XXth Century -- ''Les Six'', Satie, and Cocteau
by Stéphane Villemin / September 1, 2000
"Because I grew up during the twilight of the Wagnerian gods and began composing amid the ruins of Debussyism, I feel that any imitation of Debussy in our day is nothing but scavenging."
Thus wrote Georges Auric, calling for a fresh artistic approach to music in the first issue of Le Coq, published early in 1921.
"In the meantime we have had the circus, the music hall, travelling theatre parades, and American orchestras," continued Auric, one of the famed group known as 'Les Six.' "How can one forget the Casino de Paris or the little circus on the Boulevard Saint-Jacques with its trombones and drums? It's been an awakening for us."
The call for new artistic perspectives that developed in the twenties wasn't however limited to musicians. A whole group of writers, painters, and intellectuals had already rallied around poet Jean Cocteau who was a master at bringing people and ideas together.
Cocteau, a strong advocate of the avant-garde movement, had his finger in a lot of pies. From 1910 on he frequented the Ballets Russes, and in 1912 worked with Diaghilev and Nijinsky in creating the ballet Le Dieu bleu. He was a passionate admirer of Stravinsky's work and defended Le Sacre du Printemps against its detractors. In particular, he was a friend of Erik Satie, whose originality of style and involvement in musical upheaval had a profound impact on the poet's thinking. Even before Les Six were launched in January 1920 by Cocteau and music critic Henri Collet, Satie had heralded the new trend with compositions like the ballet Parade in 1917. With this work, the circus ceased to be merely an amusement for children and became an artistic symbol.
Six young musicians
Les Six and Le Coq grew out of Parisian artistic revelry. Cocteau frequently dined on Saturday evening, with six young composers, all recent Conservatory graduates: Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Louis Durey and Germaine Tailleferre.
They were often joined by pianists Marcelle Meyer and Juliette Meerovitch, the Russian singer Koubitsky, and painters Marie Laurencin, Irène Lagut and Valentine Gross (not yet married to Jean Hugo), as well as writers Lucien Daudet and Raymond Radiguet. After dinner the Saturday night revellers went to the Foire du Trône or the Médrano Circus to enjoy the mime shows of the Fratellini brothers. The evening would end at Darius Milhaud's or the Gaya Bar, where they listened to Jean Wiéner play "negro music." Cocteau would read his latest poems while Milhaud and Auric, joined by Arthur Rubinstein, played a six-handed version of Milhaud's Le Boeuf sur le toit. This work, composed in 1920 and performed on stage with the famous Fratellini, was to become the Saturday night party piece. It was such a hit that the owner of the renowned Gaya Bar called his new restaurant on the Rue Boissy d'Anglas "Le Boeuf sur le toit." With the help of Jean Wiéner and Clément Doucet, the restaurant became a fashionable meeting-place. The other signature pieces of Les Six were Georges Auric's Adieu New York and Francis Poulenc's Cocarde.
Satie the mentor, Cocteau the spokesman
While his peers revelled in Paris's nightlife, Satie was living in poverty in Arcueil. He didn't have enough money to follow the group - though he did meet with them on occasion - and in 1921 organised a lecture on Les Six. He also joined them when his music was being performed, programmed with compositions by Les Six. But perhaps most notably - he worked with them on the review Le Coq - wherein Georges Auric strongly opposed Wagner and Debussy.
Satie had already composed Les Gymnopédies, a set of satirical pieces with a strong infusion of minimalism. Too many notes killed the music, it was felt; the essence had to be stated with the stroke of a pencil. Cocteau expressed Satie's art as a "white" (or cool) freedom coming after the flamboyant freedom of Stravinsky. "Satie has invented a new simplicity. Its transparency reduces the lines, and pain isn't expressed by contortions."1 Fernand Léger was worth more than Pissarro and Monet; away with clouds and reflections in the water! Art was in the street and the factory, at the fair and at work (as demonstrated in the Sonatine bureaucratique)! The young musicians (not yet established as Les Six) invited Satie to play at their first concert, performing Parade for four hands with Juliette Meerovitch. In 1918, prior to a concert by the "Nouveaux Jeunes," Satie introduced each of the six musicians to the audience, describing their individual talents. Unlike his young confrères, Satie was an ideological extremist who lived according to his ideas, but was neither self-satisfied nor intransigent. Even so, he suffered from isolation and poverty. "This beggarly life revolts me," he wrote in a letter to Valentine Gross. He simply did not have Cocteau's ease in Paris society.
Cocteau wasn't however a member of the fashionable world, but rather the archetypal intellectual of the early twentieth century. He hated Parisian society but couldn't do without it. When not spending time on the Côte d'Azur fleeing the beau monde, Cocteau was flitting brilliantly from one salon to another.
He knew where to find a patron. Coco Chanel had complete confidence in him and never hesitated to pay his bills or create costumes for his avant-garde ballets such as Antigone (scored by Honegger) or Le train bleu (scored by Milhaud). Cocteau was also an habitué of Misia Sert's famous soirées, described in detail in pianist Arthur Rubinstein's memoirs. Anna de Noailles was his muse for many years, and he was also close to the Comtesse de Greffuhle and the Comtesse de Chevigné (whose combined image inspired Proust's Duchesse de Guermantes), as well as the Polignac and Étienne de Beaumont families. (To have Proust as a sponsor guaranteed you notoriety in Parisian society).
Cocteau was, however, very eclectic in his butterfly progress, always on the lookout for the exceptional or the extraordinary among newcomers who might pique his interest. These included the poet Anna de Noailles, whom he raised to the heights before his interest cooled, Raymond Radiguet, whom he launched as a new literary fashion, and later actor Jean Marais and writer Jean Genet, to name a few. One may wonder whether Les Six were not sacrificed on the altar of Cocteau's overwhelming personality.
The group was officially named Les Six on January 16, 1920, although it had begun to come together in 1918. The group as such did not survive long. In 1921 Louis Durey left, despite pleas by Milhaud and Cocteau to stay. Durey was tired of Paris and its intrigues. He retreated to. St Tropez to seek inspiration in solitude. His departure left a gap in the preparation of the group's banner composition, Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, but Germaine Tailleferre completed Durey's section in time for the piece to be performed on June 18, 1921.
As time went on the five remaining musicians, no longer fresh from the conservatory, faced the hardships of a composer's life. Satie noted that instead of the group Les Six, there were now six individual musicians.
Shortly afterward, in 1923, he remarked, "Les Six are Auric, Milhaud and Poulenc." In the same year the composer of Parade inspired another movement called the Arcueil School. Its members -Henri Sauguet, Maxime Jacob, Henri Cliquet-Pleyel and Roger Desormières - seemed set to carry on the work of Les Six, but for lack of a genuine leader this group was even more short-lived.