Born in Aix-en-Provence, Darius Milhaud entered the Paris Conservatoire as a violin student. However, under the guidance of teachers such as Dukas and Widor he turned to composition and was soon writing prolifically. In 1916 he was invited to accompany poet and minister Paul Claudel to Brazil as his secretary, and the music he encountered there was to have a lasting effect on the style of works such as Saudades do Brasil (1920-21). Back in Paris his association with Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie brought him together with Honegger, Auric, Tailleferre, Durey and Poulenc, and together they were appropriately known as 'Les Six'. Their affiliation was not especially based on any underlying aesthetic, although they did all collaborate on Les mariés de la tour Eiffel (1921).
While in London for the premiere of his work Le boeuf sur la toit (1919), Milhaud first became aware of jazz music. He immediately assimilated it as thoroughly as he could, ensuring he visited the jazz clubs of Harlem on a concert tour of the USA. The influence was worked into compositions such as La création du monde (1923), which although successful did little to dispel his image as a jumper of bandwagons. Towards the end of the decade he began to write grand stage works such as the opera Christophe Colomb (1928).
Like many Jewish composers, the Second World War forced Milhaud to America, where he taught at Mills College, California. Although by now suffering severely from rheumatoid arthiritis he continued to compose at the same rate, completing several of a cycle of 12 symphonies before returning to France in 1947. Here he taught at the Paris Conservatoire, leaving well over 400 published works at the time of his death.