Le Bœuf sur le toit

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Le Bœuf sur le toit (literally "the ox on the roof"), Op. 58 is a short piece for small orchestra by the composer Darius Milhaud, written in 1919–20. Milhaud conceived the piece as incidental music for any one of the comic silent films of Charlie Chaplin, but it received its premiere as the music for a ballet staged by Jean Cocteau in February 1920.

Le Bœuf sur le toit
Design for the Red-Haired Lady by Raoul Dufy
ChoreographerJean Cocteau
MusicDarius Milhaud
Premiere21 February 1920
Comédie des Champs-Élysées, Paris
GenreSurrealist ballet


Milhaud said that he composed Le Bœuf sur le toit as "fifteen minutes of music, rapid and gay, as a background to any Charlie Chaplin silent movie".[1] The composer spent two years in Brazil in the French diplomatic service during the First World War, and was influenced by its music in his own compositions. There have been various explanations of the title: the musicologist James Harding mentions one, that the title was taken from the sign-board of a tavern, and another, that it is from an old Parisian legend of a man in a top-floor flat who insisted on keeping a calf, which grew into a large ox, too big to be removed. Milhaud himself said that it was the title of a Brazilian folk dance.[2]


The musicologist Robert Matthew-Walker calls the work "a rondeau-avec-reprises, a stylization of Rameau and Couperin".[3] The music cycles through all the major keys and some minor ones.[4] Milhaud quoted extensively from Brazilian tunes. An analysis published in 2002 cites more than 20 pieces by 14 Brazilian composers referred to in the score.[5] The lively opening motif – Milhaud's own invention and not a borrowing[3] – recurs throughout:

Opening theme

It is interspersed with several subsidiary themes, principally a syncopated melody for strings, an elegant theme for woodwind and a brassy theme for trumpets. They are developed into a rhapsodic passage for strings, and another with a strong Latin-American flavour. As the work nears its conclusion the themes are brought together in an exuberant coda. The analyst Richard Whitehouse writes, "The music is permeated by polytonal inflections that are a common feature of Milhaud's music in this period, giving it unexpected harmonic twists, while ensuring that the work's melodic and rhythmic appeal are never in doubt".[4]

Instrumentation and arrangementsEdit

The original scoring calls for a chamber orchestra comprising two flutes, one doubling piccolo; one oboe; two B clarinets; one bassoon; two horns in F; two trumpets in C; one trombone; one percussionist playing güiro,[n 1] tambourine, bass drum and cymbals; and strings.

Milhaud made several arrangements of the score: for violin and orchestra, violin and piano (with cadenza by his colleague from Les Six, Arthur Honegger), and two pianos.[3]


Cocteau's 1920 production, décor by Raoul Dufy

Jean Cocteau persuaded Milhaud to let the music be used for a ballet. Cocteau wrote the scenario and the Fratellini clowns and the Medreno Circus provided the cast. The production was to have been designed by Guy-Pierre Fauconnel, but he died suddenly with his designs incomplete; Raoul Dufy took over. The premiere was given on 21 February 1920 at the Comédie des Champs-Élysées in a programme that also included Francis Poulenc's overture Cocardes, the ballet Adieu New York by Georges Auric, three settings by Poulenc of verses by Cocteau, and Trois petites pièces montées by Erik Satie.[6] The conductor was Vladimir Golschmann.[3]

The action is described by Harding as "pleasantly devoid of all meaning".[7] The characters, mostly from the less respectable levels of Parisian society, are the Black Boxer, the Barman, the Jockey, the Black Billiard Player, the Red-Haired Lady, the Décolletée Lady, the Man in Evening Dress, and the Policeman. All wear cardboard heads two or three times life-size. The boxer finds his cigar drawing badly and the barman cuts it for him with a pistol shot. The bullet strikes down the billiard player. The jockey takes exception to the boxer's overtures to the red-headed lady and knocks him down, before joining the female customers in a tango. A police whistle is heard; the barman hides all evidence of alcohol and disguises the room as a milk-bar. A large policeman enters, smells the breath of the customers and dances a genial solo. The barman presses a button: an electric fan comes down from the ceiling and cuts off the policeman's head. He falls dead, and one of the female customers dances with his severed head, in a parody of Salome.[3] The barman replaces the head on the body of the policeman, who revives, but is confronted with a huge bill, several metres long, for everbody's drinks. Despite the liveliness of the music, the characters dance in slow motion, "like deep-sea divers moving against the current", in Harding's phrase.[7]

The ballet was well received in Paris, and Cocteau and Milhaud took it to London,[n 2] where Hugo Rumbold presented it under the title The Nothing Doing Bar. It was so successful at the London Coliseum – drawing five encores at the first night – that the management sent a touring company out with it.[9]

The ballet gave its name to a celebrated Parisian cabaret-bar, Le Bœuf sur le toit, which opened in 1921 and became a meeting-place for Cocteau and his associates. Milhaud was given life membership.[3] He noted later that the piece had also given its name to bars in Brussels and New York.[1]

Notes, references and sourcesEdit


  1. ^ The score suggests a washboard as an alternative.
  2. ^ Milhaud's stay in London was important for his later music: he first encountered live jazz at the Hammersmith Palais, made a thorough study of the genre and drew on it for some of his later works.[3][8]


  1. ^ a b Ferguson, p. 380
  2. ^ Harding, pp. 75–76
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Matthew-Walker, Robert (1992). Notes to Hyperion CD CDH55168 OCLC 28432964
  4. ^ a b Whitehouse, Richard (2005). Notes to Naxos CD 8.557287 OCLC 1257374643
  5. ^ Aranha Corrêa do Lago, Manoel. "Brazilian Sources in Milhaud's Le Boeuf sur le Toit: A Discussion and a Musical Analysis", Latin American Music Review, Summer 2002, p. 8 (subscription required)
  6. ^ Harding, pp. 78–79
  7. ^ a b Harding, p. 77
  8. ^ Harding, p. 80
  9. ^ Harding, pp. 79–80


  • Ferguson, Donald (1968). Masterworks of the Orchestral Repertoire: A Guide for Listeners. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. OCLC 471191091.
  • Harding, James (1972). The Ox on the Roof: Scenes from Musical Life in Paris in the Twenties. London: Macdonald. ISBN 978-0-356-03967-1.

External linksEdit