Perhaps the most famous collaboration between Milhaud and one of the most important poets of the Montparnasse "era," Blaise Cendrars (1887 - 1961), was the ballet La création du monde (1923). Seven years later the composer set La danse des animaux (Dance of the Animals), one of the two poems from Cendrars' Anthologie nègre (Negro Anthology) that make up the Deux poèmes de Cendrars (Two Poems of Cendrars). In 1932 Milhaud composed the setting for the other poem, Le chant de la mort (Song of Death).
La danse des animaux is a joyful celebration of the oneness of man and nature, even with some stylized imitations of animal sounds. Milhaud's setting, in a lively 3/4 meter, is responsive to the text without being obvious. It is almost a disappointment that the composer eschews an Afro-Latin rhythmic setting for an essentially European one. La danse des animaux is a good example of Milhaud's ability to derive much from little melodic material. Musical form mostly follows textual form. The first three lines of the poem form a refrain; the first 14 bars of the composer's setting, varied at their shorter repetitions, correspond to this.
Le chant de la mort is a fairly emotional lament in 12/8 meter. Mixture of major minor tonality and Phrygian and Aeolian modes not only contribute to the tonal ambiguity but also underscore the sorrow, and even anger, of the poem. Formally, the musical setting is in two main sections, made up of briefer passages. The first section comprises the first seven bars. The melodic material of the second section is practically all derived from that of the first.
Despite the obvious differences, the Deux poèmes de Cendrars are very much a related pair of pieces. Both pieces have a melodic emphasis on G natural, with melodic lines continually returning to that pitch. G and C are common areas of harmonic gravitation. Subtle and more obvious melodic similarities between the two pieces are also notable. The final cadential passage of La danse des animaux provides a dominant-tonic relationship (G major to C minor) with the beginning of Le chant de la mort. However, by ascending stepwise to an A minor triad from a G major one in the last bar, it also undermines finality and helps prepare a shift of mood.
As well as tonal ambiguity, both settings are more interesting for use of added-note chords and chromatic coloration. The time-honored practice of voices in pairs is, as usual with Milhaud, well utilized. La danse des animaux in particular uses plentiful imitation, and even canon.
The Deux poèmes de Cendrars was written for the tenth anniversary of the League of Composers and is intended to be performed by an a cappella ensemble of either a vocal quartet or chorus. They were premiered at the League of Composers gathering in New York City in April 1933. Performance duration is no more than three and a half minutes.