Fictional Letter from Darius Milhaud to Paul Collaer [May 1928]

To My Esteemed Colleague and Friend Paul Collaer,1

Allow me to introduce to you a highly talented artist devoted to her craft who has had an incredible impact on Parisian music in the last decade. Although history has already begun to forget her she is a hidden force behind the men of music. Marya Freund is a great musician who gained first my respect, my friendship, and finally inspired me to even greater heights, and although some may argue that she is simply a singer who adequately reproduces the work of great composers, I firmly believe that she has elevated the work of avant-garde composers and changed the musical climate of Paris. This can specifically be seen through her influence through her work on Arnold Schoenberg’s masterpiece: Pierrot Lunaire.

Although she broke into the music scene more than a decade earlier,2 Marya Freund first caught my attention in December of 1921 as we prepared for a performance of Pierrot Lunaire in French, her singing and me conducting. At first, I doubted Jean Wiener’s3 judgement in selecting her for she struck me as slightly awkward and extremely nervous.4 Her first attempts to perfect the sprechestimme style Schoenberg asked for were lacking. I was however struck by her determination and persistence in the following twenty-five rehearsals in which we meticulously prepared the piece.5 “After continuous practice, our admirable Marya Freund succeeded in “speaking” the words without singing them, and “singing” the words without falling over into speech.”6 Marya Freund’s unending patience and devotion to the perfection of her craft gained my respect, for even when I was sick and tired of the piece, she remained focused on the task.7

Her work ethic alone was admirable, but perhaps even more note-worthy than that is her own original work on the piece. Pierrot Lunaire, which premiered in Germany in 1912, had not yet reached France and Marya took it upon herself to translate it into French. “The simplest thing would obviously have been to substitute the original words for the German text, but this was out of the question because Schoenberg’s prosody was based on translation into German. Marya therefore made a translation of this translation.”8 The feat of successfully translating this piece demonstrated her keen intellect and artful mastery of both languages as well as a sensitivity to the music which demanded my respect.

After our first performance together I realized that there was much more to this woman than it first appeared and I invited her to travel with me and the incomparable Francis Poulenc. I had been longing to reconnect with “the Austrian musicians from whom [I] had been separated by the war.”9 Over the course of our journey through Europe she first met many of my friends and acquaintances and eventually she shared her beloved hometown of Breslau.10 From Vienna to Warsaw she gained not only my friendship but that of many other musical elite. Frau Mahler, “who entertained all of the intellectual and artistic elite of Vienna” introduced Marya to Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Egon Wellesz who became incredibly dear friends to both of us.11Although Frau Mahler is incomparable in her connections, I do take personal responsibility for introducing Marya to these musicians and am pleased to have gained a true friend in the process.12

Now you may be convinced that I am simply enthralled by a friend and have no objective means of proving to you her worth and influence as a musician, but I intend to impress upon you her far-reaching influence as an inspiration to both audiences and composers alike. Frau Mahler, for instance, took a great interest in the singer and she arranged another premiere for Marya to participate in: the first side-by-side performance of Pierrot Lunaire in German and in French.13 After the performance Marya’s friends within the musical community were pleased by her success. As I talked with Francis Poulenc about the performance we agreed that her innate musicianship was quite apparent. In his words, “the Freund-Milhaud performance was more sensual than Erika Wagner’s.”14 Although Marya was not native to France, I believe that her spirit was French and that musical interpretations and style coincide with the French sound.15

You may once again question my argument by inferring that Marya was only accepted by the musical elite and did not impact Paris, but rather stayed locked away in private salons and homes. This could not be farther from the truth! Due to her tireless work, both translating and performing, the French public were more accepting of Schoenberg’s work. Since the premiere on December 15, 1921, Marya’s voice and Pierrot Lunaire took France by storm. It was such a success that we repeated it twice in Paris alone. “In spite of its ultra-expressionistic character bordering on morbidity” the French were impressed with its evocative nature.16 As I have often thought and hope to express one day:

A part of our [the French] public still found the German language hateful to hear, and it was also better that the words be understood, especially in a composition such as this, calling for a peculiar method of speaking on notes.”17 “The French language, being the softer, made all the delicate passages appear the more subtle.”18

Schoenberg’s attention had been caught as well, as appreciation for his piece grew in France. He even visited Paris and directed a performance of Pierrot Lunaire with the French translation.19 Without asking for or receiving due credit, Marya’s interpretation of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire removed the stain of his “German” training and allowed his music to be accepted by both contemporary French composers such as myself and the public.20

Even if she is under-appreciated for her skills and her service to the musical community, she is loved for her voice and her personality which have inspired me and many others. Praise for her “strong dramatic sense,” her “poignant intensity” and “feeling for the true expression of strong contrasted emotions” have been noted all the way in New York with her recent trip there.21 Although there may be many who possess a more refined, beauteous tone or more graceful lyric charm, Marya’s dramatic flair and complete commitment to even the “harshness and dissonance” have made a lasting impression.22

I fear that the musical community and the public at large will forget her, so I have chosen to dedicate my Fifth Chamber Symphony to this miraculous woman who has forever changed the world of music.23 This piece is the major composition that I created on our journey together and I believe that without the inspiration of her hard-working nature, her friendship, and her amazing commitment to the extremely dramatic it would not be the same. After a successful decade of performing and traveling I have no doubt that Marya will continue to achieve new heights as a performer and creator of music. She has already bridged a supposedly insurmountable gap between the French public and German music, making it possible for the magnificent Pierrot Lunaire to take center stage in Paris and she has stolen the hearts of those who heard her in the process.


Darius Milhaud


1 Paul Collaer was a Belgian conductor, pianist, and musicologist who was known to correspond with Darius Milhaud.

2 John Shepard, Marya Freund Papers Related to Arnold Schoenberg (The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, 2013), 2.

3 Wiener was a composer and pianist who met Milhaud while he studied at the Paris Conservatoire. Drew David, Wiener, Jean (Grove Music Online: Oxford University Press).

4 Carl B. Schmidt, Entrancing Muse: A Documented Biography of Francis Poulenc (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2001) 391. Although not directly connected to this performance, Freund was known to get bouts of nerves before performances. Darius Milhaud, Notes Without Music (Alfred Knopf, 1952), 129. “Jean Wiener decided to give a first Paris performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and asked me to conduct it.”

5 Darius Milhaud, Notes Without Music, 129.

6 Darius Milhaud, Notes Without Music, 129. Direct quote from Darius’ autobiography praising the virtues of Marya Freund.

7 Darius Milhaud, Notes Without Music, 129-130. Milhaud explains that “after conducting this work so many times, all my [his] nerves were on edge. I was exasperated…” It may be conjecture to assume that he respected Marya for her persistence, however he admits to his own failings in this area.

8 Darius Milhaud, Notes Without Music, 129.

9 Darius Milhaud, Notes Without Music, 138.

10 Marya Freund, 89, A Mezzo-Soprano, New York Times: May 24, 1966, sec. L, pg 43. Breslau Poland aka Wroclaw.

11 Darius Milhaud, Notes Without Words, 138. “This lady [Frau Mahler]… wanted us to meet all her friends: Alban Berg, for whom we had the greatest admiration; Anton Webern, with some of whose grippingly interesting quartets the Pro Arte Quartet had regaled us a few weeks previously; Egon Wellesz, a very erudite composer and a specialist in Byzantine music, who showed us real friendship when, a week or two later, Poulenc fell seriously ill.”

12 Darius Milhaud, Notes Without Words, 138.

13 Darius Milhaud, Notes Without Music, 138.

14 Francis Poulenc, My Friends and Myself (London: Dennis Dobson Books Ltd., 1963), 22.

15 Darius Milhaud, The Evolution of Modern Music in Paris and Vienna, (The North American Review: April 1923, 217). “The characteristics of French music are to be found in a certain fluency, something sober and clear, with some measure of romanticism… with clearness, simplicity, and conciseness.”

16 Darius Milhaud, Notes Without Music, 129.

17 Note that this quote was written in honor of Arnold Schoenberg, and that although history has virtually forgotten Marya Freund, her impact on this piece and thus its composer is evident in the way people remember it. Darius Milhaud, To Arnold Schoenberg on His Seventieth Birthday: Personal Recollections (Musical Quarterly 30, no. 4, 1944) 382.

18 Darius Milhaud (and other French composers such as Francis Poulenc) display an innate bias towards “French” music as well as the French language. That being said, the positive reception of the piece was due to some combination of Marya’s singing and her translation. Darius Milhaud, To Arnold Schoenberg… 383.

19 Darius Milhaud, To Arnold Schoenberg… 382.

20 Darius Milhaud, The Evolution of Modern Music in Paris and Vienna. Milhaud expresses his conception of French and Viennese music: “Following these two parallel paths, we reach, in our day Erik Satie on one side, and Arnold Schoenberg on the other… We in Europe are actually in front of two absolutely opposed currents… The two currents I am alluding to are the school of Paris and the school of Vienna.”

21 Richard Aldrich, Mm. Marya Freund, (New York Times, January 30, 1924, p. 17). Although there is no evidence to suggest that Milhaud read this specific article, many such reviews were present in the states as well as in Europe.

22 Richard Aldrich, Mm. Marya Freund.

23 Deborah Mawer, Darius Milhaud: Modality and Structure in Music of the 1920s, (Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1997) 95.


Aldrich, Richard. “Mm. Marya Freund.” New York Times, January 30, 1924, p. 17.


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