Les Six: Discover the Revolutionary French Composers Who Defied Romanticism

Byvu lita

Jul 21, 2023

To make sense of the collection of young French composers who in January 1920 were given the label Le Groupe des Six, we have to go a little back in time.

In the late 19th century, French composers were facing the Wagner problem. Letters of the time from composers such as Chabrier, Chausson and Debussy groan under complaints of how the German’s musical vocabulary, what Debussy called ‘the ghost of old Klingsor’, dominated their efforts, try as they might. But ignoring him, while not easy, could be done, as two younger composers, Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie, showed with considerable success.

The compositional path Ravel marked out for himself led to masterpiece after masterpiece. But the pre-war group of Jeunes Ravélites never amounted to much, largely because, as Alexander Goehr has said, Ravel was ‘a bit too clever to be of much influence, because you’ve got to be too good at it to actually do it.’

Satie, though, was a different matter. It’s accepted these days that Satie was not a great musical technician, but his contribution to 20th-century music lies elsewhere, in cleansing the sonorous palate of his time from the rich morsels left over from the 19th-century banquet.

Who were Les Six

He also had a soft spot for the young, and towards the end of the First World War became a mentor to a group of budding composers whom, in March 1918, he christened the Nouveaux Jeunes: Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, Louis Durey – and himself, with Georges Auric and Francis Poulenc joining later. Then, in November, Satie resigned from the group (no one knows for sure why), and his place was taken by the upwardly mobile Jean Cocteau.

Although not a trained musician, Cocteau was attracted by the idea of musical collaborations. Given the cold shoulder by Stravinsky, he saw this young group bereft of intellectual leadership, and between March and August 1919 used his column in the journal Paris-Midi to create a public for it.

Also grist to the mill was Cocteau’s 74-page pamphlet Le Coq et l’Arlequin, published in spring 1918 and taking its cue from Satie’s 1917 Parade which had brought fresh air into the ballet scene.

A sample of quips from Le Coq gives a good idea of where the Nouveaux Jeunes were now heading: ‘knowing how far to go too far’, ‘a composer always has too many notes on his keyboard’, ‘build me music I can live in like a house’, ‘all music to be listened to head-in-hands is suspect’. Audacity, economy, down-to-earthness and lightheartedness were the new watchwords.

When did they become known as Les Six?

The first use of the name Les Six came in the collaborative composition of the Album des 6 for piano in the second half of 1919. There followed an article ‘Young French Composers’ by Roussel in an English magazine that October, before the crucial one in the mainstream music journal Comoedia by Henri Collet, ‘Les Cinq Russes, Les Six Français et Erik Satie’ on 16 January 1920. A follow-up article by Collet a week later used the short title Les Six.

At this point, two misconceptions need to be laid to rest. Firstly, that the group was in some sense ordained by fate. Madeleine Milhaud, the composer’s cousin and later wife, felt that Roland-Manuel could easily have turned it into Les Sept, as he subscribed in some degree to the same Coctelian aesthetic.

But then he started taking lessons from Ravel so, for this purpose, became persona non grata. The second misconception is that among the group’s members all was sweetness and light.

Poulenc later explained that ‘we never had an aesthetic in common and our works were always different from each other. With us, likes and dislikes were always at odds. So, Honegger never liked the music of Satie, and [Florent] Schmitt, whom he admired, was a bête noire for Milhaud and me.’

Likewise Honegger’s oratorio King David, which in 1921 made a huge hit with the public, is written off by Milhaud as ‘full of clichés and fugal exercises from the classroom, thematic developments, chorales and reach-me-down formulae’. At the same time, he adds, Poulenc and Auric are taxed with thinking only of immediate success, to the point that the splash made by King David is making them both ill.

How did Les Six influence classical music?

Before looking at the music of Les Six in a little more detail, it may be useful to consider the social milieu they were working in. The France of the early 1920s saw a questioning, in a number of uncomfortable ways, of the old assumptions of what it was to be French.

Some of this questioning arose directly from the First World War. The heavy casualties (1.4 million killed) led in some quarters to a refusal to subscribe to the ancient notion of ‘la gloire’. Ideas about tradition and a stable hierarchy struggled against memories of a war that had seen too many instances of gross disobedience toward an officer class no longer commanding automatic respect.

The world of art could not expect to remain untouched by this cataclysm. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who died in 1918 from Spanish flu and war wounds to his head, put it succinctly: ‘À la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien’ – ‘when it comes to it, you’ve had enough of that ancient world’.

While ‘that ancient world’ could be identified as that of the Greeks and Romans, it could as easily refer to pre-1914, with its head-in-hands obeisance before ‘high art’ and its catalogue of composers who were expected to wait their turn and perhaps become rich and famous in their fifties or sixties, if they were lucky.

No longer – the future now belonged to the young, with all its insouciance and bravado. Indeed, Les Six were lucky to be waiting in the wings of this life-enhancing change of heart. France’s morale was low: what it needed was to be cheered up.

As explained above, the six didn’t wait for Collet’s 1920 articles to respond to what Apollinaire defined as ‘l’esprit nouveau’. One of the first was Poulenc, with his Rapsodie nègre, premiered in December 1917. Today, of course, this would be accused of ‘cultural appropriation’, even though Poulenc had not the faintest idea of what black music sounded like.

Instead, he filled the piece with ‘forbidden’ consecutive fifths and a ‘primitive’ text (‘Kati moko, mosi bolou/Ratakou sira, polama!) made up and published by two pranksters. Looking for a teacher at the age of 18, he brought his score to a 54-year-old Conservatoire professor, Paul Vidal, who slung him out on his ear.

Satie was sympathetic: ‘Never mix “schools”: it leads to an explosion – quite understandably, in fact’. Poulenc followed this with a Sonata for two clarinets in which they gurgle delightfully, and a Sonata for piano duet which starts with the primo player’s left hand below the left hand of the secondo player, enforcing a certain intimacy. A new spirit indeed.

Honegger meanwhile, in his 1918 orchestral work Le Chant de Nigamon, used three authentic American Indian tunes. The work rivals Rapsodie nègre in deliberate brutality but far surpasses it in contrapuntal interest. We find similar complexity in most of his Le Dit des Jeux du Monde, but also any number of lyrical tunes. The second movement, for percussion alone, takes its cue from Milhaud’s use of choir plus unpitched percussion in his opera Les Choéphores of 1915-16 – both passages speak of the charm of exotic cultures that was to mark Milhaud’s music over the next few years.

Between February 1917 and early ’19 he was in Rio de Janeiro as secretary to the playwright and diplomat Paul Claudel and was much struck by the music, and the jungle, he found round him. These influences fed into the ballets L’Homme et son désir and Le Boeuf sur le Toit of 1918 and 1919 and the Saudades do Brazil for piano of 1920.

Le Boeuf is built round a simple, catchy tune Milhaud picked up in Rio and he enjoys himself presenting it in every one of the 12 major keys. The Saudades proclaim the Cocteau message of simplicity, their hummable melodies enlivened by South American rhythms and spiced with wrong notes – but not too many to cause alarm.

The final exotic influence on Milhaud was jazz. His first taste of it came from black musicians in London, but in 1922 he and a friend heard it in its native Harlem: ‘the snobs and aesthetes had not yet discovered Harlem: we were the only whites there. The music I heard there, absolutely different from what I knew, was a real revelation for me.’ Under this impact he wrote what many consider his masterpiece, the ballet La Création du monde, premiered in 1923. If the magical, bittersweet world of the opening saxophone solo can’t exactly be classed as cheering-up music, the toe-tapping, blue-note fugue and its subsequent development certainly can; the ending, with the saxophone whispering a C-sharp against a D major chord on strings, is pure genius.

The three composers mentioned above were the core of Les Six. Auric had his time in the sun through the three ballets commissioned from him in the 1920s by Diaghilev. Thereafter, following the critical mauling of his 1932 Piano Sonata, he concentrated on film music, making a fortune out of his contribution to the 1952 film Moulin Rouge, starring Zsa-Zsa Gabor.

Tailleferre’s adherence to the ideals of the group was short-lived and, apart from a brief experiment with serialism, her music adhered very much to the graceful, charming tradition the group claimed to supplant. Modestly, she placed herself ‘among the little masters of the 17th and 18th centuries’.

But even she couldn’t deny the popularity of her 1923 ballet Marchand d’oiseaux which, as Auric pointed out, attracted ‘not just the élite and the snobs, but the great Paris public. That’s real success.’ Durey’s allegiance was even briefer, since he parted company with his colleagues as early as 1921 over their joint venture Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel and the rude comments they were currently making about Ravel, his friend and mentor.

This ballet, premiered by the Ballets suédois in June 1921, is the collaborative summit of Durey’s five colleagues and their nose-thumbing at the musical Establishment (audience cries of ‘Give us our money back!’). Fairground tunes, sparkling orchestration, crazy plot by Cocteau (a lion jumps out of a camera and eats a general), pastiche (the funeral march is based on the waltz from Gounod’s Faust), it has it all. ‘Of the many artistic conspiracies I’ve been involved in,’ said Cocteau years later, ‘this is the only one that hasn’t aged. Why? Because we made no concessions.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *