Darius Milhaud


“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.


“Darius Milhaud.” Oxford Bibliographies in Music, edited by Bruce Gustafson. New York: Oxford University Press, 27 April 2017.

Conference Papers

“‘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.

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. It was not only his teaching position at Mills College that continually drew him back to Oakland long after the end of World War II; 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.”

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

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 and interviews, I examine how both critics 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 prolificness. 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.

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

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, she 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.

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

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 his 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.

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

This paper compares two productions of Milhaud’s opera on the life of King David, which was commissioned by the Israeli government through the Koussevitzky Foundation in 1951. In both Jerusalem and Los Angeles, the opera’s presentation, publicity, and reception strongly emphasized its significance as a Jewish cultural product, but 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.

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

When Milhaud left France for the United States in 1940, few of his compositions had been published in North America. With his earlier scores inaccessible in Nazi-occupied France, he not only had to write new music, but quickly find ways to have it published and performed. Drawing on correspondence with publishers, conductors, performers, and managers, this paper provides a new perspective on the business of American music-making in the early 1940s by tracing Milhaud’s compositional activities in the first two years of his exile (1940–42) as he learned to navigate its systems and institutions. 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.