"Collet chose six names absolutely arbitrarily, those of Auric, Durey, Honegger, Poulenc, Tailleferre and me, simply because we knew each other and we were pals and appeared on the same musical programmes, no matter if our temperaments and personalities weren't at all the same! Auric and Poulenc followed ideas of Cocteau, Honegger followed German Romanticism, and myself, Mediterranean lyricism!"
-- Darius Milhaud
"The War to End All Wars" was over. Although the artillery was silenced, the war would continue on the artistic front. Nowhere was this more evident than in Paris, where exciting, adventurous, and simply amusing ideas were the fashion. As with any cutting-edge cultural scene, the visual arts, music, and ballet in post-World War I Paris were further enlivened by heated polemics, the antics of various cadres and cliques, and public disputes that more than once disintegrated into full-fledged riots.
In 1913, Paris had been convulsed by Igor Stravinsky's and Sergei Diaghilev's sensational succès de scandale, Le Sacre du printemps. One of the ballet's most vocal -- and certainly, most famous, critics -- was Camille Saint-Saëns. The esteemed French composer, once hailed as the leading light of French music, but by the 1910s viewed as a past-his-prime conservative, walked out during the ballet's premiere. Symbolically, at least, it represented a changing of the guard -- or more appropriately, of the avant-garde -- that heralded one of the most remarkable periods in the history of France's musical life.
Shortly after the Armistice in 1918, Darius Milhaud, originally from Aix-en-Provence, settled in an apartment in Paris. The composer, then in his mid-20s, was already recognized as both extraordinarily prolific and immensely talented. Milhaud soon found himself one of a group of six young composers of diverse backgrounds and esthetic bents who met regularly to share opinions and, of course, their own music.
On Saturday, April 5, 1919, a concert was held in the Salle Huyghens which featured recent works by these five men and one woman: Milhaud, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Tailleferre. Afterwards, the group, along with several others, repaired to Milhaud's home. Among those present was the French critic Henri Collet. It was he who coined the collective name by which these "Nouveau Jeunes" would become best known: Les Six Français, Les Six for short. (At left, "Les Six, with a Singer," by Jacques-Emile Blanche. From left: Tailleferre, Milhaud, Honegger, Durey, Poulenc, Cocteau, Auric. From Emory University.)
Early in 1920, Collet wrote two articles for the magazine Comoedia which were among the first to take notice of this group. "The Five Russians, the Six French, and Erik Satie" and "The Six French" explored both the roots and the effects of the new musical styles then sweeping through France. The music of Stravinsky (who had studied with one of the Russian Five, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov) had a particularly pervasive influence upon French music of the time; works like Le Sacre du printemps and L'histoire du soldat were all the rage among the younger composers, who realized how truly iconoclastic they were.
Les Six's primary advocate and guiding spirit was the composer and eccentric personality Erik Satie (right). Satie's art was founded on extreme opposites: some of his works (like the three Gymnopédies and the symphonic drama Socrate) are simple and austere, while others are rambunctious, humorous, frivolous, sarcastic, or quasi-philosophical. Satie was prone to using titles like Bureaucratic Sonatina, Pieces in the Shape of a Pear, and Things Seen from Right-to-Left without Glasses. His 1917 ballet Parade features a typewriter, a police siren, and a factory whistle; the enigmatic piano work Vexations calls upon the pianist (or, more practically, a relay team of pianists) to play a grotesquely chromatic theme 840 times in succession, a feat that tests the very limits of endurance.
In his music, Satie attempted to create a unique vision removed from all Germanic influences, antithetical to the grandeur and solemnity of Richard Wagner, and devoid of the voluptuousness of Richard Strauss. His dislikes included the music of the two greatest French composers of the era, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Satie's championing of Les Six is particularly interesting in light of the fact that Satie and Honegger had a mutual distaste for each other's music. Honegger's love of the music of Wagner -- as well as that of Johann Sebastian Bach, Strauss, and Max Reger -- no doubt rankled Satie's sensibilities.
As a loose confederation of friends of dissimilar artistic persuasions, Les Six did not have a manifesto. Still, others would attempt to define the ideals of the group or to capture something of a collective ethos. Among the more prominent figures to do so was poet, caricaturist, film maker, master of publicity, and self-proclaimed "animator" of Les Six, Jean Cocteau (left). "Enough of clouds, waves, aquariums, water-sprites and night scents; we need down-to-earth music, everyday music," he opined. Cocteau called for a return to the music represented by the French music hall, disparaging Stravinsky's insidious charms, Debussy's mist, and Wagner's fog. Of the graceful music of Ravel, Cocteau said, "M. Ravel has refused the Legion d'Honneur, but all his music accepts it."
No matter how much Cocteau disparaged these composers, the members of Les Six had wildly differing views about them. Milhaud, for example, who as a youth had found a live performance of Saint-Saëns' opera Samson et Dalila boring, was even more put off by Wagner's Ring cycle. His antipathy to Wagner's music, however, was matched by Honegger's admiration for it. Milhaud showed substantially more enthusiasm for Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Furthermore, Milhaud championed the work of Arnold Schoenberg, whose music never took a place among the favorites of French listeners; it was Milhaud, in fact, who conducted the French premiere of Schoenberg's epochal Pierrot Lunaire.
The artistic circle surrounding Les Six was a cross-section of the most innovative creative minds in Paris. Sets for various productions of works by Les Six and Satie were designed by Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia, Raoul Dufy, and Pablo Picasso; the film maker René Clair contributed to Satie's ballet Relâche; and Coco Chanel designed costumes for the Milhaud/Diaghilev ballet Le train bleu. The composers also shared an appreciation of poets such as Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, and Guillaume Apollinaire (right), all of whose verses were often set by more than one member of Les Six. In fact, Poulenc and Durey met when Poulenc heard that Durey, like himself, was composing settings of texts from Apollinaire's Le bestiare au cortège d'Orphée. Poulenc arranged a meeting at which the composers befriended one another; Poulenc even dedicated his own settings to Durey.
Besides their shared love of certain poets, the members of Les Six produced a prodigious quantity of incidental music and film scores. In fact, Auric eventually composed almost exclusively for film. His cinematic collaborations with Cocteau contributed greatly to some of the most striking French movies of the period. His score for the 1952 Toulouse-Lautrec biopic Moulin Rouge -- especially the haunting song "Where Is Your Heart?" -- became a big hit in America, though neither the song nor the score were nominated for an Academy Award.
Despite the group's somewhat inaccurate image as a tightly knit collective, there was, in fact, only one "collaborative" effort that involved all six members: a set of short piano pieces published in 1920 under the title Album des Six. A later would-be group effort was the ballet Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel. Staged in Paris by the Ballet Suedois on June 18, 1921, the work boasted a scenario by Cocteau and "musique des Six." The individual names of the composers were not used in the advertisements, but the Parisian cognoscenti were well enough aware of the parties involved in the production. Initially, Durey had agreed to the participate in the project but soon withdrew; Germaine Tailleferre wrote an additional number to fill the gap. The audience at the premiere was predictably split, both cheering and jeering filling the air in counterpoint. Even so, the ballet was something of a box office success, and further performances found a more accepting, even enthusiastic, audience. In 1927, Auric, Milhaud, and Poulenc contributed to a ballet called L'eventail de Jeanne, which also included music by Ravel, Albert Roussel, Florent Schmitt, Jacques Ibert, Marcel Delannoy, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, and Alexis Roland-Manuel.
Although the spirit of Les Six lived on beyond the heady years of the early 1920s, the group became less cohesive with the passage of time. On December 11, 1929, a concert was held in Paris in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the group's emergence. Auric did not attend, but Durey, who had by then distanced himself from Les Six, did.
In 1953 the members of Les Six once again assembled for a concert of their music. Cocteau spoke and unveiled a poster (right) he produced specially for the occasion. Cocteau's depiction of the group was a delightful and telling caricature: while the composers are sketchily, even offhandedly depicted, Cocteau appears in detail at the center of the group. Both in the poster and in life, Cocteau was indeed was the lynchpin that defined Les Six even more than the efforts of the composers themselves.
The concert presented the composers' music in a rather serious light. None of the works played could be counted among their respective composers' most popular, and none could rightly be characterized as light-hearted. Decades after its heyday, it seemed as if the group had eschewed its flippant, young-Turkish image and wished to be recognized and remembered as one of the most potent, influential forces in French music in the 20th century.
For the 40th anniversary of Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel in 1961, the members of Les Six, along with Cocteau, were awarded the Medal of La Ville de Paris. Their music, which had scandalized and delighted the city decades before, had now taken on the evocative quality of a soundtrack, a sonic portrait of an era that was one of the most vibrant in the cultural history of Paris.
Les Six in later years: From left to right, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, Francis Poulenc, and Louis Durey. Seated at the piano, Jean Cocteau.