Classical: They Really Were Just Friends There Was Little Artistically to Link These French Composers in 1920, but Now They Seem Stuck with the Label of `Les Six' Forever

By Northcott, Bayan | The Independent (London, England), August 2, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Classical: They Really Were Just Friends There Was Little Artistically to Link These French Composers in 1920, but Now They Seem Stuck with the Label of `Les Six' Forever


Northcott, Bayan, The Independent (London, England)


There's more to a name than meets the ear, one is tempted to say, as regards Les Six. It was a writer on music called Henri Collet who did the damage in 1920 with a couple of magazine articles which hailed a miscellany of up-and-coming young Parisian composers as the contemporary equivalent of the 19th-century Russian school known as The Five - Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov - who had striven to mightily to create a new nationalist tradition.

Maybe he was put up to it by Jean Cocteau, who was dying to mastermind a new, post-war spirit in the arts after the stripped- down, anti-Romantic ideal of Erik Satie, and who had recently published a pamphlet entitled Le Coq et L'Harlequin that denounced the impressionism of Debussy as demode and calling for a bright, vernacular-based, everyday music. Or maybe Collet hoped to earn the same vicarious glory as the art critic who, decades before, had by way of disapproval, flung the term, "impressionist" at a canvas of Monet's, only to find that he had indelibly branded an entire movement in painting.

Whatever Collet's motives might have been, he was all too successful; the articles attracted international attention and no subsequent history of 20th-century music has been able to escape including a chapter on Les Six. Yet the composers so singled out were to spend the rest of their disparate careers denying that they had ever formed more than a loose, affectionate confederacy, let alone worked out a collective aesthetic programme.

The oldest of them, Louis Durey (1888-1979), was already 30 when the ballyhoo began and, within a year, would remove himself from Paris to devote the rest of his long life to the communist cause in France and, eventually, to setting the words of Chairman Mao. Four years younger than Durey were the Paris-born Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983), the Provencal- Jewish Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) and Arthur Honegger (1892- 1955), who was of German-Swiss descent.

The trio had first met at the Paris Conservatoire in about 1912 and formed the nucleus of the group Les Nouveaux Jeunes that immediately preceded Collet's proclamation of Les Six. Yet Tailleferre's slender gift remained too derivative of pre-war Faure and Ravel quite to rise to Cocteau's brash new spirit. Milhaud, at least, had recently fallen for the popular music of Brazil during a stint there as secretary to the French ambassador, and would soon be hopping across to London to catch up on jazz at the Hammersmith Palais. But he also harboured rather too serious ambitions to establish polytonality as a revolutionary new technique, while Honegger, with his background in the Austro-German tradition and leaning towards such monumental forms as oratorio, felt out of sympathy with Cocteau from the start.

Of the two youngest group members, Georges Auric (1899-1983) duly proved a dab hand at the kind of saucy, wrong-note theatre music that the post- war period seemed to demand, and was soon being commissioned by Serge Diaghilev; whereas Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), a rich-boy amateur untutored by the Conservatoire and notorious for a mere handful of brief salon successes, appeared to possess the slightest talent of all. Yet, if little save their lasting friendships found these composers together, they were agreed on one thing: that having been hailed as the collective cutting edge, they might as well make the best of the publicity while it lasted.

Accordingly, under Cocteau's direction, the sextet began to mount group events in the spirit of music hall, published a piano Album des Six, and in 1921 they all collaborated (except for Durey) on a burlesque, anti-bourgeois ballet devised by Cocteau and entitled Les Maries de la Tour Eiffel.

The score of the latter makes salutary listening today. Whether in the Ouverture by Auric or the Quadrille by Tailleferre, the Marche nuptiale by Milhaud or the Marche funebre by Honegger, the fun and games sound laboured and diffuse, and only Poulenc's "picture- postcard in colours", La Baigneuse de Trouville, achieves the requisite knife-edge balance between vulgarity and charm.

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