Darius Milhaud was a French musician whose work ranged from ballet to film. He was among the most prolific composers of the twentieth century, and a mentor to many musicians. Milhaud was born in Marseille to a Jewish family that had settled in France during the 15th century. He took up the violin at age seven and entered the conservatory in 1909. Already disenchanted with the dramatic approach of the impressionists, Milhaud took refuge in the new poetry of the time and explored polytonal music.
Milhaud's career began in 1917, when his friend Paul Claudel (an ambassador to Brazil) offered the young composer a position as his assistant. Thus, Milhaud spent two years in Rio de Janeiro, where his first exposure to a non-western musical tradition forever changed him.
He returned to Paris in 1919, and found a group of composers who shared his interest in the writings of poet/artist John Cocteau. Embracing Cocteau's aesthetic of directness and avoidance of sentimentality, they began a brief alliance which came to be known as Les Six. Milhaud also encountered Jazz music during this time, having visited New York in 1920. He was taken with Jazz, and saw it as a vital art form even while it was still regarded as an inferior “negro music.”
Returning from the United States, Milhaud's career continued to expand. Whereas he had been known primarily for his ballets, the late 1920s - 1930s found Milhaud expanding his reach to include operas, piano concertos, orchestral works and film scores (including a score for Jean Renoir's Madame Bovary (1929)).
Interrupted by Hitler's invasion of France, Milhaud quickly fled to the U.S in 1940. He started with a commission at the Chicago Symphony but later found a permanent teaching position at Mills College in Oakland, California. During these years, Milhaud would continue writing prolifically. His compositions of this period combined the Judaic folk music of his childhood, the ethnic rhythms he encountered in Brazil, and elements of Jazz music (which took on new meaning to him, as it had sprung from the experience of an oppressed people).
Although he returned to Paris periodically after the war, Milhaud continued to teach at Mills College for the remainder of his life. He mentored notable musicians such as Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach. He died in Switzerland at the age of 82.