can’t see the forest

What’s That About an Ox on the Roof?

Posted in Arts & Entertainment, Classical Music, Music by Curtis on 10/6/06

Le boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof) is the work which enjoys the dubious distinction of being my favorite piece of classical music. Written by the 20th Century French composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) and premièred in Paris in 1920, Le boeuf is the score to a ballet scène by the infamous surrealist poet Jean Cocteau (1889-1963). The work was wildly successful, its name and concept giving rise in 1922 to what would become one of the City of Lights’ most famous restaurants.

Milhaud had a lifelong interest in combining European musical sensibilities with indigenous New World musics to bring renewed vitality and purpose to the concert hall. Le boeuf combines rather traditional orchestration and form with Brazilian melodies and rhythms in a manner similar to which George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue employs the symphony orchestra and the piano in the distinctly American blues idiom. But Milhaud’s work, to me, is both more subtle and more colorful than Gershwin’s—probably because Gershwin, while a talented composer and songwriter, did not have Milhaud’s academic grounding in counterpoint and orchestration. This is not a critique of Gershwin, whose music I much admire, but in terms of creatively combining the musics of the Old and New Worlds, Milhaud’s sophistication tends to appeal to my taste a bit more than the more commercial sensibility of his American counterpart.

This work is now heard far more often in the concert hall than in the ballet context for which it was conceived. Cocteau’s bizarre but hilarious scenario was meant to poke fun at American prohibition, which also served as an impetus for German composer Kurt Weill’s operetta from the same period, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), whose ‘Alabama Song’ was later covered by The Doors. On Cocteau’s stage one sees the interior of an illicit drinking establishment. Every time the maladroit cop-on-the-beat pokes his head into the dive the patrons quickly convert it into a “milk bar” (hence the strange title of the work, which, paradoxically, refers specifically to a male bovine.) The comedy grows more intense throughout the proceedings.

Exactly where Milhaud’s decidedly Brazilian score fits in is never really established, but the effect is marvelous. Below is a video of an historic concert performance of the work by the Orchestre National de France conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The sound quality is surprisingly reasonable and I was delighted to find this performance online—it’s an ample opportunity to watch one of the world’s greatest conductors interacting with an equally reknowned ensemble, and a chance to take in some of the most intellectually sophisticated but viscerally lighthearted music ever composed. Please enjoy it, and don’t be afraid to dance: Bernstein certainly wasn’t, as you’ll see.

Some pointers for listening beneath the surface:

  • Rondo form. The piece is an extended rondo, a classical form in which a ‘main’ theme is alternated with contrasting themes over and over again (something like A B A C A C A B A, with ‘A’ representing the main theme and other letters signifying secondary ones.) The sprightly theme that opens Le boeuf is the principal, and you’ll want to listen for its recurrences, noting the slight alterations that accompany each reiteration. Immediately after this theme you’ll hear a dip in the tempo and a change to a minor key—this secondary theme also makes many recurrences; it’s a fado, a sort of Portugeuse maritime lullaby which became an important song form in colonial Brazil.
  • Polytonality. From ‘poly’ (many) and ‘tonality’ (keys), this is the concept of superimposing two or more keys atop one another so that the result is a rather cacophanous sound at odds with the strict consonance associated with pre-20th Century classical music. You will notice that the melodies of this piece are imminently tuneful and singable, and an established tonality is always predominant, but Milhaud sometimes weaves in melodic fragments (especially in the woodwinds and trumpets) that have no relationship, keywise, to anything else that is going on. You might also take note that sometimes melodies are accompanied by patterns that are not in the same key as the melody itself. The effect is something like a midnight stroll down Bourbon Street, with music trickling out of several different bars. Charles Ives was an American classical composer who used polytonality to great effect.   

Much of Milhaud’s work involves the fusion of jazz and latin music with European forms and settings. This is perhaps his best known work, along with the jazzier/blusier La création du monde and the similarly tropical Saudades do Brasil.


4 Responses

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  1. thaed said, on 10/7/06 at 4:25 am

    You’re blog is remarkably intellectual. I’m kind of stunned, actually. As I have time, I’m going to delve into it more. Outstanding.

  2. tellitlikeitis said, on 10/7/06 at 8:07 am

    Thank you very much, much appreciated.

    Don’t forget to look for hidden slivers of insanity!


  3. Daniella Thompson said, on 11/25/06 at 3:46 pm

    If you’ll permit me a correction, “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” was not conceived as a ballet but as silent-film accompaniment. Only after the composition was complete did Cocteau create the ballet-pantomime. The full story is told here:

  4. Curtis said, on 11/26/06 at 1:17 am

    Thank you! I did not know that. Awesome. Also, your site on the subject has a wealth of great information, everyone should check it out.

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