Les Six (pronounced: [le sis]) is a name given to a group of six French composers who worked in Montparnasse. The name, inspired by Mily Balakirev's The Five, originates in critic Henri Collet's 1920 article "Les cinq Russes, les six Français et M. Satie" (Comoedia, 16 January 1920). Their music is often seen as a reaction against the musical style of Richard Wagner and the impressionist music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.
The members were:
- Georges Auric (1899–1983)
- Louis Durey (1888–1979)
- Arthur Honegger (1892–1955)
- Darius Milhaud (1892–1974)
- Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
- Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983)
Les nouveaux jeunes
In 1917, when many theatres and concert halls were closed because of World War I, Blaise Cendrars and the painter Moïse Kisling decided to put on concerts at 6 rue Huyghens, the studio of the painter Émile Lejeune (1885–1964). For the first of these events, the walls of the studio were decorated with canvases by Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Modigliani and others. Music by Erik Satie, Honegger, Auric and Durey was played. It was this concert that gave Satie the idea of assembling a group of composers around himself to be known as Les nouveaux jeunes, forerunners of Les Six.
According to Milhaud:
[Collet] chose six names absolutely arbitrarily, those of Auric, Durey, Honegger, Poulenc, Tailleferre and me simply because we knew each other and we were pals and appeared on the same musical programmes, no matter if our temperaments and personalities weren't at all the same! Auric and Poulenc followed ideas of Cocteau, Honegger followed German Romanticism, and myself, Mediterranean lyricism!—Ivry 1996
But that is only one reading of how the Groupe des Six originated: other authors, like Ornella Volta, stressed the manoeuvrings of Jean Cocteau to become the leader of an avant-garde group devoted to music, like the cubist and surrealist groups had sprung in visual arts and literature shortly before, with Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire and André Breton as their key representatives. The fact that Satie had abandoned the Nouveaux jeunes less than a year after starting the group, was the "gift from heaven" that made it all come true for Cocteau: his 1918 publication Le coq et l'Arlequin is said to have ticked it off.
After World War I, Jean Cocteau and Les Six began to frequent a bar known as "La gaya" which became Le Bœuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof) when the establishment moved to larger quarters. As the famous ballet by Milhaud had been conceived at the old premises, the new bar took on the name of Milhaud's ballet. On the renamed bar's opening night, pianist Jean Wiéner played tunes by George Gershwin and Vincent Youmans while Cocteau and Milhaud played percussion. Among those in attendance were impresario Serge Diaghilev, artist Pablo Picasso, filmmaker René Clair, singer Jane Bathori, and actor and singer Maurice Chevalier.
The Group was officially launched in January 1920 by a series of two articles by the French music critic and composer Henri Collet in the French journal Commedia. While it seems apparent that Cocteau was behind these articles, the actual name of the Group was selected by Collet, who decided to compare Les Six with the five Russians.
Although the group did not exist in order to work on compositions collaboratively, there were five occasions spread over 32 years on which at least some members of the group did work together on a piece. On only one of these occasions was the entire Groupe des Six involved; in some others, composers from outside the group also participated.
Auric and Poulenc were involved in all five of these collaborations, Milhaud in four, Honegger and Tailleferre in three, but Durey in only one.
L'Album des Six
In 1920 the group published an album of piano pieces together, known as L'Album des Six. This was the only work in which all six composers collaborated.
- Prélude (1919) – Auric
- Romance sans paroles, Op. 21 (1919) – Durey
- Sarabande, H 26 (1920) – Honegger
- Mazurka (1914) – Milhaud
- Valse in C, FP 17 (1919) – Poulenc
- Pastorale, Enjoué (1919) – Tailleferre
Les mariés de la tour Eiffel
In 1921, five of the members jointly composed the music for Cocteau's ballet Les mariés de la tour Eiffel, which was produced by the Ballets suédois, the rival to the Ballet Russes. Cocteau had originally proposed the project to Auric, but as Auric did not finish rapidly enough to fit into the rehearsal schedule, he then divided the work up among the other members of Les Six. Durey, who was not in Paris at the time, chose not to participate. The première was the occasion of a public scandal rivalling that of Le sacre du printemps in 1913. In spite of this, Les mariés de la tour Eiffel was in the repertoire of the Ballets suédois throughout the 1920s.
- Overture (14 July) – Auric
- Marche nuptiale – Milhaud
- Discours du General (Polka) – Poulenc
- La Baigneuse de Trouville – Poulenc
- La Fugue du Massacre – Milhaud
- La Valse des Depeches – Tailleferre
- Marche funèbre – Honegger
- Quadrille – Tailleferre
- Ritournelles – Auric
- Sortie de la Noce – Milhaud
L'éventail de Jeanne
In 1927, Auric, Milhaud and Poulenc, along with seven other composers who were not part of Les Six, jointly composed the children's ballet L'éventail de Jeanne.
- Fanfare – Maurice Ravel
- Marche – Pierre-Octave Ferroud
- Valse – Jacques Ibert
- Canarie – Alexis Roland-Manuel
- Bourrée – Marcel Delannoy
- Sarabande – Albert Roussel
- Polka – Milhaud
- Pastourelle – Poulenc
- Rondeau – Auric
- Finale: Kermesse-Valse – Florent Schmitt
Mouvements du coeur
In 1949, Auric, Milhaud and Poulenc, along with three other composers, jointly wrote Mouvements du coeur: Un hommage à la mémoire de Frédéric Chopin, 1849–1949, a suite of songs for baritone or bass and piano on words of Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin in commemoration of the centenary of the death of Frédéric Chopin.
- Prélude - Henri Sauguet
- Mazurka - Poulenc
- Valse - Auric
- Scherzo impromptu - Jean Francaix
- Étude - Léo Preger
- Ballade nocturne - Milhaud
- Postlude: Polonaise - Henri Sauguet
La guirlande de Campra
- Toccata – Honegger
- Sarabande et farandole – Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur
- Canarie – Alexis Roland-Manuel
- Sarabande – Tailleferre
- Matelote provençale – Poulenc
- Variation – Henri Sauguet
- Écossaise – Auric.
Selected music by individual members of Les Six
- Salade by Milhaud; premiered 1924 in a production of Count Etienne de Beaumont
- La nouvelle Cythère by Tailleferre; written in 1929 for the Ballets Russes and unproduced because of Diaghilev's sudden death
- Cinq bagatelles by Auric
- Sonate pour violoncelle et piano by Poulenc
- Flute Sonata, Op. 164 (1956–7) by Poulenc
- Scaramouche by Milhaud
- Le bœuf sur le toit by Milhaud
- Sonate pour violon seul by Honegger
- Danse de la chèvre (Dance of the Goat) for solo flute by Honegger
- Sonate champêtre for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano by Tailleferre
- Benjamin Ivry (1996). Francis Poulenc. Phaidon Press Limited. ISBN 0-7148-3503-X.
- Fondation Erik Satie, Le groupe des Six et ses amis: 70e anniversaire – Placard, Paris 1990 – 40 p. – ISBN 2-907523-01-5
- Ornella Volta, Satie/Cocteau – les malentendus d'une entente: avec des lettres et des textes inédits d'Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau, Valentine Hugo et Guillaume Apollinaire – Castor Astral – 1993 – ISBN 2-85920-208-0
- Cocteau, Jean – Le coq et l'Arelquin: Notes Autour de la Musique – Avec un portrait de l'auteur et deux monogrammes par P. Picasso – Paris, Éditions de la Sirène – 1918
- Roger Nichols – The Harlequin Years: Music in Paris 1917–1929 – 2002 – ISBN 0-500-51095-4
- Shapiro, Robert (2011). Les Six: The French Composers and their Mentors Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie. Peter Owen Publishers, London/Chicago. ISBN 978-0-7206-1293-6