of Part 1 of 3 (even though that only takes me as far as the 1930s), that I feel like I want to stop and delve further into some of the subjects touched upon in the book before I start Part 2.

One of the ‘interesting-sounding memoirs’ I mentioned is that of Darius Milhaud.  His life isn’t covered extensively in Ross’ book but what is mentioned tantalises my interest to discover the full details from the man himself.  For example:


“Milhaud had spent the last years of World War 1 on a diplomatic mission to Brazil, where he made regular excursions into the teeming nightlife of Rio de Janeiro……..”

“When he returned to Paris, in 1919, he maintained the habit of ending his week with a night on the town.  He would invite fellow composers and like-minded artists to his home for Saturday dinner, then lead them out into the wilderness of the modern city…………When the Saturday-evening crowd grew too large to handle, Milhaud moved his soiree to a wine store on Rue Duphot, in a room named Bar Gaya……….Virgil Thomson described it as “a not unamusing place frequented by English upper-class bohemians, wealthy Americans, French aristocrats, lesbian novelists from Roumania, Spanish princes, fashionable pederasts, modern literary & musical figures, pale and precious young men, and distinguished diplomats towing bright-eyed youths.”  Everyone from Picasso to Maurice Chevalier joined the hilarity.  Cocteau sometimes sat in on drums”

“In early 1923, Milhaud made his first trip to America.  Paul Whiteman’s plush orchestral jazz was at that time the sensation of American high society, but Milhaud avoided it……..he sought the genuine article.  At a Harlem joint called the Capitol Palace, where the stride pianists Willie “The Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson were in residence and the young Duke Ellington would shortly be indoctrinated into the Harlem elite, Milhaud was stunned by the unadulterated power of the blues.”

(“The Rest is Noise” by Alex Ross, 2008)


I find the idea of someone travelling the world and discovering new music during this period absolutely fascinating.  So much of my knowledge of the early part of the 20th century is inevitably tied to World War 1 and it’s aftermath so the idea of someone describing going to nightclubs in Rio, painting the town red in Paris or discovering the blues in Harlem at this time is almost unimaginable.

Anyway, his autobiography, “My Happy Life”, arrived from Amazon this morning so I’m looking forward to getting started on it as soon as possible.

From → History

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