Program Notes

March 31st, 2017
American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Allison Voth, Music Director
Les Six

Program:

Erik Satie: "Manière de Commencement" from Morceaux en forme de Poire
Darius Milhaud: "Fumée" from Trois Poèmes de Jean Cocteau, op. 59
Arthur Honegger: "Locutions" & "Souvenirs d’enfance" from Six Poésies de Jean Cocteau
Francis Poulenc: "Miel de Narbonne" & "Enfant de troupe" from Concardes, FP 16
Satie: Trois Mélodies
Louis Durey: "Prière" & "Polka" from Chansons Basques, op. 23
Georges Auric: "Hommage à Erik Satie" & "Réveil" from Huit Poémes de Jean Cocteau
Milhaud: "Fête de Montmartre" from Trois Poèmes de Jean Cocteau, Op. 59
Milhaud: Trois Chansons de Négresse, Op. 148b
Satie: "Brutal" from Trois Morceaux en forme de Poire
Honegger: "Les cloches" from Six Poèmes d’Apollinaire, H 12
Poulenc: "Carte-postale" & "Avant le cinéma" from Quatre Poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire, FP 58
Honegger: "L’Adieu" from Six Poèmes d’Apollinaire, H 12
Poulenc: "1904" from Quatre Poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire, FP 58
Satie: "Enlevé" from Trois Morceaux en forme de Poire
Poulenc: "Prelude" from Sonate pour piano, 4 mains, FP 8
Auric: Alphabet: 7 Quatrains de Raymond Radiguet
Durey: "L’éléphant", "La mouche", "Le poulpe", "Le boeuf", "La Méduse", "La puce" & "Les sirèns" from Le Bestiaire, op. 17a
Poulenc: "Rustique" from Sonate pour piano, 4 mains, FP 8
Germaine Tailleferre: Six Chansons Françaises
Poulenc: "La maîtresse volage", "L’offrande", & "La belle jeunesse" from Chansons Gaillardes, FP 42
Poulenc: "Final" from Sonate pour piano, 4 mains, FP 8

Notes by Anna Winestein

Les Six was the name assigned by the French critic Henri Collet to a group of young composers active in Paris between the World Wars, whose music came to prominence in the early 1920s. The group included one woman—Germaine Tailleferre—and five men (one of whom, Arthur Honegger, was Swiss, and another, Darius Milhaud, was Jewish) connected to each other by friendship and proximity but not a strongly aesthetically coherent movement. They were loosely mentored by Erik Satie and promoted by Collet and especially by the poet and art influencer Jean Cocteau as the Bright Young Things of French music. Their compositional styles generally represented a reaction against the Romanticism of pre-War German music and a departure from the Impressionist chromaticism of the previous generation of French composers. They also responded to and incorporated elements from vernacular forms such as jazz and folk music. The name was an allusion to the five late 19th century Russian composers known as the Mighty Handful. Several of the group, most notably Francis Poulenc and Georges Auric, composed ballets for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes or other foreign troupes operating in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, such as the Ballets Suedois, and the performing company of Ida Rubinstein.

Georges Auric (1899-1983)

A child prodigy in piano performance as well as composition, Auric had already scored several ballet and theater productions by the age of 20. He studied at the Paris Conservatory as well as with Vincent d’Indy and, showing a love for musical irony, was soon pulled into the orbit of Satie and Cocteau. Auric’s ballets Les Facheaux and Les Matelots were premiered by the Ballets Russes in 1924 and 1925 respectively, catapulting him to a new level of recognition. In 1927 he contributed to the children’s ballet L’Eventail de Jeanne, written collaboratively by 10 French composers, including some colleagues from Les Six. Auric turned to film in 1930, which became a focus for the next 30 years, and capitalized on his interest in popular music. An important early work was the score of Rene Clair’s 1931 classic A Nous, la Liberté! while a particularly beloved one is the 1952 Tolouse-Lautrec biopic Moulin Rouge. Although in 1962 he became director of the Paris Opera and later chairman of SACEM, the French Artists Rights Society, and wrote music criticism extensively, Auric continued to compose, primarily chamber music, until his death.

Louis Durey (1888-1979)

Essentially self-taught as a composer, Durey turned to music at the age of 19 after hearing Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas and Mélisande in Paris in 1907. He contributed to the only group project that brought all the Les Six members together—an album of works for piano—but abstained from other collaborations and infrequently had his works performed in their concert programs. The shy Durey disliked Cocteau and his attempts to manage and promote the group and by the late 1920s had distanced himself, although he stayed in communication with several of its composers. His own interests took him increasingly to the left of the political and musical spectrum, first leading him to join the Communist Party and the music organization of the leftist Popular Front government of Rene Blum in the 1930s. This was followed by participation in the Resistance as an active participant in the Front National des Musiciens and an increasingly hard-line communist stance after World War II that impeded his musical career but also provided inspiration and sources for his music.

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955)

A Swiss composer born in France, Honegger studied at both the Zurich and Paris Conservatories and was more influenced by German music such as Bach, Wagner and Schoenberg than any of his colleagues in Les Six. Poulenc would recall of him, “Arthur found my music too light and I found his too heavy.” Like his peers, Honegger wrote extensively for ballet, opera and the stage, as well as film, although often in amore solemn style. His 1921 composition, the dramatic psalm Le Roi David, was an early success that brought him to prominence and is often performed to this day. Between 1925 and 1935 Honegger composed the music for Abel Gance’s legendary film, Napoleon, and six works for Ida Rubinstein that included three ballets and an oratorio—one of his best known works — Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher. His extensive choral work also included collaborations on an opera and an operetta with Jacques Ibert in 1930s. Affected profoundly by World War II, which he spent in Paris, Honegger wrote four of his five symphonies during and after the War. He often took part in Les Six reunions and last collaborated with Auric and Poulenc in 1952.

Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1982)

The only female member of Les Six, Germaine Tailleferre attended the Paris Conservatory against the wishes of her father, even changing her last name to distance herself from him. Already in 1917 Erik Satie dubbed her his ‘musical daughter’ and pulled her into a circle known as Les Nouveau Jeunes that soon evolved into Les Six. After contributing to an absurdist ballet composed jointly by Les Six (minus Durey) for the Ballets Suedois in 1921 Tailleferre penned Le marchand d’oiseaux for the company herself, which went on to be its most frequently performed production of the 1920s. The Ballets Russes’ premiere of another of her productions, La nouvelle Cythère, was planned for 1929 but pre-empted by the death of impresario Sergei Diaghilev. A brief marriage to American caricaturist Ralph Barton took Tailleferre to New York in 1925-27, during which time US ensembles including the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed some of her work. The 1930s were very productive, including several concertos, operas and cantatas, film music and much more, a period disrupted by World War II, which Tailleferre spent mostly in Philadelphia. Post-war she continued to compose orchestral and chamber works as well as operas and ballets prolifically, although many of these compositions were published only after her death.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Prevented by his wealthy family from receiving formal musical training, Poulenc blossomed musically after his parents’ death, but remained largely self-taught. He would become not only a successful composer but also an accomplished pianist who toured and recorded extensively. Poulenc’s compositional debut in 1917 caught the attention of both Ravel and Stravinsky, the latter of whom helped him obtain a contract with a music publisher. He was initially one of the most playful and irreverent of Les Six, strongly influenced by Erik Satie. Many of his songs and more extensive compositions of the 1920s are deliberately absurdist and farcical, including the 1924 ballet Les Biches, an instant success from its premiere by the Ballets Russes for which he is perhaps best-known. Despite this early recognition, Poulenc continued to study composing intermittently with Charles Koechlin (on the advice of Milhaud) until 1925, and the second half of the decade saw more songs and chamber music as well as a second ballet, Aubade. After a period of depression in the early 1930s and a struggle with his homosexuality, Poulenc rediscovered his religious faith. He began composing religious music alongside his lighter works in 1936, and continued until his death. During World War II he was also active in the musical Resistance, writing numerous songs based on Resistance poetry.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974)

Born in a Jewish family in Marseille, Darius Milhaud studied composition at the Paris Conservatory together with Arthur Honegger and Germaine Tailleferre after having begun as a violinist. Spending 1917 to 1919 as an attaché in France’s embassy immersed him in Brazilian music, and a 1922 trip to the US exposed him to jazz, both of which continued to be important sources throughout his career. Le Boeuf sur le toit and La Création du Monde were two surrealist compositions for dance of the early 1920s that brought Milhaud visibility. In Brazil Milhaud also connected with the diplomat and intellectual Paul Claudel, with whom the composer would collaborate repeatedly, creating incidental music for Claudel’s plays and oratorios, while Claudel authored libretti for Milhaud’s staged work. Remarkably prolific, Milhaud composed nearly 500 works, including 12 symphonies, 9 operas, 12 ballets and eighteen string quartets. Many of his compositions use the techniques of polytonality. Milhaud also taught extensively in France and in the US, where he fled for the duration of World War II. After the War, he alternated years between Mills College in Oakland (where his students included Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach) and the Paris Conservatory until his death.