Les Six is a name given in 1920 by critic Henri Collet to a group of six composers working in Montparnasse whose music is often seen as a reaction against the musical style of Richard Wagner and impressionist music. (Owen 2011.) The works of Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc all play an important part in French music and the 20th century.
What were the goals and ideals of Les Six? Consider the works of Honegger, Milhaud and Poulenc.
2. LES SIX
A younger group of composers absorbed the strong influence of neoclassicism but sought to escape the old political dichotomies. (Grout 2009: 880.)
Les Six was a group of young avant-garde French composers. Initially Les Nouveaux Jeunes, the name was changed along with the line-up to crystallize as Les Six in 1923. With Jean Cocteau as the spokesman and Satie as the “guru”, the group was formed and the name was given by French critic Henri Collet. With this identifying label, the individual composers gained public attention as a group in force. (Owen 2011.)
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Despite the elements the six composers had in common, their differences were far greater. In the 1920s each of them was pursuing solo careers (Latham 2002: 10). Best remembered today, are Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Arthur Honegger. Few pieces by Louis Durey and Georges Auric are performed. Germaine Tailleferre was probably still best remembered because she was the only woman of the group. (Kelly 2003: 51.)
The group was officially launched in January 1920 by a series of two articles by the French music critic and composer Henri Collet in the French journal Commedia. While it seems apparent that Cocteau was behind these articles, the actual name of the Group was selected by Collet who decided to compare Les Six with the Five Russians. (Kelly 2003: 4.)
The members of Les Six were:
Georges Auric (1899 – 1983)
Louis Durey (1888 – 1979)
Arthur Honegger (1892 – 1955)
Darius Milhaud (1892 – 1974)
Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963)
Germaine Tailleferre (1892 – 1983)
Although Honegger was a member of Les nouveaux jeunes and, subsequently of Les Six, he shared with the other members a stimulating companionship rather than a group aesthetic, the existence of which he always denied. (Sadie 2001: 680.)
Darius Milhaud was a pioneer in the use of percussion, polytonality, jazz and aleatory techniques. Few of his works of the 1920s are in the spirit of Les Six, however one might seek to define it. Le boeuf ser le toit had nothing to do with Les Six until it was hijacked and turned into a ballet by Cocteau. (Sadie 2001: 679.) Ironically, in the only work to which all members of the group contributed, the Album des six, Milhaud is represented by a Mazurka he wrote in 1914. More important to his music of the 1920s was the confirmation of opera as a major and continuing thread. (Kelly 2003: 89.)
During the first half of Francis Poulenc’s career the simplicity and directness of his writing led many critics away from thinking of him as a serious composer. Gradually, since World War II, it has become clear that the absence from his music of linguistic complexity in no way argues corresponding absence of feeling or technique. (Sadie 2001:227.)
Georges Auric was a child prodigy and at age 15 he had his first compositions published. Before he turned 20, he had orchestrated and written incidental music for several ballets and stage productions. (Owen 2011.) His participation in Les Six led to writing settings of poetry and other texts as songs and musicals.
Louis Durey was primarily self-taught. From the beginning, choral music was of great importance in Durey’s productivity. After the Les Six period, Durey continued with his career. (Owen 2011.) Germaine Tailleferre was the only female member in the group Les Six. She studied piano with her mother at home, composing short works of her own. (Owen 2011.)
Music by Les Six
The only musical project in which all six composers participated in was L’album des six (published in 1920) and it is a solo piano music collection, which were all dances.
Prélude (1919) by Auric
Romance sans paroles, Op. 21 (1917) by Durey
Sarabande, H 26 (1920) by Honegger
Mazurka (1914) by Milhaud
Valse en ut, FP 17 (1919) by Poulenc
Pastorale (1919) by Tailleferre
Les six has a lot of compositions under their names but none of them included all six composers, except for L’album des six.
Each of these individual composers has contributed to the group Les Six in their own unique styles and ways. Their styles are most certainly equally different and with such diverse styles they were able to come as one and compose many pieces while they were still known as Les Six.
The goals and ideals of Les Six was to create an individual style of its own, because of the great differences in style and techniques each of them had, but in the end, they were all able to work as one to create L’album des six which has gained wide popularity.
3. WORKS OF HONEGGER, MILHAUD AND POULENC
Arthur Honegger (1892 – 1955) was a Swiss composer, who was born in Le Havre, France. His serious-minded musical aesthetic was entirely different from that of others in Les six. He developed unusual musical and dramatic forms in large-scale works for voices and orchestra, and was one of the 20th century’s most dedicated contrapuntalists. (Sadie 2001: 679.)
It is very clear that Honegger’s compositions are tonal but characterized by a highly individual use of dissonance, if you listen to his compositions very carefully you will be able to hear the dissonances that occur. His music was first heard publicly in Paris in July 1916 (Sadie 2001: 680).
The series of large-scale dramatic works and major symphonic scores he composed during the following 30 years established him as one of the most significant composers of his generation.
His symphonic movement Pacific 231 (1923), a translation into music of the visual and physical impression of a speeding locomotive, was hailed as a sensational piece of modernist descriptive music. (Grout 2009: 881.) It was said that his symphonic movement Pacific 231 was misinterpreted by the public as specifying programmes, rather than sources of musical inspiration (Spratt 1987:69). This movement is a great example of the goals and ideals of Les Six, they all had a very different approach to music but all their ideas combined became a great masterpiece of its own individual style.
Darius Milhaud (1892 – 1974) was a French composer, who was born in Marseilles. He was associated with the avant garde of the 1920s, whose abundant production reflects all musical genres. Though his sources of inspiration were many and varied, his music has compelling stylistic unity. (Sadie 2001: 675.)
There is scarcely a genre not represented in Milhaud’s output. From grand opera to children’s piano pieces, everything seems to be there in extraordinary profusion. He found his musical voice very early on, and there was neither anguish in creation, nor any problem of language or expression, let alone of technique. (Sadie 2001: 677.) It was also apparently said that he could compose anywhere and at anytime, he was not bothered by the disturbance around him.
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The decade of the 1920s ended with Christophe Colomb and Maximilien, the former and justly celebrated work, the latter one of Milhaud’s mot riotously noisy scores. (Collaer 1988: 176.) The works of the 1930s are characterized by a greater tendency towards through-composition, in comparison with the clearcut sectional divisions of the earlier works. The opera Médée is perhaps his finest work of this period: a fascinating study of a woman scorned, graphically portrayed in some of the composer’s most angular, expressionist music. (Sadie 2001: 679.)
Then in the course of the 1950s emerged what might be called his ‘final’ style. This development can be seen by comparing the operas David and Fiesta, though it comes out especially in the chamber music which, in his late years, he produced abundantly. (Kelly 2003:56.)
Despite the impression his music usually gives, he had at times, and especially during the early years, a distinctly theoretical turn of mind, a feature that sets him quite apart from his contemporaries (Sadie 2001:678).
Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963) was a French composer and pianist, who was born in Paris. Poulenc regarded this dual heredity as the key to his musical personality: he associated his deep Catholic faith with his Aveyronais roots and attributed his artistic heritage to his mother’s family. It is certainly the case that two strands, profane and religious, co-exist in his work. (Sadie 2001:227.)
Poulenc destroyed his first attempts at composition, dating from 1914. He made his public début in Paris in 1917 with his first work, Rapsodie nègre, dedicated to Satie and performed at the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier at one of the avant-garde concerts orgnaized by Jane Bathori. (Mellers 1993: 37.)
Poulenc learnt a clear but colourful style of piano playing, based on a subtle use of sustaining pedal, and in his own piano music he was insistent on there being ‘beaucoup de pédale’. (Sadie 2001: 228.)
In his earlier pieces such a style gives body to the often arrogantly ‘popular’ tunes that abound, softening the ostinatos in the Sonata for piano duet (1918) and the quasi-Alberti bass in Trois mouvements perpétuels (1918). (Sadie 2001: 228.) Poulenc admitted that his reliance on past formulae (long pedal notes, arpeggios, repeated chords) was not always free of routine and that in this regard his familiarity with the piano could be a hindrance; his most inventive piano writing, he claimed, was to be found in his song accompaniments. (Buckland 1999: 346.)
His own favourite pieces were the 15 Improvisations ranging in date from 1932 to 1959 and in dedicatee from Marguerite Long to Edith Piaf. This confirms that the piano was not always a vehicle for his deepest thought, he called the Thème variée (1951) an ‘oeuvre sérieus’ and included a retrograde version of the theme in the coda to show that he was up with the latest serial idea, but it is hardly the best of him. (Sadie 2001: 228.)
Through my research on Les Six, I have concluded that each of these six composers were very different in style, and had their own unique technique. Each of them made huge contributions to Les Six and keeping the title going for a long time before they embarked their separate careers. But it is very evident that they all had different musical backgrounds but could each collaborate with one another to make music work.
The composers that influenced and created the group Les Six have clearly made a mark in 20th century music.
It is very clear that the goals they aimed for were achieved through their music and the talent that each one of them brought to this versatile group. It is remarkable that the different ideas they all had could be compiled into one idea as a group.
Buckland, S. 1999. Francis Poulenc: Music, Art, and Literature. United Kingdom: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Collaer, P. 1988. Darius Milhaud. San Francisco Press.
Grout, D. 2009. A History of Westerm Music, eighth edition. New York: Cornell University.
Kelly, B. 2003. The Tradition and Style in the Works of Darius Milhaud. United Kingdom : Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Latham, A. 2002. The Oxford Companion to Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mellers, W. 1993. Oxford Studies of Composers: Francis Poulenc. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Owen, P. 2011. Les Six. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Peter Owen Publishers. http://www.britannica.com/EBcheck/topic/547009/Les-six. 10 September 2011
Sadie, S. 2001. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition. New York: Macmillan Publishers Limited.
Spratt, G. 1987. The Music of Arthur Honegger. Cork: Cork University Press.
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