ⓘ Les Six

Les Six

ⓘ Les Six

Les Six is a name given to a group of six French composers who worked in Montparnasse. The name, inspired by Mily Balakirevs The Five, originates in two 1920 articles by critic Henri Collets in. Their music is often seen as a reaction against both the musical style of Richard Wagner and the impressionist music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

The members were Georges Auric 1899–1983, Louis Durey 1888–1979, Arthur Honegger 1892–1955, Darius Milhaud 1892–1974, Francis Poulenc 1899–1963, and Germaine Tailleferre 1892–1983.


1. Les nouveaux jeunes

In 1917, when many theatres and concert halls were closed because of World War I, Blaise Cendrars and the painter Moïse Kisling decided to put on concerts at 6 rue Huyghens, the studio of the painter Emile Lejeune 1885–1964. For the first of these events, the walls of the studio were decorated with canvases by Picasso, Matisse, Leger, Modigliani and others. Music by Erik Satie, Honegger, Auric and Durey was played. It was this concert that gave Satie the idea of assembling a group of composers around himself to be known as Les nouveaux jeunes, forerunners of Les Six.


2. Les Six

According to Milhaud:

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 werent at all the same! Auric and Poulenc followed ideas of Cocteau, Honegger followed German Romanticism, and myself, Mediterranean lyricism!

But that is only one reading of how the Groupe des Six originated: other authors, like Ornella Volta, stressed the manoeuvrings of Jean Cocteau to become the leader of an avant-garde group devoted to music, like the cubist and surrealist groups which had sprung up in visual arts and literature shortly before, with Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire and Andre Breton as their key representatives. The fact that Satie had abandoned the Nouveaux jeunes less than a year after starting the group, was the "gift from heaven" that made it all come true for Cocteau: his 1918 publication Le Coq et lArlequin is said to have ticked it off.

After World War I, Jean Cocteau and Les Six began to frequent a bar known as "La Gaya" which became Le Boeuf sur le Toit The Ox on the Roof when the establishment moved to larger quarters. As the famous ballet by Milhaud had been conceived at the old premises, the new bar took on the name of Milhauds ballet. On the renamed bars opening night, pianist Jean Wiener played tunes by George Gershwin and Vincent Youmans while Cocteau and Milhaud played percussion. Among those in attendance were impresario Serge Diaghilev, artist Pablo Picasso, filmmaker Rene Clair, singer Jane Bathori, and actor and singer Maurice Chevalier. Another frequent guest was the young American composer Virgil Thomson whose compositions were influenced by members of Les Six in subsequent years.


3. Collaborations

Although the group did not exist to work on compositions collaboratively, there were six occasions, spread over 36 years, on which at least some members of the group did work together on the same project. On only one of these occasions was the entire Groupe des Six involved; in some others, composers from outside the group also participated.

Auric and Poulenc were involved in all six of these collaborations, Milhaud in five, Honegger and Tailleferre in three, but Durey in only one.


3.1. Collaborations 1920: LAlbum des Six

In 1920 the group published an album of piano pieces together, known as LAlbum des Six. This was the only work in which all six composers collaborated.

  • Romance sans paroles, Op. 21 1919 – Durey
  • Pastorale, Enjoue 1919 – Tailleferre
  • Valse in C, FP 17 1919 – Poulenc
  • Prelude 1919 – Auric
  • Sarabande, H 26 1920 – Honegger
  • Mazurka 1914 – Milhaud

3.2. Collaborations 1921: Les maries de la tour Eiffel

In 1921, five of the members jointly composed the music for Cocteaus ballet Les maries de la tour Eiffel, which was produced by the Ballets suedois, the rival to the Ballet Russes. Cocteau had originally proposed the project to Auric, but as Auric did not finish rapidly enough to fit into the rehearsal schedule, he then divided the work up among the other members of Les Six. Durey, who was not in Paris at the time, chose not to participate. The premiere was the occasion of a public scandal rivalling that of Le sacre du printemps in 1913. In spite of this, Les maries de la tour Eiffel was in the repertoire of the Ballets suedois throughout the 1920s.

  • Sortie de la Noce – Milhaud
  • Ritournelles – Auric
  • Marche funebre – Honegger
  • La Baigneuse de Trouville – Poulenc
  • Quadrille – Tailleferre
  • La Fugue du Massacre – Milhaud
  • Discours du General Polka – Poulenc
  • La Valse des Depeches – Tailleferre
  • Marche nuptiale – Milhaud
  • Overture 14 July – Auric


3.3. Collaborations 1927: Leventail de Jeanne

In 1927, Auric, Milhaud and Poulenc, along with seven other composers who were not part of Les Six, jointly composed the childrens ballet Leventail de Jeanne.

  • Marche – Pierre-Octave Ferroud
  • Rondeau – Auric
  • Polka – Milhaud
  • Canarie – Alexis Roland-Manuel
  • Pastourelle – Poulenc
  • Valse – Jacques Ibert
  • Sarabande – Albert Roussel
  • Finale: Kermesse-Valse – Florent Schmitt
  • Fanfare – Maurice Ravel
  • Bourree – Marcel Delannoy

3.4. Collaborations 1949: Mouvements du coeur

In 1949, Auric, Milhaud and Poulenc, along with three other composers, jointly wrote Mouvements du coeur: Un hommage à la memoire de Frederic Chopin, 1849–1949, a suite of songs for baritone or bass and piano on words of Louise Levêque de Vilmorin in commemoration of the centenary of the death of Frederic Chopin.

The other composers who contributed to the suite were Jean Françaix, Leo Preger and Henri Sauguet.

  • Etude – Leo Preger
  • Prelude – Henri Sauguet
  • Scherzo impromptu – Jean Françaix
  • Postlude: Polonaise – Henri Sauguet
  • Mazurka – Poulenc
  • Valse – Auric
  • Ballade nocturne – Milhaud

3.5. Collaborations 1952: La guirlande de Campra

In 1952, Auric, Honegger, Poulenc, Tailleferre and three other composers collaborated on an orchestral work called La guirlande de Campra.

  • Sarabande – Tailleferre
  • Ecossaise – Auric
  • Toccata – Honegger
  • Sarabande et farandole – Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur
  • Canarie – Alexis Roland-Manuel
  • Variation – Henri Sauguet
  • Matelote provençale – Poulenc

3.6. Collaborations 1956: Variations sur le nom de Marguerite Long

In 1956, Auric, Milhaud, Poulenc and five other composers created an orchestral suite in honour of the pianist Marguerite Long, called Variations sur le nom de Marguerite Long

  • Nocturne – Jean Rivier
  • Variations en forme de Berceuse pour Marguerite Long – Henri Sauguet
  • Bucolique, FP. 160 – Poulenc
  • ML Allegro: Finale – Auric
  • Intermezzo – Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur
  • Hymne solennel – Jean Françaix
  • La Couronne de Marguerites "The Crown of Daisies", Valse en forme de rondo – Milhaud
  • Serenades – Henri Dutilleux

4. Selected music by individual members of Les Six

  • Danse de la chevre Dance of the Goat for solo flute by Honegger
  • Sonate champêtre for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano by Tailleferre
  • Sonate pour violon seul by Honegger
  • Le Bal Masque, cantate profane sur des poemes de Max Jacob Baritone, ensemble 1932 by Poulenc
  • Le boeuf sur le toit by Milhaud
  • Cinq bagatelles by Auric
  • Salade by Milhaud; premiered 1924 in a production of Count Etienne de Beaumont
  • Scaramouche by Milhaud
  • Les biches, ballet 1922/23 by Poulenc
  • La nouvelle Cythere by Tailleferre; written in 1929 for the Ballets Russes and unproduced because of Diaghilevs sudden death

5. Bibliography

  • Jane F. Fulcher: The Composer as Intellectual. Music and Ideology in France, 1914–1940 New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Ornella Volta: Satie/Cocteau. Les Malentendus dune entente Begles: Le Castor Astral, 1993, ISBN 2-85920-208-0.
  • Benjamin Ivry: Francis Poulenc London: Phaidon Press, 1996, ISBN 0-7148-3503-X.
  • Roger Nichols: The Harlequin Years: Music in Paris 1917–1929 London: Thames & Hudson, 2002, ISBN 0-500-51095-4.
  • Fondation Erik Satie ed.: Le Groupe des Six et ses amis: 70e anniversaire Paris: Placard, 1990, ISBN 2-907523-01-5.
  • Jean Cocteau: Le Coq et lArelquin: Notes autour de la musique Paris: Editions de la Sirene, 1918.
  • Henri Collet: "La Musique chez soi XIII: "Les Six français – Darius Milhaud, Louis Durey, Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc et Germaine Tailleferre", in: Comoedia, 23 January 1920, p. 2.
  • Henri Collet: "La Musique chez soi XII: Un livre de Rimsky et un livre de Cocteau – Les Cinq russes, les Six français, et Erik Satie", in: Comoedia, 16 January 1920, p. 2.
  • Barbara L. Kelly: Music and Ultra-Modernism in France, a Fragile Consensus, 1913–1939 Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2013.
  • Robert Shapiro: Les Six: The French Composers and their Mentors Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie London/Chicago: Peter Owen, 2011, ISBN 978-0-7206-1293-6.

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