Abstracts

This page provides abstracts for my dissertation and related conference papers. For information about my other research, see the Research page.

Dissertation

“Darius Milhaud in the United States, 1940–71: Transatlantic Constructions of Musical Identity”

When the French Jewish composer Darius Milhaud (1892–1974) fled his homeland with his wife and son at the time of the German invasion in 1940, this displacement marked the beginning of three decades of engagement with the musical culture and institutions of the United States. After seven years of wartime exile in Oakland, California, Darius and Madeleine Milhaud divided their time between Oakland and Paris, taking on a transatlantic existence that enabled them to assume distinct roles in U.S. musical life. Both during and after World War II, the composer taught on the faculty of Mills College, participated in intersecting musical networks, and continued to compose prolifically. He also continually renegotiated his identity as a composer—and as a Frenchman in the United States—in response to professional opportunities, personal circumstances, and cultural shifts.

This dissertation presents the first in-depth study of Milhaud’s activity in the United States, interpreting the results of new archival research through frameworks of identity construction and transnational mobility. In exile, Milhaud emphasized Frenchness to create space for himself in the U.S. musical landscape while also “defending French culture” through music. After the war, he continued to present himself as a “French composer,” while Jewish identity also took on an increasingly prominent place in his professional life as new institutions and ideologies of “Jewish music” emerged. Milhaud established a reputation as an aesthetically open-minded teacher, and when his neoclassical idiom began to fall out of favor, he attempted to exert continued authority by positioning himself as a mediator between the musical establishment and the new avant-garde, connected to U.S. and French musical communities through his yearly travels. During this time, Madeleine Milhaud carried out her own creative activity, but also oriented her public image around that of her husband, whose postwar reputation was complicated by factors including age and disability. Through an exploration of one composer’s construction of identity, this dissertation asks questions about the goals and effects of musical biography while contributing to scholarly conversations on exile and migration, French and Jewish identities, and the generational shifts of postwar modernism.


Conference Papers

“‘The Age of Youth’: Past and Present in the 1963 Milhaud Festival at Mills College.” American Musicological Society, November 2018, San Antonio, TX.

In May 1963, on the eve of the Mills College festival celebrating Darius Milhaud’s 70th birthday, organizer Nathan Rubin told the campus newspaper that the four-day event would explore the “paradoxical relationship between youth and age.” Though centered on Milhaud, a professor of composition at Mills since 1940, the festival programming extended back through the French tradition to Rameau, Josquin, and Machaut, while also featuring a day-long presentation of music by “young Americans” such as Milton Babbitt, Earle Brown, and Mills faculty member Morton Subotnick. The premiere of Milhaud’s Suite de quatrains, which incorporates elements of indeterminacy, showed a composer actively engaging with his reputation as a former innovator. More than a commemoration of a distinguished colleague, then, the festival—subtitled “The Age of Youth”—filtered the French past and the American present through the prism of Milhaud’s long transnational career.

Drawing on material from the Mills College archives and a documentary produced for San Francisco television, this paper interprets the 1963 Milhaud Festival as the product of a musical community in which the French composer’s local significance had come to shape overarching views of music’s past, present, and future. For the Bay Area musical establishment, Milhaud’s international reputation and ongoing compositional activity brought the prestige of the French classical tradition to the region. But for Rubin, Subotnick, and others invested in contemporary music, it was the avant-garde Milhaud of the early 1920s who offered historical precedent for a new generation of American rebels and experimenters. Through his own involvement in the festival and commentary in the documentary, Milhaud mediated between these external perspectives while expressing careful skepticism about the new claims to his legacy. Although this renewed interest in his early career granted legitimacy in the postwar era, it also threatened to relegate him to the past while he was still alive, and to position “the young Americans” as the true heirs of the interwar Parisian avant-garde. Indeed, the tensions and contradictions manifested in this local festival speak to broader processes of dialogue and reinterpretation among successive generations of modernist artists.


“‘Satie Would Have Murdered Him’: John Cage, Darius Milhaud, and the Contested Legacy of Erik Satie.” Society for American Music, March 2018, Kansas City, MO.

In the United States after World War II, the most prominent champion of the music of Erik Satie was John Cage, who saw in the then-neglected French composer a liberating avant-garde spirit that resonated with his own artistic principles. Cage’s advocacy helped to spark a revived interest in Satie’s music, but his idiosyncratic interpretations met with criticism, not least from Darius Milhaud. A French émigré twenty years older than Cage, Milhaud had known Satie personally, and he considered Cage’s creative reimagining ahistorical and self-centered. In interviews, each composer dismissed the other’s deeply felt connection to Satie as if it posed a threat to his own.

In this paper, I argue that this conflict between Cage and Milhaud was not merely a petty disagreement; rather, it illustrates the ways in which the legacy of early twentieth-century modernism was contested and renegotiated in the postwar era. Indeed, the right to claim Satie was a question of musical lineage: locating a historical predecessor inspired and legitimated Cage’s experimentation, while Milhaud relied on his direct link to Satie to bolster his own credentials as an avant-garde pioneer at a time when many U.S. critics felt that his more recent compositions had nothing new to offer. Furthermore, as both Milhaud’s and Cage’s versions of Satie have a place in scholarship and criticism today, this episode points to the role of individual composers in drawing on the musical past to shape not only their own public images, but also larger narratives of music history.


“‘Through My California Window’: Darius Milhaud in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1940–1971.” French Musicians and the Conquest of North America: Musical Travels and Cultural Politics, July 2017, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, UK.

Darius Milhaud’s first impression of Oakland, California, where he joined the faculty of Mills College after fleeing France in the summer of 1940, was one of isolation. The small city across the bay from San Francisco felt like “une prairie au bout du monde,” as he wrote to Nadia Boulanger. With most of his U.S.-based professional network centered on the East Coast—save for Pierre Monteux, who found San Francisco audiences unreceptive to modern music—the region seemed to offer few opportunities beyond stable employment and a home in exile.

Yet after World War II, Milhaud began dividing his time equally between Paris and Oakland, and when he returned to Europe permanently in 1971, he claimed that he chose Geneva as his home in retirement because it reminded him of the Mills campus. It was not only his teaching position that continually drew Milhaud back to Oakland long after the war’s end; rather, in the San Francisco Bay Area, he came to enjoy reliably positive reception, growing influence, and status as simultaneously a world-class composer and a local celebrity. His ongoing presence there was a point of pride for the region’s developing concert-music scene, and at a time when his reputation elsewhere was declining, it was in the Bay Area that he retained the designation of “France’s greatest living composer.”

This paper draws on correspondence, local press, and concert programs to trace Milhaud’s mutually beneficial relationship with the San Francisco Bay Area from his arrival in exile in 1940 to his final departure in 1971. I argue that through this sustained engagement with a relatively small musical center, Milhaud created space for himself and his music in the United States in ways that initially emerged from, but soon moved beyond, established pathways of Franco-American musical exchange.


“The Lens of Disability in Darius Milhaud’s Postwar U.S. Reception.” American Musicological Society, November 2016, Vancouver, Canada.

“The conductor was so stiff with arthritis that he had to lead the orchestra sitting down” (Time, 1946). “Milhaud, Crippled by Arthritis, Conducts” (New York Times, 1957). “The old man painfully hobbled on two canes to the seat in the center of the podium” (Time, 1965). For more than twenty years, such sensationalist imagery was a standard opening formula for reviewing concerts in which Darius Milhaud (1892–1974) conducted his own music. The French composer, a part-time U.S. resident, insisted that his physical condition was outside the proper domain of the music critic. Nonetheless, perceptions of his mobility impairment brought a range of disability narratives to bear on how he and his compositions were understood.

This paper presents a disability-centered study of Milhaud’s postwar U.S. reception. Bringing newspaper and magazine articles together with Milhaud’s own perspective in his memoirs, interviews, and letters, I examine how critics, colleagues, and the composer himself interpreted the relationship between his health and his music. His prolific rate of composition already singled him out as an anomaly, and disability further marked him as exceptional in ways that intersected with opinions of his prolificacy. For supporters, his ongoing productivity signaled triumph over infirmity, or even creativity inspired by physical suffering; by contrast, critics who found his new music uninspired could invoke disability to give the impression of a composer whose body and creative power were equally impaired.

Through this analysis, I draw out and contextualize assumptions and stereotypes that continue to shape Milhaud’s reputation as a composer today. Moreover, Milhaud has figured only marginally in studies of musicians and disability, yet his career offers a rich site for exploring the ways in which the musical and the physical can interact in the construction of a composer’s public image. While the immediately visible nature of his condition recalls responses to disabled performers, visual observation also informed the hearing of his compositions in a distinct way. The centrality of this nexus to so much of Milhaud’s postwar reception presents a unique window on the interwoven tropes of embodiment and creativity in twentieth-century modernism.


“The Composer’s Wife: Madeleine Milhaud in the United States.” Society for American Music, March 2016, Boston, MA.

Madeleine Milhaud (1902–2008), an actor, director, and teacher of French and drama in both France and the United States, is known primarily as the wife of the composer Darius Milhaud (1892–1974). Her relegation to the status of “wife” aligns with a number of familiar historiographical issues, from the centering of composers to the marginalization of women’s creative activity. Yet categorizing her as a victim of historiography ignores her own agency in developing her role as “the composer’s wife,” a public persona that was auxiliary to that of her husband, but by no means passive or voiceless. Through an examination of correspondence, interviews, and newspaper articles, this paper traces the development of Madeleine Milhaud’s identity as the wife of a composer in the context of midcentury U.S. musical and cultural life.

I argue that by actively fashioning herself as “the composer’s wife” in ways that marked her as French but aligned with American expectations, Madeleine Milhaud helped to sustain Darius Milhaud’s reputation in the United States after World War II, when the couple divided their time between Paris and California. Depicting their relationship in ways that largely reinscribed traditional gender roles became a means to counter the stereotype of the physically disabled composer as helpless or tragic. At a time when Darius Milhaud’s music was no longer considered “new,” his wife’s vocal advocacy also contributed to his image as a senior cultural figure whose significance was not limited to the compositional innovations of earlier decades.


“Becoming a Transatlantic Composer: Darius Milhaud at the End of Exile.” American Musicological Society, November 2014, Milwaukee, WI.

Darius Milhaud was one of a number of prominent composers who left Europe for the United States to escape the Nazi threat. When the war was over, rather than returning to France permanently or remaining in the United States, he chose a third path: from 1947 to 1971, he would alternate academic years between Paris and California as an “international commuter.” This paper draws on correspondence between Milhaud and his friends and colleagues in both countries, including recently uncovered letters from post-war France, to show how he prepared for this transatlantic musical career during the three years between the liberation of Paris in 1944 and his initial return in 1947. Milhaud’s music preceded his arrival: he sent copies of his new scores to Francis Poulenc, and influential friends such as Roland-Manuel in Paris and Paul Collaer in Brussels reintroduced his music to the general public after the wartime ban. At the same time, his work in the United States continued with both current projects and future plans.

For Milhaud, becoming a transatlantic composer involved renegotiating—but not diminishing—his French identity. His country of origin and the shift from exile to a life divided between two nations set his case apart from what has been considered in scholarship on World War II–era composers during and after exile, which has focused almost exclusively on Austro-German individuals and frameworks. By centering my study on a French composer whose post-war path diverges from established narratives of exile and return, I challenge the narrow focus of existing models of “remigration” and offer a new contribution to current discussions of twentieth-century migrations and music.


“Darius Milhaud’s David in Jerusalem and Los Angeles.” Jewish Music and Jewish Identity, October 2014, Youngstown State University, Youngstown, OH.

In 1951, the Israeli government commissioned the French Jewish composer Darius Milhaud to write an opera on the life of King David for a music festival commemorating what was declared to be the three thousandth anniversary of the founding of Jerusalem. The opera is overtly Zionist, featuring a chorus representing modern Israeli citizens who comment on connections between the story of David and their own recent history. The Jerusalem premiere of David in 1954, sung in Hebrew, was followed by several productions in Europe, each in a different language. In 1956, it was staged at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in a massive English-language production that attracted an audience of twenty thousand.

In both Jerusalem and Los Angeles, unlike the European productions, the opera’s presentation, publicity, and reception strongly emphasized its significance as a Jewish cultural product. However, the two performances were very different. For the premiere in Jerusalem, where it was done as an unstaged oratorio, local singers performed every role except David, reinforcing the work’s function as a way for Israeli Jews to commemorate and reenact their own history and recent struggles. The Los Angeles version was an elaborate Hollywood-style spectacle with a cast of hundreds, viewed as a landmark event for the city’s musical life and for Jewish culture in the United States. By comparing these two productions, I explore the construction and performance of Jewish identity through Milhaud’s opera in the disparate religious and cultural contexts of Israel and California in the 1950s.


Opus Americanum: Darius Milhaud Encounters the American Music Business.” Society for American Music, March 2014, Lancaster, PA.

When Darius Milhaud left France for the United States in the summer of 1940, he arrived in a country where most of his compositions had never been published. Until the liberation of Paris, these earlier scores were inaccessible, and he had only been able to take a few manuscripts with him when fleeing his homeland. This situation meant that he not only had to compose new music soon after arriving in the United States, but also quickly find ways to have it published and performed. He was able to reconnect with contacts he had made before the war, such as the League of Composers and the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, but he also needed to make his way into new musical networks. Drawing on correspondence with publishers, conductors, performers, and managers, this paper traces Milhaud’s compositional activities in the first two years of his exile (1940–42) as he learned to navigate the systems and institutions of American music. His first U.S. works—which include concertos, suites for piano and organ, and a ballet score that was never staged—show a composer responding to opportunities and expectations in ways that challenge common notions of artistic “assimilation” and “resistance” in discussions of composers in exile. In addition to giving an account of the beginning of Milhaud’s long association with the United States, this paper provides a new perspective on the business of American music-making in the early 1940s through the experiences of someone encountering it for the first time.

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