Louis Durey was born in Paris the son of a local businessman. It was not until he was nineteen years old that he chose to pursue a musical career after hearing a performance of a Claude Debussy work. As a composer he was primarily self-taught. From the beginning, choral music was of great importance in Durey's productivity. The first work to gain recognition in the music world was for a piano duet titled Carillons. This effort attracted the interest of Maurice Ravel at a 1918 concert who recommended him to his publisher.
Durey communicated with his colleague, Darius Milhaud, and asked him to contribute a piano piece that would bring together the six composers who, in 1920 were dubbed Les Six. Durey was the oldest member and in the beginning was the moving spirit of the renowned assembly of composers. However much acclaim they received, Durey did not participate in the group's 1921 collaborative work Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, a decision which was a source of great irritation to Jean Cocteau. But Durey did not like Cocteau very much and his withdrawal from the Mariés meant the Groupe des Six was over the top.
After the Groupe des Six period Durey continued with his career. Never feeling the need to belong to the musical establishment, he voiced his growing left-wing ideals that put him in an artistic isolation that lasted for the rest of his life.
Following the break with Cocteau, Durey withdrew to the south of France to work at the home he owned in St Tropez. In addition to chamber music, at Saint-Tropez he wrote his only opera, L'Occasion. In 1929, he married Anne Grangeon and moved back to Paris the following year. In the mid-thirties he joined the Communist Party and became active in the newly formed Féderation Musicale Populaire. During the years of the Nazi occupation of World War II, he worked with the French Resistance and wrote anti-Fascist songs. After the war he embraced hard-line communism and his uncompromising political attitudes hindered his career. Needing to earn a living, in 1950 he accepted the post of music critic for a communist newspaper in Paris.
In the late 1950s and early '60's he continued to compose but produced nothing of significance. His work on Vietnamese themes in the 1960s, based on his disgust with the turmoil France had left in Vietnam (formerly French Indochina) and the ensuing American run war, seemed at that time in Paris to be a voice in the wilderness.
Probably the least remembered of the Groupe des Six, Louis Durey died at Saint-Tropez, a typical hideout for party members.