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LET’S CELEBRATE the art of theater set design. Here’s a wonderful book on the topic, together with focus on one of its subjects, artist Fernand Léger, and one of my favorite pieces of music, Darius Milhaud’s La Création du Monde.


Art and the Stage in the 20th Century, Painters and Sculptors Work for the Theater, edited by Henning Rischbieter, documented by Wolfgang Storch, translated from the German by Michael Bullock, New York Graphic Society, 1968. Both and list it.

Artists ranging from Toulouse-Lautrec to David Hockney have contributed to theater set design, each bringing aesthetic insights yet playing a supporting role. I suspect it’s akin to a composer writing music for film; it may be deemed essential, but it’s not the main point.

French painter, sculptor and filmmaker Fernand Léger, 1881-1955, had aesthetic views that were certainly attuned to ballet. In 1923, he wrote, “Life unfolds with such vigor that everything becomes movement.”


Darius Milhaud, c. 1926 in Paris. See also for his later mentoring of Dave Brubeck.

French composer Darius Milhaud had visited the U.S. in 1922, principally to experience firsthand the jazz of Harlem. He later wrote, “As soon as I came back from the United States, I got in touch with Fernand Léger and Blaise Cendrars, with whom I was to work on a new ballet.”

Blaise Cendrars, their librettist, had just published an anthology of African folklore, and this provided the theme for Le Création du Monde, The Creation of the World.

This piece of music was among the first serious compositions making use of jazz instruments and their idiom. Given its premiere in Paris by the Ballets Suédois in 1923, Le Création du Monde predates George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue by a year.


Set design model for Le Création du Monde, by Fernand Léger. Image from

Léger sets the stage for this production with a trio of 25-ft.-tall African gods. At half this height, demi-gods in flat-pattern costumes move parallel to the footlights—on stilts. As creation evolves, plants, animals and a human pair appear, all costumed by Léger.

A proto-canine

A proto-canine, as envisioned by Fernand Léger. Image from Art and the Stage in the 20th Century. 

The 1923 debut of Le Création du Monde was, as the French say, a succès de scandale. Apparently, though, this scandal didn’t quite match the actual riots that accompanied Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, The Rite of Spring, a decade before.

What’s happened to classical audiences today? We hardly ever hear of riots any more.


Above, a classic vinyl rendition, Leonard Bernstein and the Orchestre National de France; my first Création. Below, a more recent recording with the Swedish Wind Ensemble; I enjoy its loose jazzy feel. Both are available on CD at


The ballet Le Création du Monde is in six continuous movements. An Overture features alto sax. The Chaos before Creation contains a neat fugue with wonderful percussion. The Birth of Flora and Fauna includes an oboe blues. The Birth of Man and Woman has two violins and a bassoon in a cakewalk. Desire features a jazzy clarinet. The closing Spring has a kiss, with the flute “flutter-tonguing.” (Dare I suggest ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

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