This week I came across a piano work by French composer Darius Milhaud (pronounced Mee-YO) called Saudades do Brasil, Op. 67. It’s a suite of 12 dances based on his trip to Brazil, and they’re simply charming.
Although French, Milhaud (1892-1974) was heavily influenced by jazz and Brazilian music. In 1917-18, he traveled to Latin America and was there exposed to Brazilian dances and rhythms. Each of the dances in this suite is based on a tango or samba rhythm and named after various Brazilian neighborhoods and cities.
The dances can be divided into two groups:
- The dance rhythm in the left hand is played against a slow, simple melody in the right hand
- The dance rhythm is the driving force and both hands work together
Aside from the Brazilian-style rhythms and characters, there is one other defining characteristic of this piano suite: Milhaud’s use of polytonality. Polytonality is when there are multiple keys being used at the same time. In these dances, often the right hand has a different key center than the left hand does. This gives a feeling of disjointedness, which I think is perfect for the fun style of these dances. In the fourth piece, for example (minute 5:29 in the recording above), the right hand is in B major while left hand is in G major.