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This website is related to the Curtis Institute of Music's 201011 all-school study, the Paris Project.
Debussy Sets the Stage
More on Les Six Online
Adpated from a lecture by David Ludwig, Ph.D., for the Dean's Lecture series at the Curtis Institute of Music, November 2010
Claude Debussy, who died in 1918, at the end of World War I, is the father of French 20th-century music, much the way Cezanne is for painting. Debussy laid the groundwork for an anti-Romantic revolution in Paris, one in which the gushing emotive qualities of Romanticism were rejected. He turned toward balance and restraint. This emotional restraint would echo through much French music of the first part of the 20th century, and it continues today.
The Russian-born Igor Stravinsky is arguably the most important composer living in Paris between the wars, and he was indelibly influenced by Debussy. In the 1930s, Stravinsky wrote:
I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether it is a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, et cetera. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. ... Most people like music because it gives them certain emotions, such as joy, grief, sadness, an image of nature, a subject for daydreams, or still better, oblivion from everyday life. They want a drug, a 'dope.' When people have learned to love music for itself, when they listen with other ears, their enjoyment will be of a far higher order.
Stravinsky's strong words reveal his frustration with an audience seeking to make emotional and interpretive connections that aren't necessarily in the composer's mind. He wants the listener to appreciate the sheer beauty of music for its own sake, as objectively as possible.
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From left: Auric (1940), Honegger (1921), Milhaud (1926), Poulence, and Tailleferre. (Not pictured: Durey)
Among the composers stirring this musical revolution in Paris was a group known as Les Six:
They met as students at the Paris Conservatory and formed their own kind of collective under the guidance of Erik Satie. An article published in 1920 drew comparisons between The Five, a group of important Russian composers from the 19th century, and the French composers who would subsequently be known as Les Six.
The artist Jean Cocteau soon also became involved with the group, as an admirer and spokesman. He was instrumental in giving these composers a direction to pursue: to free themselves of all foreign influences, especially German onesand most especially Wagner. One foreign influence that was not rejected was jazz music, a recent American import to the Parisian café culture.
Common Neo-Classic characteristics of Les Six's music:
Georges Auric (18991983) was one of the more successful composers of Les Six. He wrote quite a bit for film and became the president of the main composer copyright organization in France. Today his music is barely known.
Louis Durey (18881979) decided to start composing after hearing Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande in 1907. He was completely self-taught as a composer. He wrote 116 pieces yet went for long periods of time without composing.
Arthur Honegger (18921955), born in Switzerland, moved to Paris when he was fairly young. One of the better-known members of Les Six, he benefitted greatly from the notoriety of the group. Honegger always denied that there was an aesthetic that ran through the collective. He suggested, instead, that there was a spirit to the group, a kind of zeitgeist.
The well-known Darius Milhaud (18921972), from Southern France originally, was very much a citizen of the world. He was forced to emigrate to the U.S. in 1940, knowing that, because he was Jewish, his life was in danger if he stayed in Europe. He taught at Mills College and at the Aspen Music Festival. Much of Milhaud's considerable body of work is polytonalit exists in two keys at once.
LISTEN: Milhaud, Le boeuf sur le toit, Op. 58, performed by the Curtis Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Joel Smirnoff, presented by Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (Instant Encore, 15:02)
Francis Poulenc (18991963) was the best-known and most accomplished member of Les Six. He defines the aesthetic of the group and remained strongly independent of outside musical trends throughout World War II and after. His songs are a great favorite of French literature.
The lone female member of Les Six, Germaine Tailleferre (18921983) withstood a great stigma about being a female composer. Her inclusion in Les Six is significant. Her exceptional talent was recognized early on, and she met most of the others in a counterpoint class at the Paris Conservatory.
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MINNESOTA PUBLIC RADIO
"How 'Les Six' became the most recognizable brand in French music" (2005)
Springtime in Paris (2000), with audio links and images
Photos of Les Six as a group in the 1920s and the 1950s
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PRINT AND ELECTRONIC RESOURCES ON INTERWAR PARIS AND THE ARTS
Grove Music Online, The Oxford Companion to Music, and The Oxford Dictionary of Music
Jackson, Jeffrey H., Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris (Durham: Duke UP, 2003)
Mann, Carol, Paris: Artistic Life in the Twenties and Thirties (London: Laurence King, 1996)
Nichols, Roger, The Harlequin Years: Music in Paris 19171929 (Berkeley: UCalifornia P, 2002)
Shack, William A., Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story between the Great Wars (Berkeley: UCalifornia P, 2001)