Wind quintet goes to the movies

In honour of Sunday night’s Oscar excitement, let’s learn about the cinematic history of one of the staples of the wind quintet repertoire: Milhaud’s La cheminée du roi René.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) counted among the famed Les Six — France’s six top-dog composers of the early 20th century — and rose to fame with his high-energy, jazz-inspired compositions.  La cheminée du roi René, however, is a mellow throwback to the Middle Ages.  Though the harmonies bear Milhaud’s modernist penchant for polytonality, each of the work’s seven movements recalls an image or mood straight out of Medieval legend — from a courtly procession to a lively joust, a rustic hunting party to a nighttime madrigal.

La cheminée was actually adapted for wind quintet from a larger, orchestral score, composed for the 1940 film Cavalcade d’amour. Director Raymond Bernard (1891-1977) tasked three composers — our man Milhaud, his Les Six colleague Arthur Honneger, and composer-conductor Roger Désormière — with composing separate scores to accompany an epic plot spanning three centuries of drama and romance.  You can catch Milhaud’s winsome, old-timey themes — which would later become the bulk of  La cheminée — in some of the film’s earliest scenes:

La cheminée du roi René received its premiere in 1941 at Mills College in Oakland, California, where Milhaud held a professorship — his Jewish heritage preventing him from living safely in Europe.  The work’s title refers to the court of King René I — the historical setting of Cavalcade d’amour — and to the French expression se chauffer à la cheminée du roi René (“to warm oneself at King René’s fireplace”).  The King’s fireplace, in fact, was the warm sun of Provence — René was known to take naps out in the sunlit countryside — a familiar yet distant countryside that our homesick Provençal composer dearly missed.

Milhaud never received an Academy Award for his score to Cavalcade d’amour — though, if Warren Beatty had anything to do with it, he very well might have — but the jaunty, tumbling tunes of La cheminée du roi René, a wind quintet classic, have certainly won our hearts.

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