Category Archives: Composers

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.

Kodaly (from Music Deco)

ZOLTAN KODALY (1882 – 1967)

The aim of these biographical synopses by me is to sketch in something of the life of the composer in question without treading on Matthew’s toes in that his primary preoccupation is to open up to us the music.  Of course, he does tell us about the composer and I sometimes stray to talk about the music but in general the division works well.  I reckon I get the better deal because I do not need to touch upon modulations and augmented fourths and the like.  Our composers usually have some interesting titbits about them tucked away which might take your fancy. Others – César Franck for example –  are impeccably well behaved, never travel anywhere and leave me with no juicy bits to tell. Zoltan Kodaly seems to be one of the latter.

Kodaly, pronounced “Coe” as in Sebastian, and “Dye” as in change of colour, is best known for a handful of works, in particular, the suite “Hary Janos” and some other works from the 1930’s of ethnic Hungarian basis. He was born in Hungary in 1882, the same year as Stravinsky. Apart from a short period of study in Paris, he never moved away from Hungary although there were times when Hungary moved away from him and he found where he had previously lived had become Slovakia. His early interests leaned more towards literary studies than to music. His father was a railway official which meant the family moving on from time to time. From when he was two to when he was nine the Kodaly’s lived in Galánta, a name best known from the dances he wrote later on based on folk music from the region. Later he moved to an area, now part of Slovakia, where Kodaly studied violin and piano and sang in the cathedral choir. He familiarised himself from scores in the cathedral music library. To make up the numbers for his father’s quartet-soirées he went and taught himself the cello. By the time he was fifteen he was already composing for the school orchestra who played an overture of his, followed a year later by a mass he wrote for chorus and orchestra.

In 1900, Kodály studied modern languages at university in Budapest, but music began to exert its pull and he set out to undertake the serious study of folk tales, becoming one of the most significant early figures in the field of ethnomusicology – (what an awful word). In 1905 he visited remote villages to collect songs which he obtained from older country folk, recording them on phonograph cylinders. In 1906 he enrolled at the Academy of Music in 1906, completing a thesis entitled: “The Strophic Structure of Hungarian Folk-Songs” – it remains on my reading list.  Around this time Kodály met Béla Bartók, whom he took under his wing and introduced to some of the methods involved in folk song collation. The two became lifelong friends and champions of each other’s music.

He began composing prolifically and his interest in Hungarian folk songs took him and often Bartok also on various trips to the Hungarian interior, where they collected folk songs which they published. What they produced were modes and scales of Hungarian music, authentic and not previously known, unlike Liszt for example whose Hungarian Rhapsodies were a somewhat romantic attempt to reproduce Hungarian gypsy music which had more in common with the café pavements than archaeological efforts to preserve Magyar culture.

After gaining his doctorate in philosophy and linguistics, Kodály went to Paris in 1906 where he studied with Charles Widor and discovered the music of Debussy and other impressionists. On his return to Budapest the following year he was appointed a professor at the prestigious Franz Liszt Academy where he taught music theory and composition. He was to teach there for most of his life, retiring at age 60 in 1942 but returning there as the Director of the Academy in 1945. Whatever political leanings he might have had, his music career spanned from the Hapsburg years before the first world war through the post Versailles period with Hungary independent and the fascist takeover in the late thirties which Bartok but not  Kodály escaped, to the post 1945 Communist takeover and the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and beyond.

Returning to his early years following his appointment to the Franz Liszt Academy he got married in 1910 to Emma Gruber, a talented pianist and folk song collector and whose salon was visited by many a composer trying out his early works. She first got to know Bartok who valued her friendship and introduced her to Kodály and it seems it might have been a Jules and Jim relationship.  Anyway it was Kodály who got his woman who divorced her banker husband, Henrik Gruber and became a soul mate to Kodály sharing their mutual love for music and folk song collection. She was twenty years his senior and they enjoyed a happy marriage lasting 48 years until her death aged 95.

Back in the pre-first world war days, it took some time for him in getting known and then making headway outside of his own country, not helped then either by the outbreak of a world war nor because of his lack of pushing himself forward.  He did however continue with his folksong researches throughout the war. He had composed throughout this time, producing two string quartets, a sonata for cello and piano and a sonata for solo cello solo. These works show originality of form and content and  a blend of style of music, including classical, late-romantic, and also both impressionistic and modernist tradition coupled at the same time with a deep knowledge of Hungarian folk music and that of other Eastern European countries.

His first big public success came in 1923 with the first performance of his Psalmus Hungaricus, a powerful setting of a sixteenth-century Hungarian version of Psalm 55.  This, like Bartók’s Dance Suite premiered on the same occasion, was written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the union of the two towns of Buda and Pest, each on the other side of the river from the other. Following his emergence, Kodály travelled throughout Europe to conduct his music which established him both as a national cultural leader, and now a figure of international standing.

His reputation was enhanced by his opera, Háry János  written in 1926.  The best way a composer might get his opera music known to a larger audience is to set it as a concert suite, as did Prokofiev. It worked wonders also for Kodály with Hary Janos which has always been universally popular. It is often compared to Lieutenant Kijé by Prokofiev. Both are stories of soldiers.  In the case of Kijé, the hero never existed at all but had to be invented to cover up for a mistake uttered by the Tsar. A tsar could not make mistakes.  Hary contains whoppers told by a veteran hussar. Kodály  himself wrote “According to Hungarian superstition, if a statement is followed by a sneeze by one of the listeners, it is to be taken as confirmation of its truth.” So the whole shebang starts off with a gigantic orchestral sneeze which means the story including how Hary took on Napoleon single handed and had him begging for mercy has to be true. Kodaly also introduces a cimbalom, a dulcimer Hungarian instrument, rather like a zither but with little hammers instead of being plucked.  Interestingly Debussy used it back in 1910 for a piece called “La Plus Que Lente” which is always played on the piano, there presumably being a dearth of cimbalom players, but I am lucky enough to have a recording of it on cimbalom played by Aldo Ciccolini.

The 1930’s may have been the Depression for some but Kodály blossomed out starting with the Dances of Marosszék (1930) and dedicated to Toscanini; the Dances of Galánta (1933), all presenting an authentic Hungarian national idiom in a manner that allowed it international popularity. His other orchestral works include the ‘Peacock Variations’, sub-titled Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song (1938–39);  a Concerto for Orchestra (1939–40).  Now, as it happens, Bartok wrote his well known Concerto for Orchestra in 1943 and much has been written as to the originality of its name. No-one seems to comment that his great friend had already written a work with this title. Much later, in 1957–61, Kodaly wrote a symphony. Among his choral-orchestral are his Te Deum of 1936 and the Missa Brevis written 1942–44.

Kodály became absorbed in the problems of music education in general, writing a large amount of material on music in education and composing a large amount of music for children. In 1935 he embarked on a project to reform music teaching in schools. His work included several highly influential books which had a profound impact on musical education both inside and outside his home country. This led in the 1940’s to what became known as the “Kodály Method” and is still in use today.

A year after Emma’s death in 1958, Kodály, now aged 75 married Sarolta Péczely, his 19-year-old godchild and student of his at the Academy of Music.  This was a new lease of life in which he lived happily until his death in in Budapest 1967 at the age of 84. He died one of the most respected figures in the Hungarian arts and dare I say satisfied to boot? Hold on. Did I say “with no juicy bits to tell”?