The Music of LES SIX

Venue: Theatre, Hong Kong City Hall
Date: 6 May 2016, 8PM
An associated project of Le French May.

Les Six: The Enfant Terribles of the Inter-War Years

In a series of concerts hosted by the French soprano Jane Bathori in 1917, a group of six protégés of Erik Satie began to make their names in the Parisian circle. The individual composers, who were branded as ‘Nouveaux Jeunes’ by their mentor (bon maître as they called him), came from a diverse background.

Georges Auric and Germaine Tailleferre were child prodigies who had shown excellent potential in a career in music. Darius Milhaud, coming from a Jewish family was a violinist turned composer. Arthur Honegger, born to Swiss émigré parents was also a violinist who found his true calling in composition. The four met in 1913 in Georges Caussade’s counterpoint class at the Paris Conservatoire, and forged a lifelong bond in music and in life. The remaining two were Louis Durey and Francis Poulenc, the eldest and youngest of the group. These two were largely self-taught composers and they were complete opposite to one and other – Poulenc being the extrovert and Durey the introvert, yet they shared the same sense of duty in politics.

Through Satie’s connection, the six composers were exposed to the avant-garde ‘glitterati’, spending their time in the company of up-and-coming pianists, singers, painters and writers of Paris. Among them, the aesthete-socialite Jean Cocteau took a special interest in the group. Cocteau was outspoken about his reaction against the overripe German Romanticism and the vagueness of Debussy’s style. Noting a similar enthusiasm in ‘breaking the rules’ among his entourage, Cocteau become the self-appointed spokesman of the six composers. The group was officially christened as Les Six by the art critic Henri Collet in a concert review on January 16, 1920.

Nevertheless, the group was rather short-lived. Or to put it more precisely, it had doomed before it even bloomed. After their only collaboration in 1919, Durey withdrew from the group because of mounting tension from temperamental and artistic differences with Cocteau. Honegger was the next to leave the group, despite his initial appreciation of Cocteau’s ideas. The onset of WWII further divided the remaining members: Milhaud fled to the United States and taught at Mills College. Tailleferre also escaped to the east coast of America only to return in 1946, by which time Les Six was something of a bygone era.

Despite the many changes, the composers themselves maintained their bonds, finding support and solace in each other in times of crises. Tonight’s programme is a celebration of the diversity of the six composers, featuring three genres that they had all composed for: piano works, French melodies and the trio d’aches.


L’Album Le Six (1920)
Georges Auric: Prélude
Durey: Romance sans paroles, Op. 21
Honegger: Sarabande
Milhaud: Mazurka
Poulenc: Valse
Tailleferre: Pastorale

Helen Cha & Amy Sze, piano solos

Despite the publicity engineered by Cocteau and Collet, all six members of the group were involved on a single occasion only. The collaboration took place in 1920, yielding to a collection of six piano miniatures.

The collection comprises individual works dated from 1914 to 1919. Auric’s light-hearted Prélude was dedicated to a certain General Clapier. The fictitious character is caricatured by the obsessive bugle-call figure and a mocking allusion to Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair).

Durey’s pensive Romance sans paroles and Honegger’s Sarabande were rather remote from Cocteau’s ideals of clarity and accessibility. The dark-hued harmonies bring to mind Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral). This perhaps explains why the music was dedicated to Ricardo Viñes, an expert of the piano music of Debussy and Ravel. In his ominous Sarabande, Honegger included subtle stylistic references to Baroque music. Nevertheless, the work strikes an uncanny resemblance to Debussy’s Sarabande on first hearing.

Although Milhaud did not indicate the dedicatee of his Mazurka, it could have been Arthur Rubinstein for two reasons: the two musicians became close friends since their chance meeting in Brazil, and, Rubinstein was renowned for his interpretation of Chopin’s music. Milhaud’s miniature is a nod to the slow mazurkas of Chopin, while bearing the imprint of the avant-garde style with modal melodies and unresolved dissonances.

Poulenc’s Valse, dedicated to Micheline Soulé (to whom the related to his childhood friend Jacques Soulé was related), is far removed from the world of Montmartre. The sound of hurdy-gurdy and the gauche melody find themselves in an unfamiliar milieu here. Finally, Tailleferre’s playful Pastorale, dedicated to Milhaud, frolics along in a series of changing meter. The charming music ends with a tickling dissonant note nonetheless.

Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963)
Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, FP43 (1926)

I. Lent – Presto
II. Andante con moto
III. Rondo: Très vif

Rachel Wong, oboe; Leung Tak Wing, bassoon; Amy Sze, piano

Poulenc completed his Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano in 1926. It was dedicated to the Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla, whom Poulenc had met at the house of his teacher Ricardo Vines in 1918.

The Trio was particularly important to Poulenc as it represented the composer’s first success in the chamber music. In fact, Poulenc had often mentioned his Trio in correspondences with his acquaintances. According to the composer, “the first movement follows the plan of a Haydn allegro, and the final rondo takes after the cut of scherzo in Saint-Saens’s Second Piano concerto. Ravel always counseled me to use this method, which he often followed himself.” Although the composer left no hint of his inspiration for the slow movement, the quasi-Alberti bass in the piano introduction and the highly vocal writing for the oboe and bassoon was a thinly veiled homage to Mozart. The premiere took place in an Auric-Poulenc concert in 1926. The ensemble included oboist Roland Lamorlette, bassoonist Gustave Dhérin and Poulenc at the piano.

Melodies par Les Six

Arthur Honegger: “Automne” from 6 Poèmes d’Apollinaire (1917)
Germaine Tailleferre: “Souvent un air de vérité” from 6 Chansons Françaises (1929)
Georges Auric: “Bateau” from Alphabet, 7 Quatrains de Raymond Radiguet (1920)
Louis Durey: “La Sauterelle”, “La Puce” from Le Bestiaire, Op.17a (1919)
Francis Poulenc: Les chemins de l’amour (1940)

Jessica Ng, soprano; Alexander Wong, piano

The theme of Tailleferre’s song cycle extols the subject of love for women based on ancient texts, with each song being dedicated to one of her female friends. “Souvent un air de vérité” is the second of the six songs, set to the text of Voltaire. The sweet-sounding melody floats over a gently rocking accompaniment. It is a clever declaration of love disguised as a lullaby.

The collection of quatrains making up Apollinaire’s Bestiaire, illustrated by Dufy’s woodcuts, fascinated many composers, among them Durey and Poulenc. The coincidence of the two composers producing their songs cycles on the same subject in the same year resulted in a life-long bond with them. From Durey’s complete setting (26 songs in total), “La Sauterelle” has the charm of a folk song whereas “La Puce” conveys a sense of dark humour.

Apollinaire’s text became the inspiration for Honegger’s song cycle. The text was extracted from Apollinaire’s collection of poems, published as Alcools in 1913. The introduction conjures up the image of a foggy winter day. The voice portrays the narrator and the subject of the poem, fading in and out of the ambiance created by the piano.

Auric’s songs, with the exception of “Where is your heart?” from Moulin Rouge (there is in fact a Cantonese cover of the song from the 1960s), are largely unknown today. “Bateau” is a delightful little song under a minute long. The first bars are evident of the composer’s expertise with the popular idiom.

Poulenc was the most prolific composer among Les Six, boasting over 150 songs under his name. “Les chemins de l’amour” was written for the singer-actress, Yvonne Printemps (1894-1977). This bitter-sweet “valse chantée” contains the fragrant of café music and it has become a favorite encore by soprano or mezzo-sopranos alike.

Georges Auric (1899 – 1983)
Trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon (1938)

I. Decide
II. Romance
III. Finale

Rachel Wong, oboe; Johnny Fong, clarinet; Leung Tak Wing, bassoon

The Trio for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon was written in 1938. The first movement opens with a breezy, playful theme which is tossed from one instrument to another. The momentum is checked by a brief repose via a harmonious interlude, which is in fact a pretext for the return of the opening music.

The second movement pits one instrument against the other two throughout. The music conveys a sense of bucolic serenity, which stands in sharp contrast to the last movement.

In the finale, the heady waltz twirls and whirls before knocking itself over. With a restraint interlude, the waltz resumes its glee, with a hint of restraint. Just as you think the music is gradually winding down, the giddiness waltz returns one last time for the final curtsy.

Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983)
Jeux de Plein Air (1917)

I. La Tirelitentaine
II. Cache-cache mitoula

Helen Cha, Amy Sze, piano duo

In 1917, Eric Satie overheard Tailleferre rehearing her Jeux de Plein Air with Marcelle Meyer. The veteran composer was extremely pleased and affectionately addressed Tailleferre as his “fille musicale”. Since then, Tailleferre’s became a prized addition to Satie’s ‘Nouveaux Jeunes’.

Jeux de Plein Air consisted of two movements. It was dedicated to two gifted pianists: Marcelle Meyer (1897-1958) and Juliette Meerovitch. The title of the first movement refers to an ancient card game. However, according to Tailleferre, the music is an aubade in nature. The final bars leads to an interrupted cadence, hinting at astonishment rather than shock. The second movement conveys a sense of joie-de-vivre typical of Tailleferre. Beneath the ebullient surface lies a well-balanced two-part structure and a masterly treatment of thematic materials. The nonchalant juxtaposition of a diminished chord against the open fifth at the end is another ingenious stroke of Tailleferre’s. The composition was later orchestrated and performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitsky in 1926.

Louis Durey (1888-1979)
Divertissement for oboe, clarinet & bassoon, Op.107 (1967)

I. Animé
II. Lento
III. Très animé

Rachel Wong, oboe; Johnny Fong, clarinet; Leung Tak Wing, bassoon

The Divertissement for oboe, clarinet & bassoon was written in 1967, when Durey was 97 years old. It was the only piece the composer wrote for trio d’anches (a trio comprising of only reed instruments).

The first movement begins with a nostalgic melody heard on the solo clarinet, repeated by the oboe and bassoon. The agitated middle section pits the oboe against the clarinet and bassoon. This soon gives way to a declamatory tutti passage. Lastly, the solo bassoon heralds the last section of the movement

The second movement opens with a plaintive oboe melody over a persistent drone played by the bassoon, and later by the clarinet. The entire movement shows an exemplar balance between unaffected simplicity and finely wrought counterpoint.

The third movement erupts amid boisterous trills and a jaunty fanfare motive. The middle section is a clever display of the distinctive timbre of the three reed instruments. The movement concludes with an archaic sounding chordal passage, evoking the austere harmonies from the Renaissance.

Georges Auric (1899 -1983)
Partita for two pianos (1953-1955)

Helen Cha, Amy Sze, piano duo

Unlike his fellow members of Les Six, Auric left behind a small repertory of solo piano pieces and an even smaller number works. Among these are the short and sweet Cinq bagatelles (1926), the sophisticated Une Valse pour deux pianos (1949), as well as the Partita, an often neglected tour de force by the composer.

Auric’s Partita was a tribute to the technically demanding genre of the solo partita as well as Johann Sebastian Bach, who had perfected its scope, form and content.

The work was dedicated to A.M. Cassandre (known by his real name as Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron), a Ukrainian-French graphic designer who was best known for his travel advertisement posters and the logo of Yves Saint Laurent.

The first movement begins with a short-breathed and highly articulated introduction, which Auric followed with allusions to circus music, jazz, avant-garde, even the hallmarks of Stravinsky and Ravel! The second movement is in ternary form. The music reveals a hybrid of blues, funeral march and a hint of Satie’s Gymnopédies. The finale shows Auric at his best: the opening theme permeates the movement in various guises, much in the same vein as a Bachian fugue. The music also contains fleeting reprises of motives from previous movements.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974)
Quatre Chansons de Ronsard, Op.223 (1941)

À une fontaine
À Cupidon
Tay toy, babillarde Arondelle
Dieu vous gard

Jessica Ng, soprano Alexander Wong, piano

Milhaud first set Les Amours de Ronsard, sonnets by Pierre de Ronsard in 1934. Ronsard was an eminent figure of Renaissance France. Seven years later, Milhaud revisited Ronsard’s text to fulfill a commission by the French soprano Lily Pons, who was a sought-after coloratura soprano on roster of the Metropolitan Opera. The outcome was the Quatre Chansons, completed in 1941, Pons premiered the song cycle on December 8, 1941 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Milhaud would later orchestrate the chansons for strings, winds, brass, and percussion with the unusual requirement that the clarinetist shifts to play the saxophone in the second and fourth songs.

The poetry of Ronsard celebrates nature, love, and springtime. Writing with Pon’s vocal attributes in mind, Milhaud’s song cycle is characterized by a consistently high tessitura (reaching up to C5 or above), fluid execution of melisma or vocalises, in addition to deftness in articulation and rhythmic precision.

À une fontaine is a delicate waltz in ternary form. À Cupidon is again in ternary form, but the music conveys an entirely different character. The vocal line floats upon the pulsating accompaniment, hinting at the baffled mind of the reluctant target of the arrow. The boisterous piano introduction of Tais-tois, babillarde curiously resembles Milhaud’s Brazil-inspired compositions. The florid cadenza and the tongue-twister lyrics are brilliant onomatopoeic touches by the composer. Dieu vous gar is a strophic ode to spring and nature, with each stanza dedicated to birds, plants and insects respectively.

Francis Poulenc
Les chemins de l’amour (1940)

Jessica Ng, soprano Alexander Wong, piano

Poulenc was the most prolific composer among Les Six, boasting over 150 songs under his name. ‘Les chemins de l’amour’ was written for the singer-actress, Yvonne Printemps (1894-1977). This bitter-sweet ‘valse chantée’ contains the fragrant of café music and it has become a favorite encore by sopranos or mezzo-sopranos alike.

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955)
Sonatine for Clarinet and Piano, H.42 (1922)

I. Modéré
II. Lent et soutenu
III. Vif et rythmique

Johnny Fung, clarinet Helen Cha, piano

The Sonatine for Clarinet and Piano was premiered in New York by the acclaimed French clarinetist Louis Cahuzac and pianist Jean Wiener in 1923. An alternative version for cello and piano was arranged by the composer himself. In fact, Honegger’s Sonatine was the first of clarinet sonatas written by members of Les Six: Milhaud wrote his rambunctious Sonatine, Op. 100 in 1927, also premiered by Cahuzac. Four decades later, Poulenc completed his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in 1962. The work commissioned and premiered by the legendary Benny Goodman.

The first movement of the Sonatine is in ternary form, framed by a mysterious theme featuring the clarinet. Honegger included a striking fugato passage as the centerpiece of the movement. The second movement unfolds with an austere arching melodic line in progressive wide leaps. The somber atmosphere is undercut by the vibrant third movement. The use of glissandi on the clarinet adds not only the appropriate flare for the finale, it was also Honegger’s evocation of the jazzy clarinet sounds which filled the music halls in the roaring twenties.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974)
Scaramouche, Op.165b for two pianos (1937)

I. Vif
II. Modéré
III. Brazileira: Mouvement de Samba

Helen Cha, Amy Sze, piano duo

Scaramouche is a three-movement suite written for piano four hands. Milhaud also created two alternative versions featuring the clarinet or the saxophone. It was premiered by Marcelle Meyer and Ida Jankelevitch for a performance at the Paris World’s Exposition in the summer of 1937. Milhaud also recorded the piece with Meyer in the following year.

The title takes after the stock character from Italian commedia dell’arte. Scaramouche is often portrayed as a Spanish soldier in masque. The character is known for his dual role as the braggart and the coward. He is also very much a lover instead of a fighter.

This first movement opens with two contrasting themes: a sprightly syncopated theme in octaves and an almost nursery song theme with repeated notes. The second movement suggests a love duet between Scaramouche and his paramour. The idyllic opening theme is reprised in the end, contrasted by a dance-like middle section. The popular third movement, entitled ‘Brazileira,’ bears a striking resemblance to Brejeiro by the Brazilian composer, Ernesto Nazareth. The exotic rhythmic backdrop transports Scaramouche from Italy to Brazil. The middle part provides a brief repose from the exhilarating samba. Here the hushed melody evokes the image of palm trees swaying in the tropical night breeze. Equally striking are the percussive high notes, which bring to mind the tropical sounds of cowbells and steel drums.

Programme notes provided by Jennifer To.


Programme Note

Please refer to the notes embedded in “Programme”.