The Émile Blanche painting on the left is of the group of composers known as Les Six. Well, sort of. You will note that there are more than six people in the picture. And one member of Les Six isn’t even there: Louis Durey. The main woman in the middle is the pianist Marcelle Meyer. Way in the back is the movie composer Jean Wiener. And that’s Jean Cocteau on the far right. An impressive group all by themselves.
The members of Les Six are, from bottom to top on the left: Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, and Arthur Honegger. On the right, from bottom to top: Georges Auric and Francis Poulenc. And missing, as I said, is Louis Durey.
They didn’t represent a moment in music. Rather they were sort of arbitrarily thrown together as the next wave of French composers following Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. And it was just in time. By the time I discovered them in my late teens, I was so sick of Debussy and Ravel that I wanted to scream. I wanted something just as challenging but more concrete. Each of the Les Six composers provided that in their own distinct way.
In this article, I’ll go through them all. It’s sad that they aren’t played as much as they ought to be.
One of the two “young” members (the other was Georges Auric), Poulenc was a very insecure composer in his early days. As a result, he probably grew the most over his lifetime. It’s seen most in his operas, like Les mamelles de Tirésias (1945) — “The Breasts of Tiresias.”
As always, I would like to present the Sonata for Flute and Piano (1957), which he wrote for Jean-Pierre Rampal, and which the two performed for the first time together. There are a lot of versions of it — it is standard in the repertoire of any professional flutist. Check out Carol Wincenc’s excellent version of it. (And it’s been on YouTube since 2012, so it’s unlikely to be taken down.)
Instead, we are going to listen to some extracts from a ballet that Poulenc wrote in 1923, Les Biches (“The Darlings”). Francis Poulenc was a protégé of Erik Satie. And you can really hear it in Poulenc’s early work. But by Les Biches, the influences are quite a bit more diverse. And this is a wonderful example of his range.
Germaine Tailleferre was the only female member of Les Six. It’s actually kind of amazing that there was even one woman in the group. Classical music has been just as sexist as any other field of human endeavor. There have been great female composers, of course. For example, there was Barbara Strozzi. But they’ve generally been pushed to the side because men were the tastemakers.
And don’t fool yourself. Antonio Salieri was one of the great Classical period composers. But he was basically never performed until the movie Amadeus. Similarly, Antonio Vivaldi was all but forgotten until Fritz Kreisler’s fraud. Both those composers were hugely popular in their own time. Who is considered worthy of our attention is almost completely a question of fashion. And that’s even more true when you throw sexism into the mix.
Germaine Tailleferre is technically brilliant. Of Les Six, she is the one who most expands upon Ravel, even while rebelling against his brilliant excesses. It’s always interesting to listen to classical composers as they age. In the teens, her work sounded very much like Ravel. She later became friends with him, even as her own work became more distinct. And her work continued to evolve throughout her long life.
Concertino for Flute, Piano and String Orchestra
I’m going to feature something she wrote at the age of 60, Concertino for Flute, Piano and String Orchestra. This is just the fourth movement of the piece. One constant problem with Les Six composers is that they are not recorded as much as I think they deserve. And that means there isn’t as much of their work around on YouTube. Regardless, I would normally present something from the 1920s, which is considered her most important period. But that music is also a bit more difficult. And this piece is so charming that I feel certain you will enjoy it.
I have previously stated that Georges Auric was the “least interesting” of Les Six. But that’s not really fair. The big problem with him is that he wrote a great deal of movie music, and that is never the best format in which to show off one’s talent. That’s not to say that it doesn’t take talent, but just that the music is subordinate — although not always as in his score for Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.
There isn’t a lot written about Georges Auric. He was a member of Les Six, wrote a lot of film scores, and was a political radical. But you can hear in his music a distinct attack on the Impressionists. With the other members, I feel they are building on it. But Auric seems to be saying, “Enough of this polite music!” And what he ends up with is a fascinatingly eclectic style. There are romantic elements in it.
Ouverture, per Orchestra
In the following piece, Ouverture, per Orchestra (1932), he even throws in some explicit chromaticism. Yet it is all part of a soup and just when you think you know what he’s doing, he veers off in a surprising (and to me, delightful) direction.
In this piece, you can see why Georges Auric would be a natural as a film composer. He has so many tools available to him. And he is fearless. Of course, this piece was written just about the time that he became focused on film. But before that, he wrote quite a lot for the theater and ballet.
Auric does show just what an arbitrary group Les Six was. On a technical level, they aren’t much alike. They weren’t generally friends. But there is something about all their work that seems to bind them together. It’s just hard to nail down.
All the Les Six composers had some association with film and theater. This is because of their association with Jean Cocteau. But it’s also true that if you were an avant-garde composer in the late teens and early 20s, you couldn’t have but been influenced by film.
And in the case of Georges Auric, it more or less defined his entire career. Now, I want to present some music by another big film composer in Les Six, Arthur Honegger.
Of all Les Six, Arthur Honegger is probably the most difficult to listen to. His music is deeply layered, which can sound lush and very much like Debussy. But he’s also quite fond of dissonance, which can show up at the most unsettling of times.
In addition, in his vocal work, he tends to write very sparse instrumentation, which sounds to my ear, very not Les Six.
But let’s listen to his most famous work: Pacific 231. According to him, the idea was to create a piece of music that got more and more momentum as its pace slowed. He wrote this five years before Ravel’s Boléro, and it is a far more interesting idea. Not surprisingly, Arthur Honegger named it after a train. It’s also the case that he was apparently a train fancier.
In 1949 (over 25 years after Pacific 231 was written), the film theorist Jean Mitry created a film to go along with it. It isn’t a narrative. But it reminds me of Sergei Eisenstein in its being so visually striking. It almost seems like the music was created for the film. But that isn’t the case, obviously. And I present it here mostly for the music. But the film is quite interesting as well.
Of all Les Six, Darius Milhaud is probably the most charming. And you know that is a word I use a lot to describe the group. He integrated traditional melodies into his work. And although most jokes that composers put into their works are subtle, Milhaud is kind of like the Charlie Chaplin of composers.
In addition to everything else, Darius Milhaud composed at a furious pace. I’ve only heard a small fraction of his work. But I quite enjoy it all. His speed was not an indication of a lack of quality. You will see this if you check out a selection of his work. I really encourage you to do so. Unlike most modern composers, his work is lyrical and fun.
He was also a major music teacher during the last century. In 1940, he and his family were forced to flee France because he was nominally Jewish. He ended up at Mills College, which is just down the road from me. (I’ve even performed there!) Leave it to a French man to end up at a woman’s college! But the school did accept men in its graduate program, which is where he taught such luminaries as Dave Brubeck, Philip Glass, and Burt Bacharach. Apparently, Darius Milhaud once told Bacharach, “Don’t be afraid of writing something people can remember and whistle. Don’t ever feel discomfited by a melody.”
Suite for Clarinet, Violin and Piano
So we listen to one of my very favorite pieces of music: his Suite for Clarinet, Violin and Piano (1936). It combines Darius Milhaud’s usual complex, but fundamentally tonal, harmony and singable melodies. And it is almost certainly the reason that I bought a clarinet (even though it is the most evil instrument ever invented).
The format of the piano, violin, and clarinet trio is really a twentieth-century invention. It’s a curious combination and so I’m not surprised that it didn’t become a thing earlier. But it works remarkably well. And it really took off in the 20th century — to such an extent that there are a number of established trios. Now you might think that this would be a problem, given that most of the repertoire consists of very recent pieces. But this is probably seen as an advantage. In my experience, performers don’t much like playing the old stuff. They usually most like playing music that the typical symphony season ticket holder can’t really “hear.”
The quote from Bacharach above is definitely true here.
Louis Durey is the least know member of Les Six. That’s no accident. He doesn’t seem to have wanted to be part of it. He was friends with Francis Poulenc. But even in the famous Jacques-Émile Blanche painting of the group, he is absent.
He not only participated in the 1920 Les Six collaboration, he came up with the idea! But then he refused to be part of the 1921 collaboration. Around that time, he left Paris and didn’t return for decades to come.
He’s a very interesting composer. He’s the only one of them who had clearly been influenced by Arnold Schoenberg. But the thing about 12-tone composition is that it really can be just about anything the composer wants it to be. I have heard 12 tone pieces that sounded more or less tonal and others that sounded like noise. Unfortunately, I have never heard any of Louis Durey’s 12-tone work. (If you think the other Les Six composers aren’t recorded enough, Durey’s neglect will make you cry.) But in his later work, I think I can hear some of that influence.
Louis Durey was self-taught. He didn’t even decide to pursue music until he was almost 20. But that may explain why, even though he was the oldest of Les Six, his is the most avant-garde. At the same time, great care is taken in his music. And it is very often quite lyrical. That’s definitely the case with Sonatine for Flute and Piano, but I can’t find an acceptable recording of it. So instead, I’m going to share with you something reasonably similar, Trio per Oboe Clarinetto e Fagotto.
Les Six as a Group
I could bring it all together and present L’Album des Six. Unfortunately, it seems no one ever thought it worth recording. It’s all piano works, anyway; and I like a little variety. So I’ve put together a little YouTube playlist of particularly wonderful pieces.
We started with Francis Poulenc and listened to some music from his ballet, Les Biches. Poulenc was my first introduction to Les Six. So it seemed as good a place to start as any. Here, we listen to his Sonata for Oboe and Piano.
Next, we listened to Germaine Tailleferre. She was the only woman of the group, and technically perhaps the greatest. We listened to a lovely piece from late in her career, Concertino for Flute, Piano and String Orchestra. But she is especially known for her work for the harp. I didn’t bother with it, because I’m not that fond of the harp. But here, we have her 1957 Sonata for Harp. It’s great.
Georges Auric was a very eclectic composer, and above we listened to Ouverture, per Orchestra where he shows that off — sometimes phrase by phrase! But let’s go way out and listen to a song that was made famous in the John Huston classic, Moulin Rouge. The original name of the song is “Le Long de la Seine.” Don’t you at least want to check and see what song it is?
Our other film composer is Arthur Honegger. We listened to his Pacific 231. I said that his work was probably the most difficult of Les Six composers. But then again, it might just be me. Here, we listen to Pastorale d’été, and it is hard to call it “difficult.”
Darius Milhaud is sadly under-performed. At this point, he is probably my favorite of Les Six. But it’s hard to say because I like them all so much. We listened to his Suite for Clarinet, Violin and Piano. Can you stand any more clarinet? His Scaramouche for Clarinet and Piano is irresistible.
Durey lived into his 90s, but I feel sorry for him. He had something of a difficult life financially. In the 1950s, he was so desperate for cash that he became a music critic. And by his death, he was all but forgotten. But that makes him no less great. Above, we listened to Trio per Oboe Clarinetto e Fagotto. Now we listen to another wonderful piece, Tres Anime.
I think this is a great introduction to 20th-century music. Because after you get to Stravinsky, the whole idea of periods begins to break apart. The 20th century was an amazingly eclectic period. Now it is possible to find an audience for whatever you want to do — assuming you have some talent and much luck. So the fact that six quite different composers were tossed together as a single thing makes them a good way to think about classical music from that period onward.