Madeleine <I>Milhaud</I> Milhaud

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Madeleine Milhaud Milhaud

Paris, City of Paris, Île-de-France, France
Death 17 Jan 2008 (aged 105)
Paris, City of Paris, Île-de-France, France
Burial Aix-en-Provence, Departement des Bouches-du-Rhône, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France
Memorial ID 202422427 · View Source
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Madeleine Milhaud, who has died aged 105, was the widow of the French composer Darius Milhaud, and an actor, librettist and treasured source of information for scholars of 20th-century French music. She was at the centre of Parisian theatrical and musical life for more than 80 years; no visit to the French capital was complete without tea and biscuits in her flat on the boulevard de Clichy.

Neither her Belgian mother nor her lawyer father was particularly musical. Born in Paris, she first experienced the power of music at 15 through hearing Sarah Bernhardt, whose voice had "very characteristic and extremely songlike inflections". Madeleine studied with the actor-director Charles Dullin, which gave rise to a number of anecdotes that were an irresistible feature of her company. "You're very small," said Dullin, which she was. "And I," recorded Madeleine, "had a wild impulse to say to him, 'and you, Maître, have quite a pronounced hump!' "
Her first cousin Darius and his parents lived in Aix-en-Provence, but he and Madeleine saw each other regularly, even if, with a 10-year age difference, their relationship initially remained cousinly. From time to time he would say: "Why don't you learn some Paul Claudel or Francis Jammes?" But that was to no avail. She first heard his music, the First Symphonic Suite, in May 1914, but could not later be sure whether this had struck her so much as the fact that she had left behind a little fur wrap. But from then on she attended the first performances of all his works.

She was a great reader, spurred on by her meetings at Adrienne Monnier's and Sylvia Beach's bookshops in the rue de l'Odéon with Valéry, Fargue, Joyce and others. At Shakespeare & Co bookshop she heard Erik Satie playing Socrate. Gradually, she and Darius realised that their feelings for each other were more than familial: in 1925 they married, and Madeleine joined him at the address at which she was to die 83 years later.

Until the outbreak of war, she was constantly by Darius's side - or, more accurately, behind him, since the arthritis that struck him soon after their marriage meant that he often had to use a wheelchair. But she continued her career as an actor and reader of poetry on French radio. She also specialised as a reciter in works such as Roland Manuel's Jeanne d'Arc and Darius's Les Choéphores. When the Germans were within range of Paris in May 1940, the Opéra was putting on the première of Milhaud's Médée, for which Madeleine had provided the libretto, taking passages from Seneca, Euripides and Corneille. But the music was accompanied by the sound of anti-aircraft guns and, with the abandonment of the opera after the third performance, Madeleine urged Darius to leave France - "I can do many things for you, but I cannot carry you on my back and hide you."

They reached Lisbon and from there sailed to America, where they and their 10-year-old son Daniel stayed for the remainder of the war, with Darius teaching at Mills College, California, and Madeleine enlightening American students about French and French theatre. The family returned to France in 1946, and from then until Darius's death in 1974 he taught both at the Paris Conservatoire and in America. Madeleine, meanwhile, wrote libretti for his operas Bolivar, premiered at the Opéra in 1950, and La Mère Coupable, premiered in Geneva in 1965. While musical analysis was not among her interests, she had been quite capable of playing the piano duet version of Le Sacre du Printemps and, to the end, her musical judgment remained individual and perceptive.

On the day of her 100th birthday, her flat was a riot of flowers. "My problem," she said, "is that I exhaust everybody." Only once in a quarter of a century did I find her even slightly dispirited. "Oh well," she said, "it's just that Lennie [Bernstein] was here yesterday, talking about Mahler. I know he was a great composer, but all the same ..."

One of the joys of going to see Madeleine was that you never knew who you might meet. Claudel's daughter, perhaps, or Dave Brubeck's son, Darius. Where else could you learn that, at Satie's funeral, his family duly arrived, "and they all had umbrellas" (pronounced "umberellas")? Or that Stravinsky, in America during Prohibition had thought his eminence entitled him to import several dozen bottles of Bordeaux, only to be summoned to the dockside where the customs man ritually smashed each one with a hammer?

Madeleine was a marvellous storyteller. With her professional diction and timing (and English learned from her nanny), a patient counsellor and an unfailing friend, she will be missed by everyone who knew her.

· Madeleine Milhaud, actor and librettist, born March 22 1902; died January 17 2008 actress and composer Darius Milhaud's wife.

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  • Created by: Marie Schaffter
  • Added: 25 Aug 2019
  • Find a Grave Memorial 202422427
  • Find a Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Madeleine Milhaud Milhaud (22 Mar 1902–17 Jan 2008), Find a Grave Memorial no. 202422427, citing Cimetière de Saint Pierre, Aix-en-Provence, Departement des Bouches-du-Rhône, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France ; Maintained by Marie Schaffter (contributor 48492030) .