American jazz was very popular in the Paris of the 1920's and it was there that Milhaud first heard it. He was so intrigued by it he went to New York City in 1922 where he visited Harlem, heard authentic American jazz and talked to jazz musicians. Milhaud was not only influenced by jazz music but by black culture and folklore. He wrote La Création du Monde (The Creation Of The World) for a ballet troupe performing in Paris, and the ballet was based on African creation folktales. At its premiere, the ballet was more of a scandal than a success. The ballet itself is revived rarely, more of a curiosity than anything else, but Milhaud's music is still played and the piece is one of the most successful uses of the jazz idiom by a classically trained composer.
La Création du Monde is scored for a chamber orchestra that consists of 2 flutes, 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 1 bassoon, 1 alto saxophone, 1 horn, two trumpets, 1 trombone, 2 violins, 1 cello, 1 double bass, piano, and an assortment of percussion instruments. The work consists of an overture and five sections played without a break:
Overture - The work begins with a solo for the saxophone played over a steady pulse. Other instruments are added to reach a climax, and the saxophone resumes. The trumpets come to the fore, the flutes comment on the saxophone tune. There is a general rumbling in the background while the saxophone and bassoon play together until the saxophone plays the end of the tune.
1. Chaos Before Creation - The piano and percussion thump out a rhythm and the double bass begins the subject of a jazz fugue. In turn, the trombone, saxophone and trumpet contribute to the fugal texture. Other instruments enter playing the subject as the music gets more and more complex. The fugue ends and slow, somewhat ominous music leads to the next section.
2. Creation Of The Animals, Insects, And Trees - The saxophone tune from the overture is played while the cello plays the fugue subject from the first section. This leads to a new bluesy tune played by the oboe.
3. Creation Of Man And Woman - The two violins play a syncopated duet while other instruments comment. The theme is passed to other instruments, fragments of previous tunes are heard. The violins resume their duet, a masterful segue by Milhaud leads to the next section.
4. Desire - The clarinet is in the spotlight accompanied by the piano, strings and percussion. The music modulates to a higher key, then goes back to the original key. The oboe enters and leads the music back to the theme of the overture. The accompaniment to the clarinet solo enters, but the overture theme overrides it. This struggle for supremacy is finally won by the clarinet theme and accompaniment dominating. It modulates once again, only to fall back to the original key as the intensity grows until the music grows mellow with the blues of the oboe tune from the second section.
5. The Kiss - Themes from section 2, the overture return, with a memorable playing of the fugal subject by the flutes using flutter tonguing. The saxophone and strings gently end the work.
Milhaud was not only a prolific composer but a teacher as well. He moved to the United States during World War II (he was Jewish) and taught jazz musician Dave Brubeck and song writer Burt Bacharach. Jazz and other kinds of music continued to influence Milhaud until his death in Geneva, Switzerland in 1974 at the age of 81.