Darius Milhaud is known for his keen sense of balance -- his ability to infuse his experimental tendencies with an appropriate measure of restraint. Likewise, his playful, post-Dada persona finds a partial foil in the composer's devout Jewish identity. Such balance plays out in his compositional output as well: often, as an exercise in compositional discipline, he would compose a technically demanding, detailed chamber work on the heels of a lyrically ambitious vocal or operatic work. In this regard, Milhaud's Suite provençale serves as a microcosm of the composer's style and oeuvre. Its eight movements alternate rousing marches and fanfares with more somber and introspective themes, creating a work that, though characteristically austere and emotionally somewhat disengaged in its individual moments, creates a dramatic framework in which emotions held at arm's length nonetheless draw in the listener and focus one's sensibilities.
The work takes inspiration from eighteenth century Provençal themes, several of which are woven into the textures of the various movements. Among these are themes by André Campra, a French composer active in the late 1600s and early 1700s who, like Milhaud, hailed from Aix-en-Provence. Though this work draws on numerous historical topics and sounds, it would be only partially accurate to call it neoclassical. Here, Milhaud does utilize familiar musical ideas, but employs them for their immediately evocative properties, not simply for their referential possibilities.
The fanfare that begins the work ("Animé") is surprisingly rousing, the polytonal resistance between the upper and lower brass adding a dramatic edge rather than the sneer of pastiche. This partitioning is realized in the rhythms too, with some instruments following a straightforward beat while others anxiously leap forward with continual syncopations.
The pensive strings and winds of the second movement ("Trés modéré") recall the opening strains of Milhaud's La Création du Monde. Its cadential resolutions are heightened by familiar, but still effective, techniques. As the cadence approaches, polytonal distances increase. Likewise, resolutions to tonic chords are often punctuated further by the employment of two leading tones, both a lowered and a raised seventh, which combine in shimmering dissonance before resolving to the tonic root.
Similar textural and temporal juxtapositions characterize the rest of the work. Gestures are sometimes exaggerated, as in the absent downbeats and overheavy upbeats that drive some of the subsequent march materials, but never to the point of grotesquerie. Rather, such intentionally awkward structures have a propulsive effect, one that is enhanced by Milhaud's innovative and extensive use of percussion instruments. Likewise, the last movement juxtaposes harmonically meandering contrapuntal materials with a clearly evocative fife and drum texture, whose familiar surface is moiréd with grumbling dissonances in the bass and stuttering offset rhythms.
Still, one doesn't get a sense of parody or self-effacement from this music, but a sense of multidimensionality, where uncommon harmonic and rhythmic practices are employed to highlight those points that traditional rhythmic and harmonic structures tend to emphasize. Neoclassic shapes are retained while their edges and surfaces are ornamented with modern musical language.