Category Archives: Composers

Beethoven Chamber Music – The late Period





My last note ended with Beethoven writing his Emperor piano concerto in 1809, still in his middle period. We should not forget to take into account the background picture affecting the lives of all artists. War had broken out again and Vienna seized after heavy bombardment by Napoleon’s forces with the Austrians withdrawing over the Danube.  A peace treaty in October restored some of the Hapsburg position. This had been stage managed by Metternich and sealed by the marriage of the Emperor’s 18 year old daughter, Marie Louise, to the 40 year old balding Napoleon.  Doubtless she was counselled to close her eyes and think of Austria.  Alas, poor Josephine. This period from 1809 was nevertheless grim on the home front, not that one would think so from The Emperor concerto.  The walls surrounding Vienna had been flattened and it was now an open city.  To top it all the currency had toppled overnight losing 80% of its value, very much hitting the poor rich, some of whom stopped making their payments to Beethoven. He was big enough not to take it from anyone and was fast becoming a compulsive litigant, keeping his lawyers busy anyway.  Thus it was that he even took Prince Lobkowitz to court, the man who had financed the Eroica and who had now commissioned the Harp quartet.

Beethoven’s rate of production had slowed (comparatively) and he was now into what one might describe as his late middle period during which he produced five great piano sonatas, the best known of which is the “Les Adieux”.  He also returned again to the string quartet with two, the Harp Op 74 and the Serioso, opus 95.

The Harp had obtained its moniker from the pizzicato writing in the first movement. Its use was quite unusual for its time and we have to wait till Debussy and Ravel for pizzicato to be more greatly exploited.  The Harp abounds in reproducing  ideas and motives taken from his 5th symphony which Beethoven could not resist repeating.

The Serioso’s opus number is misleading.  It actually was written in early 1810 but only published later. It is out of the same stable as the Harp but they are by no means identical twins. If the Harp harps back to fifth symphony, the Serioso seems a foretaste of things to come.  Its opening sounds Freudian and best to be played in the waiting room of a psychoanalyst.  It is the shortest of his quartets and looks towards the late quartets to be written more than ten years ahead.  More of them anon.

In 1810 came the last piano trio, the Archduke, dedicated as was the Emperor piano concerto, to Archduke Rudolf.  That same year, Beethoven met Goethe for the first time and composed incidental music for his play, Egmont, based on a Flemish hero.

There were other contemporary challengers around who have since been expunged from popular memory but, head and shoulders above as Beethoven was, the man of the moment was Rossini who had taken Vienna by storm. The Barber of Seville was top of the charts in the whistling stakes. It even received an accreditation from Beethoven at the end of the second movement of his eighth symphony where there is a miniature take off of a Rossini crescendo.

Meantime, back to Napoleon. His fortunes were somewhat dashed at Borodino in 1812, depicted in Tchaikovsky’s over the top 1812 overture but written in 1882.  The French were having to fight their way back.  The Austrians made an attempt to cut off the retreating Grande Armée at the battle of Hanau with the aim of bringing the wars to an early end there and then.  This cunning plan unfortunately failed and the French forces were able to slip across the Rhine back into France, a kind of Dunkirk in reverse. This was the background to Beethoven’s return to the symphony with his seventh completed in 1812, followed by the eighth just a few months later. It was now four years since his great akadamie (concert) of 1808 when he presented to the world the 5th and 6th symphonies as well as the fourth piano concerto.

The first performance of the seventh symphony took place in 1813 at a concert for soldiers wounded at the battle of Hanau.  I had previously imagined that this was attended by the battle victims themselves. Actually, it was a charity concert to raise money for the wounded, and the attendees more likely to have been the likes of the Presidents Club, with or without hostesses I cannot say. The allegretto (second movement) did go down well having to be repeated twice. An even bigger hit was his Battle Symphony played at the same concert.  In 1813 the Spanish were defeated at the Battle of Vittoria by a combined force of English and Portuguese under the newly ennobled Duke of Wellington. In tribute, Beethoven wrote a battle symphony. Here I again have to eat my words as to the limited size of the orchestra in Beethoven’s day.  The Battle Symphony was scored for an enormous orchestra which included contrabassoon, four horns, six trumpets, three trombones, timpani, a large percussion battery (including muskets and other artillery sound effects), and an enormous  string section pf nearly sixty.  It has “God Save the King” (first subject) and the French march, “Malbrouck”, which sounds like “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” for its second.  You won’t often hear it now and it can best be described as “A top notcher’s rock bottom”.  Beethoven dedicated it to the Prince Regent whose boundless enthusiasm for it  remains typical of unchanging royal taste.


The eighth symphony which followed turned out to be a disappointment. Small in scale after the seventh, it appeared to return to being Haydnesque particularly as it included of all things a minuet.  The scherzoid second movement is best known for its tick tick accompaniment, much faster than that of Haydn’s clock symphony with which it has been compared.  It was a send up by Beethoven of the metronome, recently invented or more likely cloned by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel.  He also had invented the panharmonicon, a mechanical instrument that artificially reproduced the sounds of the full orchestra for which he is said to have written the themes of the Battle symphony.  He then claimed that he and Beethoven agreed to go 50/50 on the receipts from the Battle symphony and eventually the two finished with Beethoven in suing mood and taking Maelzel to court.  Maelzel also produced a state of the art ear trumpet in 1808 which Beethoven doubtless tried out without much success.  Today one would surely find Maelzel in the Dragon’s Den as an entrepreneur ready to offer 10% of his equity to those with money to burn.

1814 also saw the opening of the Congress of Vienna with the whole world gathered there, more for the dancing and the entertainment than the politics.  Amongst those participating, apart from Metternich and Talleyrand, would be familiar names such as Rasumovsky and Lichnowsky.  Many former patrons were however to lose their power and influence and Beethoven found himself needing to look elsewhere for commissions.  During the Congress a revival was mounted of Fidelio which had been considerably overhauled and with four overtures into the bargain.

1814 to 1817 was a fallow period with Beethoven in litigious dispute in adoption proceedings over his nephew, Karl.  As head of the family, Beethoven had earlier objected to his brother, Carl, marrying his five month pregnant housekeeper whom Beethoven regarded as a slut, wicked and vicious.   Carl however did marry her and made a will first giving joint custody of Karl to both his wife and Beethoven.  Carl then revoked Beethoven’s appointment and upon Carl’s death  bitter litigation was to ensue.  Beethoven considered the mother unfit and morally degenerate.  Poor Karl was shunted by the courts from one to the other following various appeals.  By this time Beethoven was becoming impossible to deal with, both in business and domestically, with servants coming and going and being sacked all over the place.  Karl, who did not find it fun living with grumpy deaf old uncle Ludwig, eventually attempted shooting himself – but managed to miss.  Beethoven ultimately did gain custody but the relationship between them was never easy. Beethoven had hoped Karl would inherit the musical genes. He didn’t and in the end was happy to enlist as a soldier.  All of this resulted in almost three years loss of productive output by Beethoven whose physical prowess and hearing were getting worse.

One cannot pinpoint when the third period could be said to begin exactly, even less so than that between his early and middle periods.  His last two cello sonatas could be claimed to start the late period and were written in 1815, the year of Waterloo as it happens. So if you don’t like referring to it as the third period or the late period, why not call it the Post Waterloo period. As for old Bony, he was sent off to St Helena where he lived till 1821. On learning of his death, the composer of the Eroica could only make one short  comment, “Well I have written his funeral march already”. Looking at a list of his output for this Post Waterloo period one perceives there are only a minimal few works in any year, sometimes just one single piano sonata. Over this time he was working on his ninth symphony on and off over a number of years before its appearance in 1823.  As far as composition is concerned the list is mainly of songs, Irish songs, Scottish songs, Vienna songs and, somewhat strangely, several canons. Many were not given an opus number.  Back in his early period he had been producing new compositions like a rabbit but also spending as much time as a competitive pianist; in the second (middle) period he was turning out masterpieces by the dozen with his attention aimed at the concert hall and its audiences.  Now in this lonely silent late period he was writing for himself and his own inner satisfaction. He was experimenting and soul searching.

Two hundred years ago, in 1818, Beethoven was producing little but he did return to the piano and write his mighty Hammerklavier sonata, observed one morning by Nephew Karl watching Beethoven pounding away at his piano.  Here again he chooses to return to the mighty fugue.  Remember Albrechsberger, and the discipline he instilled back in the 1790’s?  We now have both the great muscular Beethoven and a slow movement, so quiet with Beethoven at peace with himself.

By 1819 Beethoven was working on the Missa Solemnis which yet again he dedicated to Archduke, now Archbishop, Rudolf.  It is an enormous work written alongside the choral symphony.  His only previous mass had been the Mass in C written for Esterhazy back in 1807.  This time, for the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven was not quite the unchallengeable top dog.  Yet, he wasn’t going to be second either. God was in pole position, but Beethoven shared the front grid with Him.

One large undertaking during the same period were the Diabelli Variations written for piano.  Diabelli, was known as a light music composer who invited several composers, including Beethoven, each to write a single variation on a simple theme.  At first Beethoven showed no interest for it but the idea took hold, so much that he interrupted composition of his Missa Solemnis and wrote 23 variations for starters.  He then returned to it in 1823 and wrote a further 9 variations and added a coda making a total of 33. Why such an odd number?  Two explanations have been proffered.  One is that Bach wrote 32 variations for his Goldberg Variations and that this was Beethoven’s idea of one-upmanship.  The other was that Diabelli had already collected 32 individual variations from others and this was Beethoven’s idea of 33-upmanship!

The ninth symphony, the Choral, was a project on which he had worked for almost ten years.  It had been commissioned some years before by the Philharmonic Society in London, but it was not to get its first performance there. Its immense power showed that Beethoven had lost none of his touch but there is a deep new maturity discernible.  Yes, there are the clean cut sculptured phrases with which one is already familiar but there has now crept in a sense of searching, motives weaving their way in and through the work’s progress and development. The first movement seeks to be searching some goal and only Beethoven knows the way.  Its success was illustrated in that at the end of its first performance of the music he had hardly heard, Beethoven was turned around so as to face the audience in order he might witness the applause and cheering that he could no longer hear.

We come to the late quartets.  There are five plus the Grosse Fuge.

These first three were commissioned in 1823 by Prince Galitzkin as follows

As with the Harp and the Serioso fifteen years earlier, these were all published separately.  I find it difficult to remember which is which from their opus numbers, although I have no such difficulty with the symphonies.  Perhaps they should have had been accorded individual name tags.  There are twenty eight different movements in all and as my descriptions will not enlighten you I will leave it to Matthew’s lectures and the music itself to do so.  Therefore, just a few thoughts.

Beethoven’s last quartets have always been presented as being difficult and abstruse.  The nineteenth century continued to view them as unlistenable. 

The late string quartets of Beethoven were written by a deaf man and should be listened to by a deaf man”.  (Sir Thomas Beecham)


Many of our generation revered Sir Thomas both for his interpretations and his waggery but this kind of remark was totally unacceptable as well as putting many like myself in total fear of these quartets for many years. Beecham’s musicality and dedication were unquestionable but political correctness was not his forte. If he did believe his own quip then it may be that he never did understand what the difference was between a string quartet and a lollipop.

Quartets 13 and 14 have respectively six and seven movements.  I have noticed that some commentators have described them as suites. There is nothing, other than convention and the precedent set by Haydn and Mozart which limits a quartet to four movements.  To add further movements, as Beethoven had done years before with his opus 9 trios, does not place them in the same category as the Nutcracker Suite.  These remain quartets where Beethoven was exploring a new sound world and, when he felt he needed more movements, it might just be because he had a lot more to say.  These extended quartets might be likened to the Mahler symphonies of eighty years later. They are, by reason of their varied nature and profundity symphonies. They happen to be written for the string quartet!

One cannot leave without mentioning the last movement of Number 13, opus 130.  The original intention was that this movement would be the grosse fuge .  It follows five earlier movements which are all in much more contented mood. The grosse fuge is in sharp contrast and takes nearly a further twenty minutes.  It is not a serene fugue as Bach would have written but it emits all the pain and agony that Beethoven seems to have suffered.  Beethoven’s publisher, Artaria, immediately suggested to Beethoven that it did not fit.  Normally Beethoven would have gone apoplectic at such a suggestion but quite nonchalantly he substituted it with the genial final movement we now know.  This movement was to be his last composition and has the innocence of Haydn.  There is a practice for some string quartets these days to re-substitute the grosse fuge instead on the basis that Beethoven’s first thoughts would reflect what was his pure unadulterated original thinking.  My own opinion is that it should remain to be played as a stand-alone piece. There is also an orchestration of it by Otto Klemperer for string orchestra, quite interesting. Stravinsky described the Grosse Fuge as “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” I would prescribe it as best not to be listened to whilst undergoing acupuncture.

The last string quartets clearly obsessed Beethoven well beyond his initial remit in exploring for new sounds and moods that together encompass all. They are not just modernist or futurist experiments but they scour also the past and are inspired by the likes of Haydn, Bach and even Palestrina.  If you are looking for solemnity, majesty, heroics, rustic dancing, spirituality, neo-baroque, pain, suffering, modern, traditional or modal, you name it – they are all there.

Beethoven would write no more. Yet the quartets are not valedictory statements as one might suppose. During this time, Beethoven was working on a tenth symphony; had plans for a horn concerto and a sixth piano concerto and was considering an opera based on the Faust legend. If only! His mental processes were still productive and sharp.  His physical health was, in contrast, failing him. He was regularly falling ill and in his last years was suffering from dropsy which eventually and painfully took him on 26 March 1827.  He had recently met Schubert who had been present at the first performance of the ninth symphony and who was one of the pall bearers three days after Beethoven’s death when over 20,000 people turned out in tribute for the funeral procession of Beethoven. 

Pace Muhamad Ali, the measure of greatness is but a matter of opinion,. For me there is no doubt. Beethoven was the greatest of them all. That is a fact.

Lionel Lewis

September 5, 2018


They are The Six, or Les Six or Le Groupe de Six but who were they and what were they and how did they come about?

I will refer to them as Les Six. You know how to say it. Un, deux trois – quatre, cinq, Cease. They had begun to gather informally to start with as early as 1917 and were soon after to be unionised into a band of brothers – or more correctly five brothers and a sister – by the writer Jean Cocteau who was looking for a vehicle for French music as a counterpart to such artists as Picasso, Matisse, Léger and Modigliani. It was these four amongst others who had canvasses which bedecked the studio of Eric Léjeune where a concert got mounted with music by Erik Satie and three of the composers who would later re-form as part of Les Six. Satie first ran the idea of assembling a group of composers around himself calling them Les Nouveaux Jeunes. That was 1917 and here we are now a hundred years on. Les Nouveaux Jeunes would be the forerunner of Les Six. And, question for the Eggheads, the names of Les Six?

Darius Milhaud  (1892-1974)

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955)

Georges Auric (1899-1983)

Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)

Louis Durey (1888-1979)


Their names are not exactly earth shaking. They may not have been The Rolling Stones exactly but it is through the group label “Les Six” , that posterity would bestow on each a celebrity of a kind, not as individuals nor as Les Nouveaux Jeunes  and it is only because of that label that half their number manage to cling on to their identity. In 1917, the end of the First World War was still a year away with no armistice in sight.  In fact, the Americans were only just joining the fray.  It was but a few months before Debussy would die of cancer and the impressionist movement led by him which had dominated the pre-war years was losing its momentum.  This is easy to see from our present vantage point but a hundred years ago there was felt the need for a new music which would be an expression of French joie de vivre and a reaction both against impressionism which had run its course as well as against nineteenth century romanticism which impressionism had itself set out to dislodge. With Debussy soon to move house into Passy Cemetery and Ravel’s change of direction since the pre-war sumptuousness of Daphnis and Chloe, Paris found itself again led by the be-whiskered old guard of Saint-Saens and Fauré, d’Indy and Widor seemingly still in power. During these straitened times, those pre-war-horses, Diaghileff and Stravinsky, were no longer to be seen around.


Satie himself was one of the greatest of humourists and eccentrics there ever had been. He had met Jean Cocteau in 1915 and in 1917 the two had collaborated on a ballet, Parade, the instrumentation of which included, shot guns, vacuum cleaner and a manual typewriter.  For reasons no-one seems to know. Satie decided to drop Les Nouveaux Jeunes within a year and the surreal hole was filled by Cocteau  in 1920 adding two new members, Milhaud who had returned from cultural duties in Brazil and Poulenc who had been doing his post war national service. What Satie had managed to inject was an ethos based on French popular culture of sorts, centred on all the fun of the fair, setting up Emanuel Chabrier as a model but  seeking its inspiration from the bal-musette and vaudeville of the 1880’s.


The name, Les Six, did not come from Cocteau. It was a baptism by the journalist/music critic Henri Collet who likened the French six to the five Russians nationalists, the Five, known also as the Mighty Handful.  We have been there already not that long ago with a series by Matthew.  Like the Russian Five, the French Six shared a common outlook but were less precise in aims and ability.  One similarity is best reflected in there being in each one of their number one who was not so much unsung as unheard of. In the case of the five it was César Cui.  In the case of Les Six it was Louis Durey who was out of his depth to the rest of the company and soon was to immerse himself in left wing politics and sink from view in the world of composition.


Milhaud put it succinctly thus: “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!


Jean Cocteau and Les Six first appeared at a bar known as La Gaya. They soon needed to move into larger premises which they renamed Le Bœuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof), after the title of Milhaud’s successful ballet, written originally with Charlie Chaplin in mind and a must for any lover of the samba.  Amongst the audience on the opening night for Les Six were Diaghilev (now back in post-war circulation), Picasso, René Clair, then at the very start of his career as an actor, and Maurice Chevalier.


So now we have the group but what was their aim, their aesthetic? It broadly followed that of Satie and reinforced according to Auric and Milhaud to reproduce the sounds of Paris through circus music and country fairs and to evoke a French mood by musical references to the 1880s.  Even music when written abroad, such as Milhaud’s Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit and his Saudades de Brasil (Streets of Brasil) were made to sound like Gay Paree. This was music to suit the post war mood to welcome in the twenties.  It has its musical roots dating back to La Grande Epoque with all the artificial trappings of the cancan and the  Moulin Rouge that your every day tourist would expect but not as seen by the father of victory, Paul Clemenceau let alone the returning poilus from the front.


What one does not know for sure is to what extent this disparate group imposed any shackles on themselves or simply that each was following the fashion in his/her own separate way.  The Russian Five had a declared aim of promoting Russian culture and would be critical of each other in overseeing what each was doing. Les Six had their own objective of promoting all the fun of the fair.  Theirs was something of comic strip humour, so more akin to Hergé and Tin Tin, than back to Zola or forward to Sartre.


What does mark them as different is their collaborations. They were not the first composers to collaborate – remember the Diabelli Variations.  There were a number of collabs over the years but only one contained contributions by all six. L’Album des Six was put together under Cocteau in 1920, piano pieces written by each of them.  In 1921 there followed the surrealist ballet, Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel.  It was commissioned from Georges Auric by the Ballet Suedois. Auric was running out of time or inspiration and asked the others to contribute but Louis Durey  the first drop out was away from Paris, much to the annoyance of Cocteau. It is a story of a surreal wedding party taking place on one of the floors of the Eiffel Tower on 14 July.  Someone takes a photo snap and a trap door opens and a lion chases an ostrich and kills a guest, followed by a child of the future then killing everyone else except perhaps the bride and groom as the story ends with the close of the party.  Each of the five participants from Les Six has one or more contributions to make, three by Milhaud, and from La Baigneuse de Trouville by Poulenc to a funeral march by Honegger who was clearly already showing his more austere colours.


There were other collaborations but these were in some cases consisting of a smaller number from Les Six and joined by other composers who were not group founders but who were closely associated. It shows that Les Six was by no means a finite unit. The original members were chosen by chance and each gradually went their own way.  Others were around at the beginning or joined in later on, a kind of subs’ bench.  So, if you like, there were the founder members of the club; then there were fully accepted members but without the right to use the “Les Six” name tag and then there were plenty of hangers on. It was easy come, easy go. Not like the Garrick Club. There were those excluded however, Ravel in particular, but then he had made it to the top already and in any event his music towards the end of the twenties had developed a jazzy touch with much in common with Les Six, particularly his two piano concertos. What the group did leave was a legacy of gaiety which infected other contemporaries, Walton with Façade; Martinu, the new migrant to Paris, with La Revue de Cuisine with its tango and charleston and Gershwin with his American in Paris.  It all reminds one of the popular song of the day “How we goin’ to keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?”


The group did not last long as a group if it ever got going at all in the first place.  Its formation was a provocative sales pitch by Cocteau.  They would later meet at irregular intervals and there would be a further photo call showing the same faces but somewhat more aged on each occasion.  They had briefly collaborated but each went his/her individual path. The party had long come to an end by the Crash of 1929 but the melody lingered on.  All they had in common was a briefly shared past. They all did their own things through the 1930’s and went on bravely to suffer the privations of the occupation and did their bit for the Resistance.


I propose only to set out some thumbnail sketches.  Here is the line up:-


Francis Poulenc:  I need write very little as I have previously devoted an article on him.  He is the most lovable of the six and the most melodic composer of the twentieth century.  He came from a wealthy industrialist family, Rhone-Poulenc and came to fame with his ballet, Les Biches, a neo-classical mélange, written for Diaghileff in 1924.  It out stravinkies Stravinsky in its quotations of older composers which includes a quotation from Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale.  In the 1930’s he produced three concertos, not your orthodox, piano, violin or cello but harpsichord, double piano and organ.  It was in the thirties he became a born again Catholic and alternated between devotional works on the one hand and music hall on the other.


Darius Milhaud: (pronounced “Mee – Yo”)  Born in Marseille of a Provencal Jewish family but Jewish with a difference.  His was a Sephardic family and not an Ashkenazy.  In short he was not from the German/Eastern Europe branch of the diaspora but from  the Spanish/ North African stream. His autobiography starts with his relating how the Sephardis in Provence at one time in their history appealed to the pope for help to keep the Ashkenazies out of Southern France. Strict border controls are nothing new. After learning the violin he switched to composition and studied under D’Indy and Widor at which time he met Honegger. In 1917 he obtained a posting to Rio where the poet, Paul Claudel was cultural attaché. The two collaborated on a ballet and later on  Milhaud would set a number of Claudel’s poems to music. Brazilian music had an influence upon him and on his return to France he composed the music for what became the ballet, “Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit” which contained tangoes, maxixes, sambas, a Portuguese fado and a recurring reprise between each pair. Having no story line, Cocteau turned it into a ballet, first performed on what was the first day following Prohibition. Its setting was a Manhattan Bar appropriately metamorphosed into a milk bar. Whilst Paris was the centre of activity for most of Les Six, it was Aix en Provence for Milhaud with the Carnaval d’Aix and his Suite Provençal. Milhaud played about with bitonality, writing in two keys simultaneously. In the early twenties he went to the USA and discovered jazz which he used to portray primeval man in his ballet La Création du Monde. His output was considerable. In 1940 and with  German occupation  he left France for the USA and settled in California returning to France after the war.


Right from the beginning Arthur Honegger stands apart from his co-six. He was born the son of an émigré Swiss couple at Le Havre where he grew up. He did however claim to be Swiss and held a Swiss passport. During the first world war he served just for a few months in the Swiss army, defending its borders, what one might describe as a sinecure. He also differed from the others in that he was a protestant, both religiously and culturally.  One in fact wonders what he was doing in Les Six as he was the most serious minded of composers and claimed straight away “I do not worship the fair, or the music-hall, but chamber music and symphony music for its essence of solemness and austerity.”  He was the first of them to achieve notable success with his Pastorale d’Eté, a beautiful idyll, written in 1917.  In 1923 he wrote the accompanying music for the silent film La Roue directed by Abel Gance.  It is four and a half hours long after editing and set against the background of railway trains and funiculars.  It inspired him further to write a symphonic movement which became his most famous work, Pacific 231, a locomotive, said not to be a pictorial description so much as a rhythmic inspiration. Honegger and Michael Portillo might not have shared the same era or have been in the same boat but they could be said to have shared the same compartment.  Honegger

nt on to write a second symphonic movement called “Rugby”. If you enjoy the heavy heaving of the pack you might be up for it. In 1926 he married, Andrée Vaurqbourg, a concert pianist.  It has been described as a happy relationship but to my mind a little odd in that they did not, at his insistence, live together. This was to allow him to concentrate on composition.  They managed to have a daughter , somehow somewhere, and he also had a son with someone else, somehow somewhere.  He wrote his first symphony in 1930 for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony orchestra. At this time he wrote a cello concerto which has a bluesy background, a little sad. Buddy can you spare a dime?  In the thirties he was more involved with opera and ballet, notably Joan of Arc at the Stake.  The second world war saddened him but his two greatest symphonies came from the period. The second symphony was commissioned by Paul Sacher in 1937 and was written for strings with a trumpet solo in the last movement. It was premiered in 1942 and, like the third, it was championed by Herbert von Karajan. The third, is entitled Symphonie Liturgique with movements with names taken from the Latin mass, Dies Irae, De profundis clamavi and Dona Nobis Pacem. The subject matter has much in common with the Sinfonia da Requiem of Benjamin Britten, written in America in 1940. Both works release an extraordinary amount of power. There is nothing here to associate Honegger with the naughty days of his old playmates, Les Six.  The sound world is of a different school, one which contains motoric, combustible and explosive energy owing something to Prokofiev or Roussel but without their humour. Honegger himself made explicit the music’s connection with the horrors of the war, and the desire for peace.  Honegger died of a heart attack in 1955 and if Poulenc is the most lovable of the six, Honegger emerges as the man of real power.


Georges Auric was a friend of Poulenc during their bookshop days and was possessed of a reputation of a prodigy. One of my best known and least reliable sources states that he gave his first public performance at the age of 2.  He came from  Herault, another member from the South of France. He was one of the first of Les Six to publish but somehow he never really seemed to belong.  The early collaborations by Les Six seem to have come about following Auric being unable to deliver commissions on time. He hit a blank patch in the late twenties and got drawn more to far left groups of artists and writers. However, he abandoned what he perceived as an elitist approach and found his metier in 1930 when he was recruited by Cocteau to write background music for the new talkie films.  From then on, he developed a populist approach and his list of films is enormous and successful.  Not only did he write for the best-known films from France but continued also with film music for Hollywood movies and Ealing comedies.  His name as a composer of film music, must be put alongside those of John Williams, Malcolm Arnold, William Alwyn and Shostakovich. His music for Moulin Rouge with José Ferrer is because of an obvious French connection but Ealing comedies?  I then cracked it.  Passport to Pimlico contains a hypothesis that Pimlico was an ancient fiefdom of Burgundy.  The Lavender Hill Mob contains a heist of gold bullion from the Bank of England moulded into model Eiffel Towers.  Always a French connection.  Well almost.  Whoever produced the Third Man and recruited Auric probably thought Vienna was in France.


Germaine Tailleferre was the sole female member of Les Six and remained productive if somewhat underplayed long after the Groupe’s disintegration during the middle to late 1920s. She was 91 when she died in 1983 leaving behind an extensive body of work over almost 70 years of composing. She was born in the outskirts of Paris. Despite initial objections from her parents she began to pursue her studies at the Paris Conservatoire when she was 12.  She was a prize winner in harmony, and counterpoint, and went on to take lessons from Ravel. She met Auric, Milhaud and Honegger at the conservatoire and after the premiere of her string quartet in 1918, she was invited to join Satie’s Nouveaux Jeunes, leading to Les Six. She remained committed to progressive musical ideas during the early 1920s which earned her a measure of notoriety. Nevertheless, it has been said that her music never abandoned its allegiance to the traditional French “voice” as passed down from Fauré and Ravel. Another expression is the grace and charm of her work, and I would go along with that. I have only heard two works by Tailleferre which includes her contribution to Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel. My one live experience was in late 1953 when I heard the LPO perform the Tailleferre harp concerto under Jean Martinon at a concert consisting of the Ravel piano concerto in G and Roussel’s Aeneas.  The Tailleferre was not only delightful but feminine. Now you could say “He would say that. Wouldn’t he?”  Yet it has such a delicate nature that Yes, I do say that.  There are female composers whose gender is not disclosed by their music.  No-one could say that the music of Elizabeth Lutyens or Doreen Carwithen is feminine.  One can say that Mendelssohn is delicate and if anyone had said its composer was feminine I might not have been surprised. Equally when I hear the opening of Mahler’s third symphony, I think that if Mahler had been a woman she would not have written like that.  Germaine Tailleferre’s harp concerto was rewritten as a duo or concertino for harp and piano.  You can find them on You Tube if you would like to give them a try.


One further matter as I now find I have further blank paper to fill up is another experience I had at that Martinon concert.  In those years of the fifties it was rare for a concert not to start with the national anthem.  A drum roll, everyone heaving themselves on to their feet, a ponderous performance and sit down again.  On that occasion there was mention in the programme that the concert was in the presence of H E, the French ambassador. So what?  We went through the usual procedure of God Save the Queen, only recently crowned, and no sooner were we on our derrières than back we were on our feet for an unexpected tumultuous performance of La Marseillaise which took us by surprise and storm.  God, did it liven us up before the actual concert got going!


Lastly I come to Louis Durey and, as to his music, I am speechless. He was born in Paris, and he was nineteen years old before he chose to pursue a musical career after hearing a wok by Debussy. He was virtually self-taught and choral music was intended to be his forte. His first work, L’Offrande Lyrique  from 1914 has been called the first piece of French twelve-tone music. Durey set the ball rolling for L’Album des Six when he asked Milhaud to contribute a piano piece which would bring together all six composers. Despite its acclaim Durey did not participate the next year in Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel.  Effectively it was the beginning of Sixit. Durey continued with his career as a backroom composer, not feeling the need to belong to the musical establishment.  He voiced his growing left-wing outlook which left him artistically isolated and forgotten for the rest of his life.  He moved to St Tropez where he wrote some chamber music and an opera.


Following his marriage in 1929, he moved back to Paris where during the mid-thirties he joined the Communist Party and became active in Fédération Musicale Populaire. During the Nazi occupation of World War II, he was prominent with the French Resistance working as a musician and writing anti-Fascist songs. After the war his uncompromising political attitudes hindered his career. In 1950 he accepted the post of music critic for a communist newspaper in Paris. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he continued to compose but is said to have produced nothing of significance. He would write a work based on Vietnamese themes in the 1960s, brought about by the turmoil France had left in Indochina. With the Vietnam War which followed he set poems by Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse Tung to music. I am not aware of their having been played in this country.


Clearly, with just one piano piece in a collaboration he was going to end up as the least remembered of Les Six. He returned eventually to Saint Tropez, where he died in 1979.


Roussel (from Music Deco)


ALBERT ROUSSEL (1869-1937)

Albert Roussel is a composer whose name rings few bells.  Yet he is seen as the greatest French symphonist of the twentieth century and an inconnu at the same time. We are fortunate that Matthew has already touched upon him in the current series “Music Deco”.  So why this mystery about a composer who was a contemporary of Debussy and Ravel, was influenced by them but who found his own route to follow in the end.  He was an especially late starter and did not begin to emerge as a composer until well after the other two were at the height of their powers. 

He was born in Tourcoing, a large commune, now part of the Greater Lille conurbation in the Département of Nord.  He displayed some musical aptitude at the piano but no signs of a genius à la Mozart. He would be orphaned as a young child, educated by his grandfather, mayor of Tourcoing, and after the grandfather’s death, by his aunt. She arranged for him to be sent to Paris both for his standard academic curriculum and to learn to play the organ. However, music was not going to be his chosen career at that time and mathematics was his primary study in preparation for him entering the Naval Academy. At 18, he began his apprenticeship as a sailor.   Mozart at a similar age was in comparison writing his 29th symphony.

From 1889 to August 1890 Roussel was a midshipman in the crew of the frigate Iphigénie, sailing, not to Aulis nor to Tauris, but to Indochina. This voyage would open to Roussel a world of oriental culture and art, which became one of the later sources for his musical inspiration. He went back to sea on a number of occasions and on one of these trips would compose his first work – Fantaisie for violin and piano. In 1894, following an illness he took three months’ leave, and then decided to resign his commission.  First he spent a little time at Roubaix back in the Lille area, where he took up his first musical studying under one Julien Koszul. It was he who had convinced Roussel to leave the Navy and pursue a life in music. Thus it was that in October of that year Roussel settled in Paris and resumed his organ studies. Next after being played at the Opera, landing an organ loft in a sought after church was a strong French tradition. Gounod, Saint Saens, Fauré and Franck had all been there.

Roussel was already 25 when he set out on this course and approaching 30 by the time he gained a place in 1898 to study at the Schola Cantorum where he received tuition from its co-founder, Vincent d’Indy.  He continued student studies as a student until 1907, by which time he was 38 years old, and although the term was not yet in the public domain, he could well have been described as a mature student.  During that period, he also was allowed to act as a tutor at the Schola with his own class in counterpoint, starting in 1902 and continuing through to 1914. Among his students were Erik Satie and Edgar Varèse. The Schola Cantorum which had opened as a rival to the Paris Conservatoire was founded in 1894 by D’Indy and a band of other disciples of the late César Franck . D’Indy set the curriculum, based on the study of late baroque and early classical works, Gregorian chant, and renaissance polyphony. A solid grounding in technique was given pride of place in priority to originality.

This leads up to the writing by Roussel of his First Symphony between 1904 and 1906, given the title of the Poem of the Forest.  He had written just a few chamber works in the preceding year or two and one orchestral work given the title of “Resurrection, after Tolstoy”. La Forêt was written to the background that here we were at the beginning of a new century where impressionism, art nouveau and arts and crafts were all at the fore and a French answer to Germanic romanticism. Its flag bearer was Debussy.  Although the movement was opposed by D’Indy in favour of formal classical training, he also came under the influence of impressionism notwithstanding.  D’Indy was actually writing his symphony, Jour d’Été à la Montagne in 1905, at the same time as Debussy was writing his masterpiece, La Mer. Roussel had started out writing the Soir d’été which would become the slow movement of Le Foret, before both of the others.  All three whilst resorting to impressionism were expressing it differently. 

So 1905 was awash with Debussy writing about the sea, which he had scarcely seen until crossing to Jersey and then from Jersey to Eastbourne; D’Indy writing about French mountains and mountain airs; and Roussel who had been a professional seaman writing not about the sea but about forests and dryads.  You cannot possibly mistake one for the other. I would say that this particular brand of impressionism by Roussel is more redolent of early Delius, rather than of Debussy.

The work did not start off life with the intention of being a symphony. Soir d’été was a single atmospheric   piece.  Roussel wanted to extend it with a movement to represent spring to precede to which he attributed its literary name of “Renouveau” (renewal), very much the centre piece of the whole work.  This would be preceded yet again by winter as a shortish prologue intended to start the complete work.  These three movements constitute Part 1 with autumn as its Part 2 to follow ending with a slow down back to winter to complete the cycle. Autumn to my ears does not sound particularly autumnal, not that autumn can have a sound.  Still you usually know it when you hear it. Elgar’s cello concerto is what one might describe as autumnal as is the third movement of the Brahms clarinet quintet. Roussel chooses to add naiads and dryads to the movement which is a little scherzoid and adds a touch of energy which is a touch indicative of the later Roussel.  Only when it was complete did Roussel entitle the work “The Poem of the Forest – Symphony”, later, after his second was written, to be Symphony number 1.

Chronologically one usually starts a cycle of seasons with Spring and ends with winter.  Here it starts with winter and ends with autumn.  Not so unusual perhaps when one realizes that Glazunov’s ballet, The Seasons, completed in 1900, itself also started with winter and ends with autumn.

Le Forêt received its first performance in 1908, the year Roussel married Blanche Preisach. The following year, they travelled to India and Indo-China on a delayed honeymoon where he learned of the legend of the queen Padmâvatî, It would not be until after the war that he came to return to the subject for his opera-ballet  Padmâvatî, set in Mogul India when Roussel began to find his own individual voice and technique.

From 1909 to the outbreak of the first world war Roussel would have been aware of the great changes taking place in the musical centre of Paris with Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes. The war brought that period all to an end.  Roussel, now 45, sought to re-enlist in the navy but was turned down because of his eyesight.  Instead he joined an artillery unit and got seconded to be an ambulance driver, as was Ravel.

With the end of the war, there would be difficulty for him in picking up where he left off before.  In 1919 he started out on composing a second symphony which would be his longest and gloomiest. It is searching a new path, more classical in shape. Gone is the world of impressionism. His first had not set out to be a symphony. This one does. It harps back to Franck and at the same time forward to the two great Roussel symphonies to follow ten year later. It contains a programme based on life, its early ardours, the emotions of middle age and the sufferings to follow. At my age that’s enough to make anyone as miserable as sin to contemplate. It contains a tremendous store of pent up energy and a scherzo, this time, without naiads or dryads.

It is pertinent to take a look, as Matthew has already, at the lack of any French symphonic tradition compared to that of the Austro-Germans. The first great French symphony was undoubtedly Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (1830), the first great programme symphony, yet, despite its dramatic episodes, classical in form. His other symphonies merit the name but are something else at the same time.  Harold in Italy is a symphony but also has the characteristics of a viola concerto; Romeo and Juliet is a symphony but also a great musical panoply at the same time, and the Symphonie Funêbre et Marche Triomphale is processional best played by the Garde Républicaine en masse.  Georges Onslow was a hairs breath behind Berlioz producing four symphonies between 1831 and 1840 but they owe more to the previous generation.  Nineteenth century France was not otherwise interested in the symphony.  The Bizet symphony in C justifies its charm as a Beecham lollipop but it hardly more advanced than early Schubert of forty years earlier. Saint-Säens wrote five but only the organ symphony ever gets played. The mainstream French composers of the Belle Époque had but one objective, to be played at the opera.  Franck, who chose not the opera but the organ loft, eventually produced his one symphony, a master piece, in 1889 and but for a fatal collision with a horse drawn tram in 1890 might have written more. Chausson, the following year, had a stab attempting to follow suit. A rarely played symphony is that by Paul Dukas, Franckian in style, comes highly recommended and deserves more airing.  La Mer by Debussy was described by him as three symphonic seascapes. Yet he found the term, symphony, too loaded.  Whilst it definitely contains motifs which get developed and a two note theme that permeates the first and last movements, its attraction is the descriptive sonic sea, its dancing waves, its onomatopoeic burblings, its howling winds which render it not quite a symphony exactly but a superb canvas fit to make anyone suffer from sea sickness.  It is against this background that Roussel, little known, was producing a real symphonic cycle in the wake of Debussy.

By this time he had resumed living in Paris but he also bought a summer house in Normandy where he spent much of his time in composing. He was like many others seeking a new direction to his music but not for him the fun and games of Les Six.  The serious side of Roussel came to the fore aided and abetted by the training he had received from Schola Cantorum with its emphasis on rigorous academic models such as Palestrina and Bach. He was moving towards a powerful muscular classicism based on discipline and form and not the dolled up neo-classicism of the tongue in cheek Stravinsky variety. While his early work was strongly influenced by impressionism, he eventually arrived at a personal style which was more formal in design, with a strong rhythmic drive, and with a more distinct affinity for functional tonality between movements than is found in the work of his more famous contemporaries.  Here, although completely different in aim and method, was an awareness to key relationships more akin to Nielsen.

It was during this late period that Roussel wrote his most important works. There were the ballets Le Festin de l’Araignée, Bacchus et Ariane, and Aeneas, the Third and Fourth symphonies, and his Suite in F. His music was not sensuous as was that of Debussy or Ravel but contained the motoric energy with the sensation of being on a whirling roundabout which you cannot get off of. This was music of immense power and perhaps he can best be likened to the one serious member of Les Six, Honegger, whose own second and third symphonies have something of the same power.

His third and fourth symphonies brought Roussel into the international spotlight, both written for  the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the third in 1930 and the fourth a year later.  They are classical in their concision, motoric in energy and contemporary in outlook. They are full of unexpected changes of character and piquant harmonies. They sound spontaneous but are the result of painstaking craftsmanship. 

As with 1934 in England which saw the deaths of Elgar, Holst and Delius within three months, so it was in 1937 in France which saw the deaths of Gabriel Pierné (composer and conductor), Ravel and Albert Roussel (seaman and conductor).

Roussel’s music may not be as popular as that of some of his more renowned French contemporaries. Perhaps it is an acquired taste. But it is a taste worth acquiring.