Milhaud's "French Suite"

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Wednesday, June 13, 2018

In 1944, the French composer Darius Milhaud was in California, teaching at Mills College in Oakland, California, and received a commission to write a piece suitable for school bands. With a world at war, the Jewish composer had found safe refuge in the U.S., and so eagerly accepted the commission for a number of reasons.

Milhaud, confined to a wheelchair for most of his adult life, sent his wife Madaleine to the College library to obtain a collection of French folk tunes. His idea was arrange of some these into a suite. As the composer himself explained after his “Suite Française” was finished:

“The five parts of [my] Suite are named after French Provinces, the very ones in which the American and Allied armies fought together with the French underground for the liberation of my country: Normandy, Brittany, Ile-de-France (of which Paris is the center), Alsace-Lorraine, and Provence (my birthplace). I used some folk tunes of these Provinces, as I wanted the young American to hear the popular melodies of those parts of France where their fathers and brothers fought on behalf of the peaceful and democratic people of France."

Milhaud’s “Suite Française” was premiered by the Goldman Band in New York City on today’s date in 1945, and rapidly became one the best-known and most often performed of Milhaud’s works, and one of the established classics of the wind-band repertory.