|Album des Six – A collection of solo piano pieces|
'Les Six' (so named in 1920 by critic Henri Collet) hit the classical music scene with almost the same outrageous force with which the punk movement slammed into popular music in the 1970s and early '80s. It consisted of a group of six composers working in France: Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre and Louis Durey. Their music was largely a reaction against Impressionism and Wagnerism and incorporated the ideas of Satie and Cocteau with the popular styles of the time: French vaudeville, American jazz and café music. The result was a simple blend of sound with more than a dash of whimsical humour, parody and irony. 'Les Six' only formally existed across 1920/21 and its members collaborated in two ventures, the wonderfully surreal divertissement of Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel of 1921 and the miniature Album des Six for piano (1920) featured on this recording.
The popular highlight here is Poulenc's Sonata of 1957, which is now standard repertoire for flautists.
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'Les cinq Russes, les six Français, et Erik Satie’: so it was that in January 1920 Henri Collet, in a spirit of one-upmanship (and possibly short of an idea for his column in the arts journal, Comoedia), mooted the idea of ‘Les Six’. Of course Russian connections (the late nineteenth-century Russian ‘Five’ and beyond) are not inappropriate because however purely some might like to view ‘le nouveau classicisme’ of the 1920s as a renewal of the best of classicism à la Couperin, French culture was profoundly influenced by the arrival of Russian emigrés—not least Stravinsky—and the inescapable resulting mélange of Le Coq et l’arlequin.
The Cock and the Harlequin was in fact the title of a pamphlet, produced in 1918 by the dramatist/animateur Jean Cocteau, which came to be seen as a quasi-manifesto for the ‘Groupe des Six’. Cocteau himself sought to be the mouthpiece for the group, which had already enjoyed something of a previous existence between 1917 and 1919 as ‘Les Nouveaux Jeunes’ (‘The New Youth’); Erik Satie meanwhile was affectionately regarded as a father-figure for the troupe of six composers. So who were they? The first three are easy enough to recall: Francis Poulenc (1899–1963), Arthur Honegger (1892–1955) and Darius Milhaud (1892–1974); the challenge lies in putting names to the other three: Georges Auric (1899–1983), Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983), the only female member, and finally Louis Durey (1888–1979).
Beyond convenient journalese, the group’s artistic validity has often been disputed; even Milhaud declared that Collet had selected six names simply on the strength of their mutual friendship and shared concert programmes. Nevertheless, the notion of ‘Les Six’ successfully launched the careers of the composers involved and, whatever the misgivings, the label has withstood the test of time.
In so far as ‘Les Six’ had a unified aesthetic, it stood for French neoclassicism and, by implication, an anarchic rejection of all that was deemed to come from the over-ripe, Germanic romanticism of Wagner. (Having said this, Honegger’s sense of his Germanic musical heritage, via his Swiss nationality, was only more rarely suppressed.) In turn, this line of thought threw up suspicions about Debussy and all those indefinable ‘mists of impressionism’; as Cocteau so characteristically expressed it: ‘We have had enough clouds, waves, aquaria, water-sprites and perfumes of the night.’ ‘Les Six’ generally espoused simplicity, economy, clarity of outline (‘the line is the melody’) and the art available within everyday life. They celebrated popular music—the song-and-dance routines of the music-hall, French café chansons, fairground and circus music, the influx of American jazz (of special importance to Milhaud and Auric)—and found new value in the mechanized sounds of the street. The pursuit of wry humour, parody and irony replaced the elusive search for idealism and the divine sublime.
Although ‘Les Six’ existed formally only across 1920/21, its members somewhat unusually collaborated in two ventures: the wonderfully surreal divertissement of Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel of 1921 (though Durey, feigning illness, had already declined to be involved with this) and the miniature Album des Six, for piano (1920).
Auric’s light-hearted Prélude, dedicated to General Clapier, is an animated genial piece, with brash ‘wrong note’ effects (including bitonality) for added piquancy and a mock-Classical ‘Alberti bass’, while Durey’s pensive Romance sans paroles, for Ricardo Viñes, features a wistful modal melody within a spacious—almost orchestral—layering of sound. (The other Romance, that composed by Honegger in 1953 near the end of his life, shares this exquisite, fluid modality and triple metre, and concludes with a tiny witty touch.) The ensuing Sarabande (Honegger) and Mazurka (Milhaud) constitute the quiet central core, again with gently dissonant modal lines quite romantic in character—lush harmonies, syncopation and expressive markings. Poulenc’s extrovert and charming Valse, for Micheline Soulé, enjoys its Parisian café pleasures (mingled with hints of Petrushka!), and includes some striking bell-like effects. Finally, Tailleferre’s playful Pastorale, dedicated to Milhaud, trips along in 5/8 metre until it finds its proper bucolic 6/8, while, appropriately enough, the ending is just carried away on the breeze. (Tailleferre’s other Pastorale for flute and piano of 1942 shares the 6/8 lilting metre and features a delightfully simple, diatonic theme on the flute; its quiet peak is reached, unaccompanied, via a series of scalic trilled steps.)
And so to the flute: although its sonority has been important in French music since the high Baroque period of Marais, Hotteterre, Leclair and Boismortier, the pursuit of ‘colour’ at the turn of the twentieth century particularly has further raised its status in orchestral and chamber contexts. One thinks of the exquisitely mellifluous writing in Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894), where the flute at one level personifies the erotic, mythical faun—half man, half beast. Associations with the alluring pipes of Pan and with Eros are inevitable, and yet it is also the flute’s simplicity and purity of sound which connect it with ideas of ancient legend—of a distant primordium. Similar pastoral associations inflect the use of the flute in Ravel’s sumptuous ballet, Daphnis et Chloé (1912).
In solo composition too, the flute has achieved a special status, with Debussy’s Syrinx of 1913 marking a defining moment. And beyond Impressionism, the flute’s agility and vocal versatility have ensured its continued prominence in varied stylistic contexts: from the intensity and motivic obsessiveness of Varèse’s Densité 21·5—the density of a platinum flute—to the witty, neoclassical humour of Honegger’s Danse de la chèvre (‘The Goat Dance’, 1921). This popular solo, dedicated to René Le Roy, shares Tailleferre’s interest in matters pastoral. A languorous, mysterious opening—improvisatory in quality and featuring the interval of the tritone, or ‘diabolus in musica’—is transformed into the lively skipping and tripping of the main goat theme (the lecherous Pan again?). Composed originally for the dancer Lysana within a play by Sacha Derek entitled La Mauvaise Pensée and first performed at the Nouveau Théâtre in Paris on 2 December 1921, this short piece shows well the flute’s attributes with varied articulations, trills and chromatic passagework (up to a top B flat). After several fluctuations of tempo, the dance slows once more, becoming distant and disintegrated, ending with a hollow, unworldly-sounding harmonic.
The 1920s tour continues with two sonatinas; first the Sonatine, Op 76, of 1922 by Milhaud, dedicated to Louis Fleury and Jean Wiéner who premiered the work in January 1923 at the Concerts Wiéner. This work enjoys both structural confidence and expressive melodic power, with the opening ‘Tendre’ especially suggesting a stylistic mixture: neoclassical Alberti-bass figurations amid Debussyesque intricacies—florid colour-washes, ornamentation and tremolo—and tempi fluctuations. The central ‘Souple’ is barcarolle-like, using a Dorian modal melody on flute (later played in counterpoint between the instruments) and strong cross-rhythms, its last augmented phrase dying away with a little blues-like gesture. The lively finale (‘Clair’) utilizes a modified sonata form with two clear themes and balanced proportions; Milhaud’s inventive writing explores contrasting characters for the same material and mock fugal effects.
Meanwhile, Durey’s Sonatine, Op 25 (1929), dedicated to the critic Roland-Manuel, commences with a movement aptly marked ‘Nonchalant’: the relaxed and sustained flute line periodically acquires increased momentum which is then dissipated; as with the Milhaud the expressive markings are quite detailed, while the 5/8 metre creates some unusual rhythmic groupings. A spaciously free ‘Lent et soutenu’, with modal re-inflections, leads without break into a playful finale (‘Assez animé’), whose continuous triplet-quaver accompaniment on the piano sounds almost automated. Roles are then reversed as the flute provides an arpeggiated descant over a central piano tune; after a short reprise the music dies away, as if in a dream.
Beyond the literal life-span of the group, ‘Les Six’ can be said to enjoy an additional resonance as a powerful symbol for the whole Parisian scene: the attractive années folles (‘crazy years’) of the 1920s. Furthermore, its main members continued, albeit as individuals, to espouse a similar—broadly neoclassical—musical approach well into the 1930s and indeed into the post-World War II period.
The popular highlight here is Poulenc’s Sonata of 1957, dedicated to the memory of that champion of twentieth-century chamber music, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The Sonata’s own cause was promoted by the Chesterian magazine (Spring 1958) which declared: ‘For Francis Poulenc, a medium such as Flute and Piano is ideal for expressing himself in his inimitable style. All flautists will wish to include it in their repertoire.’ For Poulenc himself, the strongest spiritual influence was that of his dear friend Raymonde Linossier; having completed his Sonata, he concluded: ‘It is Poulenc but very Raymonde, as with every composition for winds.’ Flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal gave the first public performance at the Strasbourg Festival on 18 June 1957, with the composer at the piano.
The restless ‘Allegretto malincolico’ focuses on a descending chromatic idea, preceded by an arpeggiated flourish, with Poulenc enjoying major and minor inflections. Frequent trills and demisemiquaver tonguing attest to the flautist’s technique. The Classical legacy is evident in the piano’s Alberti-bass figurations, and the debt to the Baroque in the flute’s dotted rhythms within the slower middle section. A quiet, song-like ‘Cantilena’ explores the flute’s vocal qualities with an arching melodic contour: ‘a great rainbow of melody’. (Some have also noted connections with Poulenc’s contemporary opera, Dialogues des Carmélites.) Extensive use of smooth scalic figures is contrasted by more dotted rhythmic material in the central portion. The ‘Presto giocoso’ has a light-hearted, rondo-like character, again with a strong rhythmic identity; it enjoys imitative textures and cyclical elements, with an arpeggiated figure and later the dotted idea (‘mélancolique’) from the first movement, together with a thematic hint of the second (reaching up to a top C). A confident, extrovert reprise of the opening concludes, ‘strictly in time without any slowing down’
In the early 1960s, Auric became director of two bastions of the establishment: the Paris Opéra and the Opéra-Comique; there was also however a more radical side to Auric’s musical persona with modernist compositional tendencies evident as far back as the early 1930s. In 1968 he produced Imaginées 1, the first in an important series of four works for different instrumental combinations in a more obviously contemporary style, influenced by his younger compatriots. The piece is episodic and gestural in conception, with fluctuating tempi: ‘Largo’, ‘Vivo’ and ‘Allegro moderato’; fiery rhythmic sections emerge from the lugubrious depths of slower moments. Its harmonic language thrives on ambiguity, with chromatic meanderings and angular leaps leading to more overt atonality and dissonant pitch clusters. One ‘Allegro moderato’ section in 5/8 metre features the pianist’s hands apparently a semiquaver out of synchronization, while another presents a humorously distorted tango bass-line. Contrast and variety are the hallmarks of these quixotic ‘imaginings’.
Finally, some music of the 1970s: by way of further contrast, Auric’s last word is provided by the lyrical simplicity of Aria, completed in 1976, but most likely a re-thinking of an item from the later 1920s. Similarly, Tailleferre’s Forlane (1972), dedicated to Jean-Pierre Bourillon and somewhat in the spirit of her mentor Ravel, thrives on its fresh, tonal lucidity, with unusual five-bar phrases providing the necessary twist on a well-tested formula. Perhaps the most interesting find is Durey’s Deux Dialogues, Op 114 (1974) for solo flute, dedicated to Jacques Le Trocquer. These pieces explore various aspects of musical ‘conversation’, including simple repetition of material, echo effects, contrasts of register, dynamic, character and contour, together with use of both simple and decorated melodic statements. Rests are used to separate and articulate the ‘voices’. Additionally, the second piece introduces a portion of material from the first (as a larger-scale echo) and features some mischievously mocking trills in its upper voice.
Deborah Mawer © 2001