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François de Médicis. “Darius Milhaud and the Debate on Polytonality in the French Press of the 1920s.” Music and Letters 86/4 (2004): 573–91.

Médicis argues that scholars such as Deborah Mawer, Jens Rosteck, and Virginia Cox have not explored the wider cultural context of Milhaud’s polytonality.

Médicis shows how occasionally, polytonal music was singled out as the target of racist, and sometimes more specifically anti-Semitic, attacks. In 1917, d’Indy and Koechlin got in a brief altercation after an attempt to merge the Société national and the Société musicale indépendante. d’Indy retorted that “the polytonal practitioner has not the least hesitation in exhibiting himself in the pajamas of two superimposed keys in a style boche.” This claim upset Koechlin, who argued that a number of non-Germans (i.e. non boche) composers such as Bartók and Kodály had used polytonality.

While Koechlin tried to champion polytonality as an internationalist and ethnically neutral device, and d’Indy criticized it as a negative derivative of German art, Henri Collet proposed that it was, through Les Six, a positive attribute of French culture. But Emile Vuillermoz, a supporter of the Société musicale indépendante, was in direct opposition to the conservatism Schola, Franckistes, and the polytonality of Les Six. He celebrated Georges Migot as an antidote to Les Six and polytonality. But these distinctions were never clear cut: Migot, an early celebrant of polytonality, developed a similar (but contrarian) idea about polyplanaire. Vuillermoz did not mind the polytonality of Charles Koechlin, who he thought – alongside Strauss invented polytonality – and whose “Chant du Chevrier,” a correct usage of polytonality, suggested “melody from afar.” Vuillermoz’s campaign to strip Les Six of any influence or consequence as composers led Collet to respond in 1922, that even if polytonal writing did not originate with Les Six, their work is part of a renewal that he was the first to identify.

Milhaud, as a member of Les Six and a Jew, was subject to racist attacks from the right-wing and criticisms from Debussyistes like Vuillermoz. Milhaud derived his interest in polytonality after hearing Le Sacre. His Suite Symphonique no. 2 (1920) and the Cinq Etudes (1921) premiered to hostile crowds: Camille Saint-Saëns argued that “several instruments playing in different keys never made music, only cacophony.” In response, Milhaud penned two major articles which discuss polytanlity: “Polytonality and atonality” and “The Evolution of Modern Music in Paris and Vienna.”

In this articles, Milhaud provides readers with clear descriptions of polytonality which he sifted through the rhetoric of both ethnic tolerance and non-exclusive nationalism. He insisted that polytonality and atonality in no way betrayed fundamental musical principles, but instead was a culmination of various traditions: one Latinate (from the modal diatonicism of Debussy) and the other Teutonic (from Wagnerian chromaticism). In this way, Milhaud’s view departed radically from Keochlin’s, for whom polytonality was a procedure devoid of any nationalist sensibility.

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