Counterpoint Series

Paris Between the Wars: Les Six


A friend and I talk from time to time about places we'd like to visit-but with a twist. We get to travel not just through space, but also backward in time. So we've discussed L.A. in the Forties and San Francisco in the Sixties, maybe Greece in the Thirties. You get the idea.

But Larry is firm about Paris between the wars, and I think he's right. So right, in fact, that I'm one-upping him by suggesting specific evenings for our tour, with appropriate musical accompaniment.

The music I have in mind is Les Six (pronounced, my French-speaking friends remind me, as lay-sees): Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre. These six young composers enjoyed the sponsorship of that cultural jacques of all trades, Jean Cocteau, but their patron saint was the arch-eccentric Erik Satie.

The group's defining moment came on May 18, 1917, at the premiere of Parade, a ballet put together by a virtual who's who of the avant-garde. Cocteau was responsible for the scenario, Pablo Picasso for the sets and costumes, Leonide Massine for the choreography, and Satie for the music. Besides your mundane violins and such, Satie's intentionally disjointed score called for a roulette wheel, a siren and a typewriter.

The near-riot that ensued endeared Satie to his younger admirers, one of whom was Poulenc. The six were not yet Les Six, but if we were to choose the first work typical of the nascent group, it would probably be Poulenc's Rapsodie nègre, which the shy young man premiered on the evening of December 11, 1917. Poulenc attributed the text to one "Makoko Kangourou," but it was he himself who was responsible for such lyrics as "Honoloulou, poti lama!/Honoloulou, Honoloulou." Critic Henri Collet dubbed Les Six in mid-January 1920. The young composers obligingly staged Concerts des Six and published a collection of piano pieces, making it possible to distinguish traits they seemed to share. They rejected what they regarded as the dead weight of the Germanic musical tradition as well as the dreamy romanticism of Frenchman Claude Debussy. Les Six loved jazz and machines, the music hall and the circus. What they had to say, they would say with brevity and wit.

On June 18, 1921, five members of Les Six staged their own Parade-esque spectacle, Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel (The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower), to a scenario by Cocteau. And just what was this "ballet" about, Monsieur Cocteau? "Sunday vacuity; human beastliness, ready-made expressions, disassociation of ideas from flesh and bone, ferocity of childhood, the miraculous poetry of everyday life."

To my ear, the masterpieces of this period belong to the genial Milhaud. Having spent time in Brazil, he worked a medley of that country's popular dances into Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof, 1920), for which Cocteau provided a typically dizzy scenario. Milhaud had also listened to a jazz band in Harlem, and used the same instruments in his sinuous and sensuous La Création du monde (The Creation of the World, 1923), for which famous poet Paul Claudel provided the scenario.

The year of 1923 also saw the premiere of Honegger's perennially popular Pacific 231, a bustling musical description of a locomotive that was to overshadow everything else he wrote.

Like one of those Parisian intersections where a dozen streets meet in a mad traffic circle, Les Six had quite a spin before going their separate ways. But it was a quick spin. Unable to contribute to Les Mariés, Durey subsequently devoted his gentle talents, musical and otherwise, to the cause of communism. Tailleferre, the only female member of the group, continued to compose, but in a passionate vein out of keeping with the group's ostensible program. Auric went on to write some of the finest film music of his generation, including the score to Cocteau's magical masterpiece, Orpheus (1949). Honegger would produce a series of austerely beautiful symphonies and choral pieces, while Milhaud turned out hundreds of sunny works, becoming one of the most prolific composers of the century.

Of the original six musketeers, Poulenc remained truest to the divine nonsense of those early days, and in Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias, 1947) he composed a surreal transsexual farce that defies coherent summary. But that same year he was to write a somewhat different work, at once grave and gay, solemn and insouciant. Poulenc's largest orchestral piece, the Sinfonietta, wears its heart on its sleeve, and, I can't help thinking, bids fond adieu to the golden age he had shared with so many friends.