Les Six & the Sixth

March 23, 2011 at 10:04 am | Posted in Composers, Concerts, History | Leave a comment

This Sunday afternoon, the IWS will present a concert titled “Les Six & the Sixth” that features France’s “Les Six” (or Groupe des six) composers. Perhaps you’ve heard of “The Five,” a group of five Russian composers who met in St. Petersburg to try to create a specific form of Russian art music. (Can you name The Five without looking? Answers at the end.) Les Six was so named in 1920 as a comparison to The Five by music critic Henri Collet.

Though these six composers had disparate musical backgrounds, tastes, and expectations, they were joined by a reaction against German Romanticism, at least in the beginning. They were also friends and frequent collaborators. All six officially collaborated on only one project, a collection of solo piano music called L’album des six, published in 1920.

Here, then, is some brief background information for each of Les Six composers, whose music you can hear this Sunday at 3:00 at the Palladium in Carmel, Indiana. You’ll also hear what we believe will be the Indiana premiere of James’ Barnes Sixth Symphony, written in 2008.

Georges Auric 1899–1983

Georges Auric was a child prodigy whose compositions were first being published when he was only 15 years old. By the time he was 20, he had established himself as a composer and arranger of stage music, especially ballets and incidental music for other stage productions. When Jean Cocteau, Auric’s friend and one of the major influences of Les Six, started making movies in the early 1930s, Auric went with him and started writing movie scores. His success in French and British films led him to writing movie scores for Hollywood. Some of his more well-known successes were Beauty and the Beast (1946), Moulin Rouge (1952), Roman Holiday (1953), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1956).

In 1962, he became director of the Opéra National de Paris and gave up writing for motion pictures. He continued to produce new chamber works, especially for winds, until his death in 1983.

Louis Durey 1888–1979

Louis Durey was a late bloomer, musically speaking. He didn’t decide to pursue a career in music until he was 19, when he was inspired by a performance of a piece by Claude Debussy. He was mostly self-taught, but his music caught the attention of Maurice Ravel, who introduced him to his publisher. Durey’s extreme left-wing views ultimately held him back from what might otherwise have been a more successful career. After the Nazi occupation of World War II, during which he was an active member of the French Resistance, Durey joined a group of other hard-line communist composers who wrote in accordance with communist doctrines of art, which required their music to be of mass appeal. His uncompromising adherence to these political tenets ultimately hindered his career. Though he composed throughout his life, nothing he wrote after World War II met with either popular or critical success.

Arthur Honegger 1892–1955

Born in Le Havre to Swiss parents, Arthur Honegger’s first foray into music was with the violin. He eventually studied in Paris, joining Les Six in 1920 and shooting into the limelight with his dramatic choral work Le Roi David. Honegger had some eccentric traits about him. A consummate lover of trains, Honegger’s 1923 Pacific 231 was a musical depiction of a locomotive, and it won him even more fame. In 1926, he married pianist Andrée Vaurabourg on condition that they maintain separate apartments; except for one failed attempt at living together and during the last year of Honegger’s life, when he could no longer live alone, this arrangement remained in effect.

Unlike his fellow Les Six friends’, Honegger’s work — especially his later works — showed the influence of German Romanticism, as well as Bachian counterpoint. Honegger was the first of Les Six to die, in 1955; Darius Milhaud dedicated his Fourth String Quartet and Francis Poulenc dedicated his Clarinet Sonata to the memory of Arthur Honegger. Honegger also always maintained his Swiss nationality, and he was honored at the end of the century by being featured on the Swiss 20-franc note.

Darius Milhaud 1892–1974

When Darius Milhaud joined Les Six in 1920, he was still looking for his musical voice. He found to during a trip to Harlem in 1922, when he heard “authentic” jazz for the first time. From that moment on, his music showed the influence of both jazz and polytonality, the simultaneous use of more than one key.

One of the twentieth century’s most prolific composers (his opus listing ends at 443), Milhaud wrote all genres of music, including ballets, operas, symphonies, vocal and choral music, film scores, and chamber music. He was also a well-known and well-respected teacher. The only Jewish composer of Les Six, Milhaud fled the coming Nazi occupation in 1939; he and his wife emigrated to America in 1940, and he took up a teaching position at Mills College in Oakland, California, where he mentored such musical greats as Dave Brubeck, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Burt Bacharach.

Francis Poulenc 1899–1963

Francis Poulenc’s mastery of music was largely self-taught. Though his earlier works during the 1910s gained the attention of Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Bartok, and others, he didn’t get his first taste of formal musical training until 1921, the year after Les Six was created. Throughout the 20s, his early work was marked by a musical irreverence common among Les Six. During the mid-30s, following the unexpected deaths of some close friends, he rediscovered his Roman Catholic faith, his compositions in turn became more austere, and he began writing more sacred works.

Poulenc had a lifelong fondness for wind instruments. He had intended to write a sonata for each of them but, alas, had finished only four — for flute, oboe, clarinet, and horn — when he died of a heart attack in 1963.

Germaine Tailleferre 1892–1983

The only woman in Les Six, Germaine Tailleferre was born Marcelle Taillefesse but changed her name when she was young to spite her father, who refused to support her musical aspirations. Tailleferre was a prolific composer, though just how prolific we may never know. Many of her works are considered lost, but some — like her dramatic ode “Sous les Rempart d’Athànes” and her ballet “La Nouvelle Cythère” — have been discovered in partial or condensed score and are currently being reorchestrated and revived, mostly through the work of Tailleferre scholar Paul Wehage.

Though her turbulent personal life — which included two failed marriages and taking guardianship of her granddaughter — hampered her success as a composer, she did continue composing right up until her death on November 7, 1983.

Which of Les Six composers do you enjoy playing or listening to most?

Answer: The Russian Five were Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and Cui.
Posted by Andy Hollandbeck

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