Milhaud’s “Le Boeuf sur le Toit”: An Homage to Charlie Chaplin

Between 1919 and 1920, the French composer Darius Milhaud set out to create “fifteen minutes of music, rapid and gay, as a background to any Charlie Chaplin silent movie.”

The result was Le Boeuf sur le toit, a jubilant and colorful work for chamber orchestra. The title translates as “The Ox on the Roof.” It may have been taken from the sign-board of a tavern. Or perhaps it was inspired by a Parisian urban legend about a man who lived on the top floor of a flat with a pet calf that quickly and disastrously turned into a full-grown ox. The composer insisted that the title referenced a Brazilian folk dance. He wrote, “haunted by my memories of Brazil, I assembled some popular melodies – tangos, maxixes, sambas, and even a Portuguese fado – and transcribed them with a rondo-like section recurring between each successive pair.”

Milhaud’s music was not premiered as incidental music for a Chaplin film. Instead, it became the score for a Surrealist ballet by Jean Cocteau, performed by clown-acrobats from the acclaimed circus troupes, the Cirque Médrano and the Fratellini. Later, Milhaud explained that his uptempo music accompanied choreographed movements which suggested “a slow-motion film.” The ballet’s scenario has been described as “pleasantly devoid of all meaning.” (Harding) The music is a cheerful romp which combines Latin-American swing with quirky moments of polytonality, in which more than one key is heard simultaneously.


  • Milhaud: Le Boeuf sur le toit, Op. 58, Yan Pascal Tortelier, Ulster Orchestra

Featured Image: “Le Boeuf sur le toit,” a 1920 illustration from the ballet, Raoul Dufy

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

Leave a Comment