There are three pieces of music with this name, aside from Bach’s six suites for clavier called French. Roger-Ducasse wrote an orchestral suite (1907). Poulenc wrote one (1935), based on tunes by Claude Gervaise, for two oboes, two bassoons, two trumpets, three trombones, percussion and harpsichord. Milhaud wrote one (1944) for brass band, or orchestra, or piano (four hands). The band version is best.
Milhaud’s was performed at a concert in Central Park in New York on June 13 1945 by the Goldman Band conducted by EF Goldman. There is nothing complicated in it. France was invaded, suffered, resisted and was liberated. The war which had sent Milhaud – français de Provence et de religion israélite – into exile, and had caused him to lose many members of his family, is over. There are no murky issues. The first movement expresses the optimistic spirit of the Resistance. The second, with its funeral march, the atmosphere of occupied Brittany. The third, the joy of Paris at the liberation. The fourth movement is a tribute to the people of Alsace-Lorraine. The fifth is a joyful homecoming to Provence. “I had the idea of writing a composition fit for high school purposes and this was the result. The five parts of this suite are named after French Provinces, the very ones in which the Allied and American armies fought together with the French underground for the liberation of my country. 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.”
Its tunes seemed to inhabit the very breath and air of this liberated France.
The old Penguin Record and Cassette Guide called it “an extraordinarily appealing work, which ought to be far more popular than it is”.
Percy Grainger, a composer for winds if he was anything, wrote after a performance which he (if I am reading Christopher Palmer’s 1994 introduction to the English translation of Milhaud’s autobiography correctly) conducted in Carnegie Hall in 1948: “… what I got from the Goldman Band tone-show was PURE JOY in hearing Milhaud’s Suite française, written straight for wind-band. What a bewitching work! What enthralling she-like little tunes darting about, what mastery of form and tone colour, what manly power in the use of 7-tone scales. …” She-like?
We are a long way from the brittle archaisms of Poulenc’s moving suite of the same name and from Poulenc’s war music.
Two recently-rediscovered novels by the Jewish exile in France Irène Némirovsky which portray life in France between June 4 1940 and July 1 1941 have been published as Suite française. She was born in the Ukraine in 1903 and died in Auschwitz in 1942.