Ten Good Men (Part 2)

A fortnight ago, I wrote a post about the group of Russian composers known as The Five or the Mighty Handful.   As I mentioned this group provided inspiration for, at least, the name of a later group of half a dozen French composers whose work I have recently been exploring: Les Six.

The astute among you will have noticed that the title of these two posts (“Ten Good Men”) refers to both groups but 5 + 6 = 11, not 10.  The reason for this discrepancy is that one of the Six was a woman.

The six composers were all active in Paris in the early years of the 20th century and they began to meet together in a bar shortly after the end of the First World War.  They would discuss their work and occasionally work collaboratively.  The group was officially named by music critic Henri Collet in a 1920 article entitled “Les cinq Russes, les six Français et M. Satie” (“The five Russians, the six French people and Mr [Erik] Satie”).  Collet was himself a composer (apparently a fairly minor one), but was not part of the group.

The group’s first collaborative project, and the only one they all took part in, was a 1920 collection of piano pieces (one each) entitled L’Album des Six.  I assume it came out some time after Collet’s article in the same year, as the group had evidently been named by the time the album was published.  I recently acquired a recording of this together with some works for flute and piano by the same composers, which I have been enjoying listening to.

Unlike the Five, who were led by Mily Balakirev, it doesn’t appear that the Six had a leader as such.  Like the Russian group, the different members of the Six achieved differing levels of fame.  In a spirit of equality, I shall treat them in strict alphabetical order according to surname.

The first member of the group was Georges Auric (1899–1983).  Apart from Prélude, his contribution to L’Album des Six, and a couple of flute and piano pieces,  I have only listened to a small amount of his music on YouTube (which seems to have a reasonable amount of stuff by him but sadly doesn’t let me scrobble my listening to last.fm) and I’ve quite liked what I’ve heard so far.

Next up is Louis Durey (1888–1979), another composer whose work is rather unfamiliar to me.  He seems to have not been an especially prolific composer. L’Album des Six was the only collaborative project of the group that he took part in (with a Romance sans paroles); apart from this I’ve only heard two of his pieces for flute and piano.  He is described by Wikipedia as being “probably the least remembered” member of the group.

Arthur Honegger (1892–1955) is somewhat better known, I suspect, than Auric or Durey, and he was one of the ones I had heard of before reading up about the Six.  I’m not sure that I’d heard (or at least knowingly listened to) any of his work until quite recently.  Possibly his most famous (or at least most frequently performed) work is a symphonic movement entitled “Pacific 231”, inspired by the sound of a steam locomotive.  I still haven’t heard that one, but I have listened to some of his other works including an oratorio (or “symphonic psalm”) entitled Le Roi David, which (perhaps unsurprisingly) tells the story of the biblical King David.  His contribution to L’Album des Six was a Sarabande.

I have been vaguely acquainted with some of the music of Darius Milhaud (1892–1974) for quite a while, in particular his “surrealist ballet” Le boeuf sur le toit, a piece strongly influenced by Brazilian choro music that appeared on a magazine cover CD  (exploring the theme of jazz-influenced classical music, as I recall – it was nearly 20 years ago that I got it).  That remains my favourite of his pieces, and one which I like very much, although I have more recently been listening to some more of his work in addition to the flute and piano stuff on my new album.  He contributed a Mazurka to L’Album des Six.

It was a growing interest in the work of Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) that led me recently to the rest of the Six.  I have heard some of his pieces in concerts over the years, and have had a recording of his flute sonata (in an arrangement for flute and orchestra) for a while.  While researching the Greek mythological character Tiresias, who plays a central role in T. S. Elliott’s poem The Waste Land, I discovered that Poulenc had written an opera entitled Les mamelles de Tirésias (I’ll leave you to find your own translation from the French if you need one!) based (very loosely) on the story of Tiresias and while trying to track down a copy of this to listen to I managed to find a set of Poulenc’s complete works at a very reasonable price.  Since I had generally enjoyed what I’d previously heard of his music, and his Stabat Mater was one that narrowly missed making it on to my short list of ones to get for this Easter, I decided to get this set.  I’m still working my way through it but Poulenc has already become one of my favourite 20th century composers.  He wrote a Valse for L’Album des Six.

Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983) is the final member of the group and the aforementioned woman.  As with Durey and Auric, I had not previously come across her work and still only know a small amount of it.  The piece that she wrote for L’Album des Six was a Pastorale.

I doubt I shall get quite so much into the music of the rest of the Six as I have that of Poulenc, but I shall certainly endeavour to listen to some more from all the members of the group, including some of the other collaborative projects that most of them took part in.

 

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