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.