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Thread: Les Six

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    Les Six is a name associated with a group of six composers who came together in the Montparnasse district of Paris in 1920. Their music is often seen as a reaction against Wagnerism and Impressionism. The group consisted of:

    Georges Auric (1899-1983),
    Louis Durey (1888-1979),
    Arthur Honegger (1892-1955),
    Darius Milhaud (1892-1974),
    Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) &
    Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)

    They originally around and found a degree of inspiration from the idiosyncratic composer Erik Satie (1866-1925) but they eventually broke away and formed their own respective styles, which echoed his disdain for the conventions of the time.

    The context was post WWI Paris, which had become the world's leading arts centre, attracting people as diverse as Diaghilev, Picasso and Gershwin.

    Their music is very different, though. Auric is mainly known for his film scores, whilst Milhaud was influenced by Jazz and the folk music of his native Provence. Poulenc, one of the first openly gay artists, was the most versatile of the group, producing songs, chamber works, ballets, operas and concertos. Perhaps the most serious composer of the lot was Honegger, who produced the orchestral showpiece Pacific 231 and the profound Symphonie Liturgique. I have not heard any of the music of the other two, Durey or Tailleferre. This would be interesting , especially as the latter was the only female member of the group.

    About a year ago I came across a set of LP's with music by these composers. I regret not buying it. I have seperate CD's of Milhaud & Honegger, and have some Poulenc songs. I am interested in what people's knowledge and opinion is of these composers. They don't seem to be as popular as they deserve, considering that they seemed to be very innovative, and went against the grain of the musical establishment.

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    Of the six, my favourites are Honegger and Poulenc. IMO Honegger is one of the major figures of the twentieth century. His symphonies rank among the very finest, and his music dramas are unsurpassed. Jeanne d'Arc au Bucher is one of the most moving works I have ever heard.

    Poulenc is again a somewhat underrated composer. I am currenly doing MIDI transcriptions of the songs, Banalites, and the Promenades for Piano. His style is a curious mixture, and can go from extreme disssonance to Debussyian voluptuousness from one bar to the next. La Voix Humaine, a one act opera with one character, a woman who is carrying on a conversation by phone with her ex-lover, is very moving and dramatic. He has created a very varied output, with such gems as the Concert Champetre, for Harpsichord and Orchestra.

    Milhaud can be great, but he can also be awful. My favourite works are the Saudades do Brasil, a collection of orchestral Brasilian dances, and the Suite Provencale. But also he has to be credited with the worst symphony ever written (in my opinion) - number six for large orchestra.

    Auric, I think is very much a lesser light. Durey I have never heard. I did hear something by Tailleferre once a long time ago, and thought it was quite good.

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    I have heard Honegger, Poulenc, and Milhaud. I'm not really a fan of any of them. In my honest opinion, it was crazy to form a group that's basically against the music of Wagner and the Impressionistic movement. I mean it's like this "Let's rebel against good music! Yay!!" The whole thing just seems silly to me.
    Last edited by JTech82; Apr-15-2009 at 19:25.

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    Senior Member handlebar's Avatar
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    I agree with Lang regarding the Honegger symphonies. Very well written and a delight to listen to.
    Poulenc charms me with his piano works and vocal pieces as well. Milhaud i admire but have not investigated enough to more more informed quotes about.
    Same goes for the other three.

    Jim

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    Senior Member Lisztfreak's Avatar
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    Honegger, I agree with Jim and Lang, is a true master - brilliant symphonies, especially the 'inside' ones (in between Nos. 1 and 5). I have only heard these plus Pacific 231 (which is a blockbuster piece) and Rugby - I'm planning to buy Le roi David and Jeanne d'Arc au bucher asap.

    Poulenc is not so... serious, let's say, but his chamber music rocks, particularly the wind sonatas. They're sublime. Also wrote very listenable and accessible songs.

    Milhaud is strange, I have yet to grasp him. I've heard the 4th and 8th symphonies, not bad, Piano Concerto No.4 (I don't like it) and Ballade for piano and orchestra (with Brazilian rhythms, very nice).

    The other members I haven't heard.
    ''Oh, the String Quartet - oh, the Divine Scratching!''

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    Of what I have heard of them, their music is quite memorable.

    I still remember the striking opening theme of Auric's film score from The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), even though I saw the film more than 10 years ago. It complemented the scene of inner city London, with grand buildings like the bank of England, perfectly. Funnily enough, it sounded very British to me.

    Same goes with Poulenc. I once had a tape of the Piano Concerto, Les Biches ballet & the Gloria. Although I no longer have it, the tunes still linger in my head sometimes. They are good quality works in their respective genres, and are easy to listen to. It must also be said that Poulenc became somewhat religious near the end of his life, and I think the Gloria is a very good example of this. It's definitely one of the great choral pieces of the C20th.

    From Milhaud, I have the delectable Scaramouche for saxophone & orchestra, and have heard his Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof). He seems to have a very light style, but it is quite an individual voice. I'd like to get more of his stuff.

    & I have a naxos cd of Honegger's Symphonie Liturgique & orchestral movements like Pacific 231 & Rugby. I think the symphonie is a very profound & moving piece (esp. the slow movt.), reflecting on the horrors of WWII. I think it is on par with Hindemith's Mathis der maler symphony.

    The last two are the ones I have heard nothing about, like people above. They seemed to have dissappeared off the radar somewhat. But if I see anything by them, I will probably buy it.

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    i too have only heard works from the three better-known composers..
    i really admire Poulenc's Gloria.. i found an old LP of it in my dad's collection and was just blown away, i still like to listen to it from time to time..
    also mentioned, Milhaud's Scaramouche.. what a superb piece.. though i heard it performed on a clarinet once, and i must say i prefer it so..
    and Honegger, the Symphonie Liturgique, i think, is one of the best French orchestral pieces ever written..
    it's been a big item in my to-do list to check out more of these three composers, and now my interested is peaked on the other three.. i do love that French 20th Century music..

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    Senior Member Lisztfreak's Avatar
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    I forgot Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani. One of the very first pieces I've heard of 20th-century music, and it made me explore further! Still, it is very neo-classical. And there are some terrific, huge clusters on the organ in the introduction section.
    ''Oh, the String Quartet - oh, the Divine Scratching!''

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    Yeah, I think Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani, is a great work. The ascending theme played by the organ against a background of strings, which makes its appearance at the beginning & end, is so gripping & memorable. Anyone who dismisses the work of Les Six as trivial or superficial should listen to this work. In my opinion, it thoroughly beats Saint-Saens' similar effort, Symphony No. 3 'Organ Symphony.' The Poulenc Concerto provides much more of a visceral experience & is more profound.

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    Poulenc is the most melody-gifted composer of the 20th century. His was very musical and talented by nature, unfortunately his personality and art preferencies allow him to compose only works of limited deepness. As with other great composers, his style is original and individual, undoubtedly recognized from few measures of work. His operas are probably the best French operas of the 20th century.

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    Poulenc is a composer I just can't take that seriously for some reason. I've heard his Concerto For Organ, his Concerto for 2 pianos, Les Biches, and Gloria, which I feel is probably his greatest composition.

    I still feel that this group of composers really had nothing to rebel against. I mean historically they were all trying to move away from Wagner and impressionism, but I have not heard one piece of music by Poulenc, Honegger, or Milhaud that I didn't have a hard time grasping. Mahler I had no problem. Bruckner I had some difficulty, but I always had a deep admiration for. Ravel I liked every freaking note I heard. Anyway, my point is it's not that I don't think these composers were talented and gifted. That goes without question, but I just can't get into them at all, especially Honegger, Milhaud, and Poulenc.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mirror Image View Post

    I still feel that this group of composers really had nothing to rebel against. I mean historically they were all trying to move away from Wagner and impressionism, but I have not heard one piece of music by Poulenc, Honegger, or Milhaud that I didn't have a hard time grasping...Anyway, my point is it's not that I don't think these composers were talented and gifted. That goes without question, but I just can't get into them at all...
    Maybe they were rebelling just for the sake of it, much like the Dadaist movement in the visual arts. There's alot of whimsy, and a sense of fun, joie de vivre, in some of the works of the less serious ones, Milhaud & Poulenc. Like Les Biches, which you mention, & some of Milhaud's work (like the famous Ox on the Roof), are like parodies of high art, kind of art for art's sake, if you like. I don't think we're meant to receive it the same way as obviously more serious composers (like Bruckner & Mahler), which they were trying to get away from. We must also remember that by the 1920's, even impressionism was beginning to become more part of 'the establishment.' It was no longer really avant garde, in either music, painting or literature. & of course, the horrors of WWI had exposed the absurdity of modern life. Here you had a bunch of (supposedly) civilised nations, which couldn't wait to tear eachother apart due to some outdated military alliances. So artist's response to all this was to question the whole nature of high art, which was meant to be the measure of European civilisation. Some, like Les Six (& the Dadaists), embraced a sense of the absurd in everyday, urban life. Their music is a rebellion not only against so-called 'universal' emotions (as expressed by high Romantics like Wagner) but also the picturesque quality of the impressionists.

    Of course, I am generalising, to a degree. Milhaud did compose some works which suggests images of places, such as Paris, & also his native Provence. Same with Honegger, with his Rugby and Pacific 231 symphonic movements. But these impressions are somehow more hard-edged than that of the impressionists, there are no blurry notes or sensuous passages. They're basically more down to earth; movement is emphasised, and they are generally more rhythmic.

    I agree that, perhaps the music of Les Six can be somewhat more out-there & esoteric. But I think that the fact that they were trying to respond to current ideas and movements in the arts & society generally & not simply go on with the established norms, means that inevitably their music will sound different & thus, has to be approached differently to the way we approach music by composers of the generation prior to them. In general, it is far less cerebral & much less concerned with technique than either that of the high Romantics or impressionists.
    Last edited by Sid James; May-08-2009 at 08:50.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Andre View Post
    In general, it is far less cerebral & much less concerned with technique than either that of the high Romantics or impressionists.
    I chose this specific statement out of what you just typed because I think it sums up part of the reason I don't really like this group of composers. For me, there's nothing really of depth in these composers. It's all surface. The only piece I enjoyed of any of these composers was Poulenc's "Gloria." My main problem comes back to the fact that their music just doesn't do anything for me. Now, there are plenty of people who enjoy them, so I'll just make my exit by saying that right now I don't enjoy them, but that's not to say 10 years from now that I won't. It's always good to keep an open-mind about music and this is something I'm trying to do. My most recent attempt at keeping more of an open-mind comes from actually sitting down and listening to some Mozart and Beethoven and forcing myself to listen to them. After about an hour, I was standing up conducting Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 with a pencil!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mirror Image View Post
    I chose this specific statement out of what you just typed because I think it sums up part of the reason I don't really like this group of composers. For me, there's nothing really of depth in these composers. It's all surface.
    I agree that Milhaud & Poulenc weren't the most serious composers to walk this earth, but one must remember that eventually, the group split up, & they began to pursue their own interests & pathways. So the music of these composers post-Les Six (like Poulenc's Gloria, which you mention) inevitably sounded different. Some of them became more political (I think Durey became a Communist), and others (like Milhaud) became exiles in the USA due to WWII.

    As has been discussed above previously, Honegger was the most serious of the group. Of course, there are his symphonic movements, which are really quite flashy, sophisticated & well written orchestral showpieces. However, his symphonies are quite another thing, they are quite profound statements. Especially No. 3 'Symphonie Liturgique,' in which he reflects on the horrors of WWII (he wrote it after the war). I think, in a way, he saw that the group were running out of steam & chose to pursue his own directions, which were concerned with making profound statements about the human condition, which had been anathema to the group. I also think that there is some quite moving & emotional music in his film output, notably Les Miserables.

    Beyond this, I can't really give you other examples (eg. I am not familiar with the post-Les Six output of the others, save soem Milhaud & Poulenc, whose works you already seem to know). But I dare say that, especially in their years after they split up, they probably produced some works of more weight, gravity & profundity...

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    While I don't know what "SERIOUSNESS" would entitled but Dialogues des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc is absoulutely one of the most heart wrenching, emotional operas ever written.

    Poulenc my favourite of Les Six is definitely one of the most underrated composers. His harmony is what I just love. I always try to invoke and emulated in my own stuff.
    It's hard for me to describe it, but I always imagine a swirling of gold!

    It's just hard not to fall for this...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARotkcKRMM0
    I adore art...when I am alone with my notes, my heart pounds and the tears stream from my eyes, and my emotion and my joys are too much to bear.

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