Project Archives

Survey of Les Six

3 Concerts | 2017

Paris skyline.jpg

"The War to End All Wars" was over.  Although the artillery was silenced, the war would continue on the artistic front.  Nowhere was this more evident than in Paris, where exciting, adventurous, and simply amusing ideas were the fashion.  On the forefront of this artistic revolution was a group of six young composers that met regularly to share opinions and, of course, their own music.  They were Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Tailleferre.

On Saturday, April 5, 1919, a concert was held in the Salle Huyghens which featured recent works by these five men and one woman.  Afterwards, the group, along with several others, retired to Milhaud's home.  Among those present was the French critic Henri Collet; it was he who coined the collective name by which these composers would become best known: Les Six Français, or Les Six for short.

Les Six's primary advocate and guiding spirit was the composer and eccentric personality Erik Satie.  In his music, Satie attempted to create a unique vision removed from all Germanic influences, antithetical to the grandeur and solemnity of Richard Wagner, and devoid of the voluptuousness of Richard Strauss. His dislikes included the impressionist-inspired music of the two greatest French composers of the era, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.  Satie's anti-German and anti-impressionist tendencies loosely informed the tastes of Les Six, although certain individuals within the group had sympathetic opinions toward the aforementioned styles.

More importantly was the artistic circle surrounding Les Six during the time of their output.  Poets such as Jean Cocteau, Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Éluard, and Louis Aragon, as well as artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, and Francis Picabia influenced and worked with the composers on various projects, including the creation of sets for many productions of new works.

The music of Les Six scandalized and delighted Paris at the time, serving as a sonic portrait depicting an era that was one of the most vibrant in the cultural history of Paris.  In 2017, CSI undertook a three-concert survey of these composers' art song output to honor the 125th birth anniversaries of three of the six: Honegger, Milhaud, and Tailleferre.