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.