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A Les Six Compendium: The French Composers Milhaud, Poulenc, Auric, Durey, Honegger, and Tailleferre

A Les Six Compendium: The French Composers Milhaud, Poulenc, Auric, Durey, Honegger, and Tailleferre

by Robert Shapiro

The absorbing, comprehensive story of an absolutely unique experiment in classical music, involving many key figures of the Dada and Surrealist movements
Les Six were a group of talented composers who came together in a unique collaboration that has never been matched in classical music, and here their


The absorbing, comprehensive story of an absolutely unique experiment in classical music, involving many key figures of the Dada and Surrealist movements
Les Six were a group of talented composers who came together in a unique collaboration that has never been matched in classical music, and here their remarkable story is told for the first time. A musical experiment originally conceived by Erik Satie and then built upon by Jean Cocteau, Les Six were also born out of the shock of the German invasion of France in 1914—an avant-garde riposte to German romanticism and Wagnerism. Les Six were all—and still are—respected in music circles, but under the aegis of Cocteau, they found themselves moving among a whole new milieu: the likes of Picasso, René Clair, Blaise Cendrars, and Maurice Chevalier all appear in the story. But the story of Les Six goes on long after the heyday of Bohemian Paris—the group never officially disbanded and it was only in the last 20 years that the last member died; moreover, their spouses, descendents, and associates are still active, ensuring that the remarkable legacy of this unique group survives.

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Owen, Peter Limited
Publication date:
Peter Owen Modern Classic
Product dimensions:
8.76(w) x 7.02(h) x 1.06(d)

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Les Six

The French Composers and Their Mentors Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie

By Robert Shapiro

Peter Owen Publishers

Copyright © 2011 Robert Shapiro
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7206-1293-6



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The intriguing school of composers that is the focus of this study was variously known as 'Les Six Français' (The French Six); 'Le Groupe des Six' (The Group of Six); in at least one case, as 'Le Cénacle des Six' (The Society of the Six); in one severely misleading instance, as 'L'Ecole de Paris' (The School of Paris; or the 'Paris School', the 'name' already attached to a fascinating mélange of painters); or as 'Les Six' or 'The Six' by French mélomanes and speakers of English, respectively. Les Six was initially known as 'Les Nouveaux Jeunes', as christened by its instigator from Montmartre, the composer Erik Satie, and evolved in the artistic ferment that was Montparnasse, the emerging Parisian address of the gathering musical, literary and artistic avant-garde, in part out of a nationalistic fervour not accidentally coinciding with the advent of the Great War, later to become known as the First World War. Experiencing a visceral repulsion of the German military invasion of France in August 1914 – the second although not the last such invasion to take place in less than a century – for a select core of composers so inclined, the group symbolized, and fostered, a disdain for all things and matters German, notwithstanding Teutonic high culture itself. In filling the void created with the rejection of German music, a call for an intrinsically creative expression became a significant rallying point of the époque within the domain of French serious music. Coupled with this external factor, there existed an internal, creative force on the part of the composers of Les Nouveaux Jeunes, later to become Les Six Français: to create a music that the members were compelled to express, irrespective of literary, philosophical or musical edict. Thus, the didactic tracts, such as those written by Jean Cocteau, as we shall see, variously reflected that which was already occurring in the convoluted musical realm as an innate extrapolation, or mere reflection, of the composers' internal worlds and sensibilities.

The protracted operas of Richard Wagner exemplified the long-windedness and heaviness of Teutonic expression with a characteristic denseness that atmospherically echoed what were increasingly perceived by some to be but laughable excesses of ancestral German Baroque musical expression. Wagner's music-dramas were still the rage in Paris before the First World War, bequeathed from the closing decades of the nineteenth century, as was musical Impressionism, initiated and glorified by French composer Claude Debussy (1862–1918). Also prevalent was French Romanticism, typified by the work of César Franck (1822–90), and which also dominated, for example, the musical catalogue of Vincent d'Indy (1851–1931), a co-founder of the conservative Schola Cantorum, with its logical reverence for ancient music and its vocal emphasis. Indeed, d'Indy had studied under César Franck, later becoming his biographer (as well as that of Beethoven and Wagner), and succeeded his mentor as President of the Société Nationale de Musique (SNM). It was Gabriel Fauré and his school whom Claude Debussy, and later Maurice Ravel, revered as representatives of the liberal wing of contemporary musical composition. But as influential journalist Henri Collet explained in early January 1920, 'Fauré already belongs to the former generation. Many things have happened since the appearance of [Fauré's] astonishing Quatuor [à cordes] No. 2. Time has marched on. The Russians, Debussy and then Stravinsky have made themselves heard.' Until, that is, the advent of Les Nouveaux Jeunes, which for a precious short time was the aesthetic force that superseded any other claim to French musical modernity. For modern-oriented French composers, the forum most likely to programme their music was the Société Musicale Indépendante (SMI), led by Fauré and inherently antithetical to the older and established SNM. A number of private venues, however, including the principal spaces of the Salle Huyghens and the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, would also serve to advance the reputations of emerging avant-garde composers associated with this movement.

Neither would the musical expression emanating from German Romanticism, Impressionism or Romanticism effectively adhere to the aesthetic sensibilities of a core of modern-oriented musicians studying at the Paris Conservatoire, the Schola Cantorum or privately, just prior to and during the First World War. And it would be these very iconoclasts, as Les Nouveaux Jeunes under the initial sponsorship of Erik Satie, followed by catalyst Jean Cocteau, who became the gloriously understated Les Six Français in mid-January 1920, a direct result, as we shall see, of the publication of a pair of articles in the cultural newspaper Comoedia by French musical journalist Henri Collet, otherwise already ironically dedicated to Spanish rather than French music.

Background and beginnings

The monumental, passionate and often grandiose music of Richard Wagner became a popular fixture in Paris following the successful première of Parsifal in 1872. By the closing years of the nineteenth century, however, Wagner's expression was attacked by various musical-philosophical interests, while continuing to be revered by various musicians, including many composers and a loyal segment of the musical public. Debussy had sown some of the collective doubt in 1892, when as a critic writing under a pseudonym 'Monsieur Croche' he criticized the continued infatuation with the music-dramas of the eccentric late-nineteenth-century German composer. In its place, Debussy hailed the music of eighteenth-century French musical theorist and composer Jean-Philippe Rameau and Louis Couperin. Debussy's creation of a style commonly referred to as 'musical Impressionism' was his own rebellious reaction to German Romanticism during the ferment of the fin de siècle. When he came to embrace musical journalism in 1903, after a lengthy sabbatical and following the successful première of Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902, he again criticized Teutonic Romanticism, but now the articles were signed with his own name. But Debussy was not alone in his passionate disdain of the German's music. With the advent of the twentieth century, the proliferation of ideas surrounding the 'necessary' renovation of French music became increasingly common, with calls for a music with a sense of heightened clarity. Indeed, Rameau and Couperin, and a few others, were most often cited as the historically viable models to be revered, according to both Debussy and Vincent d'Indy.

The Conservatoire de Paris functioned as the de facto breeding ground for a quartet of the composers later comprising Les Nouveaux Jeunes. However, neither Durey nor Poulenc was to sit in attendance as students of the Conservatoire or the Schola Cantorum of Vincent d'Indy, nor any institution for that matter. The first of the future group to enrol there was Germaine Tailleferre, who entered its hallowed doors in 1906 at the age of fourteen. Her enrolment was initially kept secret from her father, Arthur Tailleferre, who stood adamantly against the study of music for his daughter; a musical endeavour on the part of women, he believed, necessarily 'cheapened' them. Darius Milhaud, who would become a lifelong friend to Tailleferre, entered the Conservatoire in 1909, hailing from Aix-en-Provence in the Mediterranean region of southern France where his maternal Jewish-Sephardic roots harked back centuries. Arthur Honegger, although born on the northern coast of France in Le Havre, Normandy, was of Swiss parentage, and he studied at the Conservatoire de Zurich, later to enrol in the Paris Conservatoire. Georges Auric made his way from Montpellier in the South of France, although born in nearby provincial Lodève, arriving in Paris barely a teenager during the summer of 1913. His relocation came at the prompting of singer Paule de Lestang and pianist Léon Vallas, who convinced the musician's parents to allow their gifted son an appropriate musical grounding in the French capital. The precocious youngster was naturally intimidated by the prospect of living alone in a strange, impersonal metro polis, as were his parents who unselfishly accompanied him. Together, the Aurics set up home on rue Lamarck, in bohemian Montmartre, although never severing their ties to the south.

A student in André Gedalge's autumn 1913 section, Auric made the acquaintance of fellow Conservatoire students Milhaud and Honegger, who had already met Tailleferre in 1912 through their common attendance in Georges Caussade's Conservatoire counterpoint section. Without even the slightest intuition on their part, thus here stood a quartet of composers who, within a decade's time, would collectively help to alter the path of French musical expression. Auric enrolled at the Schola Cantorum in 1914, working under Vincent d'Indy and Albert Roussel, Satie's own teachers. Auric, who had already been exposed to a sarabande for piano by Satie, wrote a laudatory article on the middle-aged composer that was published in La Revue musicale de Lyon and sent a copy of it to Satie, who became anxious to meet the author. Auric and Satie met in the flesh at the young musician's family apartment on rue Lamarck in 1913, and the elder was taken aback, although not disappointed, to discover that the author was a veritable child.

Satie, whose eccentricities are now legend, was born on 17 May 1866 of a Scottish mother, who died some six years thereafter, and a French father, a publisher and composer. Satie studied at the Paris Conservatoire, following a stint at the Collège de France; his undistinguished stay at the Conservatoire resulted in his expulsion in 1882. Following his eventual matriculation, however, Satie became active in the quirky quasi-religious Rosicrucian sect and was eventually appointed its official composer. Although he began his musical career as the composer of cabaret songs and piano pieces that did not reveal an artist of uniqueness, Satie would develop into the creator of incisive, idiosyncratic and deceptively simple music, often evocative and disarmingly poignant. Satie would enrol at the Schola Cantorum, rather courageously, at the age of forty, upon realizing his deficiencies in the realm of orchestration.

Some time in 1912 Milhaud established his home on rue Gaillard. In 1913–14 the Saturday-night 'meetings' commenced, where the young iconoclasts gathered at Milhaud's apartment, as wine and cocktails flowed, along with the fervent discussions that would necessarily continue at a restaurant, such as the Delmas on rue Boissonade. The core of this group, drawn together by common aesthetic sensibilities, were Conservatoire friends Milhaud, Auric and Tailleferre, who were joined by a curious assemblage of others, including writers, other musicians and artists. To begin to list those that would attend the evolving legendary gatherings would be to take a census of the compelling artistic-creative figures, with their entourages, not of a temporal flash but over the length of a decade.

Poulenc and Milhaud met only briefly in 1915, while playing tennis at the estate of a mutual friend outside Paris, after which Poulenc sent the elder musician a note requesting his autograph – a common endeavour for Poulenc, whose passion was to gather such orthographic samples from his appointed heroes, including Debussy. Meanwhile Tailleferre, Milhaud and Honegger, along with Henri Cliquet-Pleyel, attended Eugène Widor's composition classes at the nearly emptied Conservatoire, in 1915 while the First World War raged. The remaining pair of musical hopefuls found the acquisition of a formal education far more problematic. Durey, on account of the social turbulence resulting from a state of war, was forced to study independently; the able Léon Saint-Réquier was entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing the eldest of the future school. Saint-Réquier, however, 'although a professor at the Schola Cantorum, was not especially marked by the spirit of this establishment'. To correct the documentary record, therefore, in light of inaccurate published characterizations, Durey was not a student at the Schola Cantorum per se; his relationship with Saint-Réquier operated wholly independently of the institution.

Poulenc also sought individual musical guidance, excluded as he was from an institutionalized curriculum owing to his stern, bourgeois father who did not approve of his desire to study at the Conservatoire; Francis begrudgingly attended an exclusive lycée instead. By the time it might have been possible to enrol at the institution, the war was thrust upon Poulenc as it was on all the country's young, including many who served in non-military positions, such as in the nursing corps, as was the case with the altruistic Tailleferre. Milhaud, disappointedly exempted from active battlefield duty as a result of health concerns, worked until September 1915 with André Gide for the Foyer Franco-Belge, a civilian organization aiding the war effort. Later, Milhaud was employed within the army's photographic division. Ultimately he would serve as Paul Claudel's attaché in Rio de Janeiro; it was here that he assimilated the Brazilian music that intrigued him and which eventually exerted an influence on his music. Poulenc studied piano independently under Spanish-born virtuoso Ricardo Viñes, followed by an also fruitful apprenticeship under French composer and theorist Charles Koechlin, but not before the advent of his expected and certainly dreaded military mobilization in the midst of an horrendous conflagration. Tailleferre herself studied under Koechlin once her Conservatoire training terminated around 1916, then followed this somewhat later with an informal but influential musical dialogue with Ravel at Le Belvédère, the master's renowned Monfort-l'Amaury estate.

The seeds of a revolution were in the air. Jean Cocteau, within an article of his own periodical, Le Mot – 'We Would Like to Have A Word With You: Letter to Young Musicians', published in November 1915, while the war continued to rage – laid the philosophical basis for a musical movement that necessarily rejects even a hint of Germanic influence, musically or literarily. Cocteau concluded the statement with one of his effectively provocative aphorisms: 'Prussia gets its strength through hate, whereas France obtains its strength through love. A France in love is matchless.'

On 8 October 1915, Cocteau and Satie met each other for the first time at the home of Valentine Gross (later Hugo), a surrealist artist-illustrator and amateur musician. Jean Cocteau was born on 5 July 1889 and grew up on the countrified place Sully in Maisons-Lafitte, an aristocratic village situated not terribly far from central Paris, famous for its breeding of racehorses. Having emerged into a charmed world of luxury, comfort and culture, the young Jean consequently found himself deeply enchanted with the luminous, rarefied atmosphere of the French theatre during this dynamic final decade of the nineteenth century. Jean's father, Georges Cocteau, although established, prosperous and seemingly psychologically balanced for the epoch and for his ascendant social class, shot himself to death with the waning of the nineteenth century, leaving Jean both shocked and undoubtedly scarred. When later asked how this tragic event and the consequence of having been raised solely by women had affected his work, he responded: 'I have never felt any connection with my family. There is ... something in me that is not in my family ... I do not know its origin.' Indeed, little from his charmed youth intrinsically suggests the emergence of such a magically creative talent. Cocteau's early literary output consisted of poetry, fiction and, in the visual sphere, the characteristically voluminous amount of pencil and/or ink sketches and studies that methodically marked the days of his years. Jean's first volume of verse, La Lampe d'Aladin, was published in 1909. But the poet would eventually renounce some of his formative literature including Le Prince Frivole and La Danse de Sophocle, along with La Lampe d'Aladin. With Maurice Rostand, the confident upstart initiated a journal in 1909 called Schéhérazade, inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov's music ballet of the same name – ironically enough, as will become apparent – the first of several didactic periodicals that Cocteau undertook during his frenetic career. Regarding this mania for creation, the artist himself would remark: 'Since the age of sixteen, I have not rested for a moment.' Fortunately for posterity, Cocteau kept diaries whose entries have graced numerous memoirs and biographies of those active within the milieu, including his own. From all external appearances the young littérateur exhibited the unmistakable trademarks of the Parisian dandy. But it was his meeting with legendary Russian ballet impresario Diaghilev that unleashed, albeit in stages, Cocteau's creative fury but only upon the Russian's electric request of him to 'Astound me! [Etonne moi!] I'll wait for you to astound me!' Moving from salon to salon – while counting among his friends supreme talents such as reclusive novelist Marcel Proust, the undisputed master of exquisite detail – Cocteau, as if by instinct, was establishing deep roots in the Paris that would become his formidable stage and soapbox for the eventful half-century to come.


Excerpted from Les Six by Robert Shapiro. Copyright © 2011 Robert Shapiro. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Robert Shapiro is a well-respected expert on the 20th century French école and has written a previous book on the subject: Germaine Tailleferre: A Bio-Bibliography, and contributed articles to Music of the 20th Century Avant–Garde: A Biocritical Sourcebook.

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