Les Six

As a little-heard work by the exponential French group of composers Les Six appears, Michael Oliver explores the philosophy behind these forward-thinkers, most of which was provided by the writer Jean Cocteau.

The subtitle of Jean Cocteau’s Le Coq et l’Arlequin is ‘Notes about music, 1918’. It’s less a book than a pamphlet, more a collection of slogans than either, and for a brief, hectic period it was enthusiastically taken up as a manifesto. The 1914-18 war was over, an era and a way of life had ended, and as though to symbolise the fact Degas had died in 1917, Debussy in 1918. So Impressionism was over and done with too. ‘Enough of mists, waves, aquariums, water-nymphs and perfumes of the night! We need a music of the earth, an everyday music.’ And enough of the heavy, drowsy, interminable music of the composer who was worshipped in the country whose armies had just been driven out of France: ‘Wagner’s works are long because that old God thought boredom a useful drug to befuddle the faithful.’

Rejecting the ‘bastard art’
So: a new aesthetic for a new world. An aesthetic rooted in the music hall, the circus and in jazz and, not least, in the apparently banal simplicities of Erik Satie: ‘Satie teaches the most audacious lesson of our epoch, to be simple. Wagner, Stravinsky and even Debussy are beautiful octopuses: he who approaches them runs the danger of entanglement in their tentacles. Satie points to an untrodden road upon which anyone may leave his own footprints.’ Simplicity, then, directness and brevity. Away with long-windedness, grandiose oratory, rich orchestration and elaborate ornament: less is more. ‘The poet has always too many words in his vocabulary, the painter too many colours on his palette, the composer too many notes on his keyboard.’ And away, finally, with French composers following foreign fashions: ‘Russian-French music or German-French music, even if inspired by a Mussorgsky, a Stravinsky, a Wagner or a Shoenberg, is inevitably a bastard art. From France I demand French music.’

French renaissance or simply vulgar?
There were six of them (admittedly one was Swiss), and they were soon lumped together as Cocteau’s ‘school’: Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre. To the critic who dubbed them Les Six, ‘their splendid decision to return to simplicity has brought about a renaissance of French music.’ To others, their music of the streets, of café-concerts and of dance-halls seemed flippant and vulgar. And since after a very short while they went their own ways, no longer regarding themselves as a group, the music they wrote under the self-appointed ‘managership’ of Cocteau is often written off as (at best) a light-hearted interlude in the history of music, at worst mere trivia.

After all, one of the works they all revered and took as a model was Erik Satie’s 1917 ballet Parade (to a scenario by Jean Cocteau, who else?). Its plot is derived almost wholly from the clichés of silent cinema, the circus and the music hall, and its music features ragtime, cakewalk and the sounds of a typewriter and a revolver. Who could possibly take such stuff seriously? To make matters worse, on the one big occasion when Les Six got together to produce a work that demonstrated the values they stood for, they produced what looks almost like a carbon copy of Parade. Les mariés de la tour Eiffel (The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower) has the same sort of ‘popular’ setting (a lower middle-class wedding reception: in Parade it was a street circus) and the same sort of crazily illogical plot. In Parade three ‘managers’, almost hidden in vast cubist structures by Picasso, tried to persuade the audience to view their circus side-shows; in Les mariés, an enormous camera is wheeled on to photograph the wedding guests, but from it emerge, one after the other, an ostrich, a bathing beauty, a fat boy who murders the guests with ping-pong balls and a lion, which devours a General. It even has the same sort of music: a breezy polka, a mock-serious funeral march, a set of quadrilles from a suburban dance-hall, a collection of waltz clichés. Yes, it is flippant. The respectable audience, thinking its leg was being pulled, was outraged. These irritatingly smart young men had gone a step too far. ‘Knowing how far one can go too far is to be audacious… tactfully. Whenever a work seems in advance of its time it is simply that its time is behind it.’

But Satie and Les Six were making a very serious point: a point so serious it can only be made flippantly. The everyday, the ordinary, what we dismiss as banal or as ‘low’ art has its own poetry, a cause taken up by the Dadaists and their urinals. (Poulenc, nostalgically describing in one of his songs the portable ballrooms that used to be a feature of village fêtes in his part of France, hoped his scoring would conjure up the evocative odour of ‘Sunday after-shave’.) There are some parts of our consciousness that cannot be reached by great music. ‘Music is not always a gondola, a race-horse or a tight-rope. It is also sometimes a chair.’

They did not all go on making chairs. Durey, a convinced communist, soon left the group. Honegger was, so to speak, never a fully paid-up member: he had a taste for big, public statements and for Wagner (and besides, he was Swiss). Auric made a distinguished career as a film composer. Tailleferre went on writing music of typically French, not too serious elegance. Milhaud became the most prolific composer of the century; some of his liveliest music is rooted in a genuine appreciation of jazz and of the carnival music he experienced in Brazil. And Poulenc, despite composing deeply-felt religious music, retained his elegant wit and his love of everyday poetry. In his music, he said, you can see the busy rue de Grenelle, hear the sound of the accordion, smell pommes frites and cheap perfume. And he manages to evoke these things very precisely in a song or a piano piece a mere two minutes long. In all these ways he remained one of Les Six, embodying the fact that there are works whose entire importance lies in their depth; their length is of little consequence.

Classic CD magazine, 1996


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