Music Post: The nine or 10 members of “Les six”

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Members of Les Six – Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric (not shown), Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey, with their friend and promoter Jean Cocteau seated at the piano.

On Jan. 8, 1920, at 4:30 p.m., according to Arthur Honegger’s diary, Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), then 27, had several young composer friends over to his place, partly to hear a private performance of the Violin Sonata No. 2 of Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), but also to give interested critics a chance to meet his composer buddies.

Henri Collet (1885-1951), himself a composer but at age 34 better known as a critic, found the gang sufficiently interesting to write an article about them that appeared Jan. 18, and another on Jan. 23, in which he called them “Les Six” (“The Six”) and compared them to the Russian “Mighty Five” (Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Alexander Borodin, Modest Moussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.)

He correctly noted their common appreciation of Erik Satie (1866-1925) and their common connection to poet and playright Jean Cocteau (1889-1962). He indicated that they were not Wagnerians, nor Debussyites, but preferred a lighter and more direct approach to music.

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Henri Collet.

Everyone now says Collet exaggerated the composers’ similarities. Darius Milhaud is often quoted genially debunking the concept of Les Six, writing that Collet chose them arbitrarily “simply because we knew each other and we were pals and appeared on the same musical programs, even if our temperaments and personalities weren’t at all the same.” This resonates with modern listeners, mostly because modern listeners know works Honegger wrote years later that are deadly serious.

In defense of Collet, however, the more serious Sixers were mostly writing lighter fare when Collet gave them their brand. And they worked more than once as a group. Even Honegger used Cocteau as a librettist and happily attended all their reunions, and most of the time so did Cocteau, who has been accused of promoting them because he wanted to be the leader of a group. That he was ambitious in that direction seems clear, but he also seemed genuinely fond of the group and in harmony with their ideas.

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In later years. Back row: Francis Poulenc, Germaine Tailleferre, Georges Auric, Louis Durey. Front row: Arthur Honegger, Jean Cocteau, Darius Milhaud.

That they were “pals” is irrefutable. They didn’t just appear on the same programs: they composed group pieces, with different composers for different movements of a single piece. They posed for group photos, not once but several times. Even Louis Durey, whose Marxist fervor and move to the South of France gave him distance both metaphorically and geographically, sometimes participated.

It’s not at all clear that being grouped together by Collet was the arbitrary event Milhaud later pretended. “Album des Six,” a collection of pieces by all of them, was already being prepared for publication on Jan. 21, the date of a Francis Poulenc (1888-1963) letter saying so. That was three days after publication of Collet’s first article and two days before the second. Honegger composed his Sarabande for that collection the same month, so conceivably it was a rush job to take advantage of Collet’s publicity – either that or Milhaud invited Collet to meet the gang to generate publicity for the Album.

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There have been occasional references to one or two other composers being invited to the first photo shoot of Les Six but being unable to make it. Alexis Roland-Manuel (1891-1966) is often mentioned in this context and sometimes Jacques Ibert (1890-1983) comes up.

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Ibert was the same age as Georges Auric (1900-1983) and his music, both then and much later, was often quite Sixlike. Roland-Manuel, born the year before Milhaud, Honegger and Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1982), knew all the Sixers, and like them contributed a piece to the collective composition “L’Eventail de Jeanne,” and Honegger dedicated “Pastorale d’ete” to him. Some writers believed Milhaud invited him to that Jan. 8, 1920, event but he couldn’t make it. Did we come that close to reading about “Les Sept”?

Three of Les Six came to be taken seriously as composers: Milhaud, who wrote “Le Beouf sur la Toit” and “Le Creation du Monde” – Honegger, whose five symphonies are all still performed and whose tone poems include the top 10 classical hit “Pacific 2-3-1” – and Poulenc, who composed successful sonatas, interesting operas and five keyboard concertos (two for piano, one for two pianos, and two more for harpsichord and organ).

Of the other three, Louis Durey gave his abilities to writing Marxist pieces and became obscure – Georges Auric was a successful composer of film scores (“Moulin Rouge,” “The Lavender Hill Gang”) – and Germaine Tailleferre married a New Yorker cartoonist and moved to America for a couple years, falling from widespread notice. Only recently has it been discovered that she composed for the rest of her life, through 1982, and much of her excellent work is only now being recorded. Of the three lesser Sixers, she is the most underappreciated, and I predict her star will rise as future generations become more familiar with her compositions.

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