Spring 1914

April 29 2014

Darius Milhaud’s third string quartet, opus 32 (1916) is subtitled En souvenir du printemps 1914 and has two movements, both marked Très lent.

The second movement contains a setting of words from the journal of his Catholic friend Léo Latil, also from Aix-en-Provence, who was killed at Souain in the Marne on September 27 1915. I’ll quote them in a comment when I find them. The first quotes from his own earlier setting of Latil’s poem Le rossignol.

“My adolescence was lit by the glow of two wonderful friendships.” One was with Latil. The other was with Armand Lunel, a Juif du Pape and the last known speaker of the Judeo-Provençal Shuadit language, a now-extinct Occitan.

Latil was the first of a trio of Catholic poets who influenced Milhaud, a Jew. Latil presented him to Francis Jammes, who in turn introduced him to Paul Claudel.

From Notes without Music, quoted at The Eastside View (my links):

“Léo … attended the Catholic school […]. We became firm friends. He worshipped music and admired my early efforts with passionate conviction; he made me share his admiration for Maurice de Guérin, and we loved to discover contemporary poets together. I think Léo would probably have become a country priest. The infinite tenderness in his gaze betrayed a tendency to melancholy and a tormented sense of anxiety. He kept a diary that was one long lamentation in which spiritual weariness and painfully intense religious feeling, dominated ever by a deep spirit of sacrifice and absolute resignation, were interwoven with a passionate love of nature, of flowers, and of the exquisite blue lines of the horizon at Aix. He was a dreamer, in love with solitary brooding, but he accepted my presence. We often went for walks together; he would always take the same direction, toward the Étang de Berre, west of the town, where the softly curving hills merge into the immensity of the plain, on the edge of which stood Cézanne’s property, Jas de Bouffan, with its famous row of poplars gently suffused with the colours of the setting sun. [Milhaud himself is often called a musical Cézanne.] We never wearied of walking along between the fields of wheat, blue-green in spring, bordered with almond trees in bloom, dwarf oaks, and pines, through exquisite landscapes, some of which, like the Château de l’Horloge, evoked historical memories: according to Chateaubriand, it was in this solid, roomy farmhouse that Napoleon spent the night on his return from Elba. Sometimes we went as far as Malvalat, the Latils’ estate near Granettes, a village that took its name from the painter Granet, who lived there […].”

Same source (I have the book, but not to hand):

“Léo was stationed at Briançon in the Chasseurs Alpins. He looked on the war as a mission, a solution to his personal problems, and got himself sent to the front as soon as he could.”

“On September 27, 1915, as I was going across the Place de Villiers [in Paris, where he was studying], I felt an exceedingly acute physical pang, which lasted several seconds. I immediately thought of Léo and feared that some disaster had befallen him. Later I was to learn that I had felt this pain at the very moment of his death. It was at the height of an offensive in Champagne; he had been wounded, but though no longer able to handle a rifle, he refused to be evacuated, so that he might take part in the attack with his comrades. He was mown down by the German machine guns at the head of his company while encouraging his men. His family sent me a copy of his will; he had left me his diary. He had deposited it, together with my letters, in an old wooden chest, an eighteenth-century sailor’s trunk; I added the letters I had received from him. Subsequently Dr. Latil [Léo’s father, a doctor; George Butterworth’s was a solicitor] had a selection of his letters and extracts from his diary published by Plon. This supreme testimony of his pure Christian faith and spirit of self-sacrifice was singled out for mention by Barres on account of the nobility of its thought. While I was in Brazil I had a hundred copies of Léo’s poems privately printed. A few months after his death, I wrote my Third String Quartet, dedicated to his memory. This consists of two very slow movements, in the second of which I introduced a soprano voice singing a page from Léo’s diary, ending: ‘What is this longing for death, and which death does it mean?’ This sentence had haunted my imagination ever since I had read it.”

Milhaud also composed:

Trois poèmes de Léo Latil, opus 2 (1910-16, Prière à mon poète [Jammes] et à la petite Bernadette, sa filleClair de luneIl pleut doucement)

Quatre poèmes de Léo Latil, opus 20 (1914, L’abandon; Ma douleur et sa compagneLe rossignolLa tourterelle) and

Poème du journal intime de Léo Latil, pour baryton et piano, opus 73 (1921).

He wrote other works with printemps in the title, including one for violin and piano probably in the spring of 1914. He set texts by Lunel, Jammes and Claudel in many more works, in each case up to the ’60s.

The death of Latil was the end of Milhaud’s youth. A rheumatic illness exempted him from fighting. It would confine him to a wheelchair for the second half of his life. But he did a different war work. Brazil entered the war in April 1917. A few weeks before that, he arrived in Rio to take the post of secretary to Claudel, who had been appointed France’s ambassador (ministre plénipotentiaire) to Brazil in the previous year.

He dedicated his second string quartet, opus 16 (not 12 as stated on YouTube, 1914-15) to Latil, perhaps on hearing the news of his death. The movements are marked Modérément animé, très animéTrès lentTrès vifSouple et sans hâte – assez animé et gracieuxTrès animé. Here it is, played, like the third, by the Quatuor Parisii:

Both paintings by Henri Le Sidaner.

5 Responses to “Spring 1914”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The second quartet is enjoyable enough but, as Charles Shere says in his blog, “nothing terribly original or worked out”.

    The excellence and charm of some of Milhaud’s work makes me tolerant of the less distinguished part of it.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    The middle movement of the rather tense fourth quartet, written in Rio in 1918, is marked Funèbre and may refer to the influenza epidemic, which killed the President and 300,000 others. Milhaud, quoted at Charles Shere’s blog:

    “… four thousand deaths were recorded daily. The authorities were overwhelmed. In the hospitals the dead were removed from the beds before they were cold, in order to make way for the dying. The supply of coffins gave out, and you constantly saw cartloads of corpses that were thrown into common graves in the cemeteries.”

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Darius Milhaud au coeur de la Grande Guerre, par Emmanuel Reibel:

  4. davidderrick Says:

    Bernard Fournier à propos du Quatuor III de Darius Milhaud, with English subtitles:


  5. […] string quartet, opus 32, 1916 is subtitled En souvenir du printemps 1914 (post here). It was written in memory of his friend from his youth in Provence Léo Latil, who died on the […]


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