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Avant-Garde Art \ Cocteau, Satie & Les Six [LTMCD 2402]

The celebrated L'Album des Six of 1920 may represent only a small landmark in 20th century modern music. Nevertheless the artful relationship between the young French composers of 'Les Six' and their mentors Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau forms an important cornerstone of the inter-war avant-garde.

As well as the L'Album des Six, this generous 74 minute anthology also includes music composed by Satie and Les Six for spectacles staged by Cocteau between 1917 and 1920, as well as Arthur Honegger's futuristic Pacific 231, and music by Georges Auric for five Cocteau films made between 1930 and 1959: Le Sang d'un poete, La Belle et la Bete, L'Aigle a Deux Tetes, Orphée and Le Testament d'Orphée.

Tracklist:

1. JEAN COCTEAU Introduces Les Six (1953)
2. LES SIX L'Album des Six (1920)
3. FRANCIS POULENC Cocardes (1920)
4. ERIK SATIE Parade (1917)
5. DARIUS MILHAUD Le Boeuff sur le toit (1919)
6. ARTHUR HONEGGER Pacific 231 (1923)
7. JEAN COCTEAU 2 jazz poems (1929)
8. GEORGES AURIC 5 Cocteau film themes (1930-1959)

Booklet features images and detailed historical notes.


Reviews:

"All of them to some extent took fire from Stravinsky. A few, at least temporarily, also found inspiration in the music of Satie. This seems to have been the link with Jean Cocteau as well, who had advocated a new art that, among other things, drew from popular sources. Satie had raised the parlor piece to serious status and had in Parade mined various popular forms, including an Irving Berlin rag, so it's easy to see the attraction he exercised on Cocteau. For composers like Poulenc, Milhaud, and Auric, Satie represented an alternative for French music to the Impressionism of turn-of-the-century Debussy and Ravel. Our century is one of the few where a significant number have acted as if pop meant unclean. Consequently, Cocteau had set forth a rather radical program, which most members of Les Six followed at one time or another" (www.classical.net)

Cocteau, Satie & Les Six [LTMCD 2402]

Sleevenotes:

Often referred to, but less often heard, the celebrated L'Album des Six of 1920 stands as a minor landmark in 20th Century modern music. Similarly the artful relationship between the composer members of Les Six and their sometime mentors Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau is a cornerstone of the French inter-war avant garde, and the celebrated années folles of 1920s Paris, when the city became a magnet for writers, artists and composers from around the world.

Polymath Jean Cocteau (1891-1963) had long wished to fuse music with theatre, being profoundly influenced by early exposure to Serge Diaghilev's avant-garde Ballets Russes, who made their Paris debut in in 1909. After failing to persuade Stravinsky to collaborate, Cocteau found an ideal partner in Erik Satie (1866-1925), the eccentric musical prophet whose minimalist gymnopedies, vexations and 'furniture music' have been blamed for everything from the virus of muzak to the rigours of John Cage. The result was Parade, a riotous spectacle first staged by the Ballets Russes on 18 May 1917, with scenery and costumes by Pablo Picasso. Famously described as sur-réaliste by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, Parade offered a kind of rallying point for young Parisians, deprived of gaiety and innovation by three years of war.

Just as early Futurist serata between 1909 and 1914 caused disturbances in Milan, Genoa and London, so too the gala premiere of Parade provoked predictable hostility and outrage. As the German writer Thomas Mann recorded in his novel Doktor Faustus: "In Paris, where the world's pulse beats, the path to glory is through scandal. A proper premiere must take place in such a way that during the evening most of the audience stands up several times, shouting "Outrage! Impudence! Ignominious buffoonery!', while five or six of those in the know exclaim from their box. 'How right! What wit! Divine! Superb! Bravo bravo!' For all this, no such evening has been halted before the end. Not even the most indignant would want this, since it is their pleasure to grow even more indignant instead. As for the small number of those in the know, in the eyes of all they retain a strange and inestimable prestige."

Parade saw Cocteau, Satie and Picasso pilloried by the press as boches. One particularly vitriolic review wounded Satie so deeply that he took to mailing insulting postcards to the critic in question. As a result the composer was prosecuted, and condemned to eight days in prison for 'public insults and slander.'

Cocteau and Satie were also keen to forge creative alliances with younger composers, Cocteau having issued a general appeal to 'young musicians' as early as February 1915. Under the patronage of Satie, Georges Auric (1899-1983), Louis Durey (1888-1979) and Swiss-born Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) came together as Les Nouveaux Jeunes (The New Youth) in June 1917, while the following year Cocteau produced his propagandist pamphlet Le Coq et l'Arlequin (Cockerel and Harlequin). Like Luigi Russolo's Futurist manifesto The Art of Noises in 1913, Le Coq was a collection of non-conformist opinions about music put forward by a non-musician. Wagner, Debussy and similar purveyors of 'misty impressionism' were rejected in favour of a peculiarly French form of neo-classicism, in which simplicity, economy and clarity of outline ('the line is the melody') was valued above all else. This aesthetic also embraced popular music - café chansons, fairground and circus music, parodies and comic songs, and even elements of American jazz.

Le Coq came to be regarded as a quasi-manifesto for the new musical grouping, which swelled to six with the addition of Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) and Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). The group was first labeled 'Les Six' on 16 January 1920 by Henri Collet, a columnist for arts journal Comoedia. In an article entitled Le Cinq Russes, les Six Francais et Satie, Collet declared that after the 19th Century musical group known as The Five (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov), France had gone one better by producing The Six. In reality, this snappy branding was little more than a flag of convenience, by which each of the composers involved might launch a successful career. Behind Cocteau's rhetoric stood six very different composers whose disparate styles and personalities shared little in common, and whose collective alliance as Les Six would endure for little more than a year. Indeed some of them adored strands of serious music disparaged by Cocteau. As Milhaud would later protest: 'Collet chose six names absolutely arbitrarily 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 some ideas of Cocteau, Honegger followed German Romanticism, and myself Mediterranean lyricism.'

Early salon performances by members of Les Six were small, some staged in an artists' studio on Rue Huyghens, equipped with a malodorous heating system and hard wooden benches. A fashionable in-crowd flocked to hear the trend-setting new sounds, and before long these happenings also began to attract a highbrow society set. Poulenc: 'In the Montparnasse studio, under the title Lyre et palette, we became associated with the artists Picasso, Braque, Modigliani and Juan Gris, who exhibited there'. The group's only complete collaboration, the collection of pleasing piano miniatures known as the Album des Six, hardly rivaled Russolo or Antheil for avant-garde daring, and the music itself had less impact than the concept behind it. Auric's Prelude was genial and animated, Honegger and Milhaud provided a quiet central core, while the contributions of Poulenc and Tailleferre were respectively extrovert and playful.

In February 1920 Cocteau organized a 'spectacle-concert' at the Comédie des Champs Elysées, but called only upon Auric (Adieu, New York), Poulenc (Cocardes) and Milhaud (Le Boeuf sur le toit), as well as Satie, who contributed Trois petites piËces montées. In 1917 Milhaud had traveled to Brazil as secretary to the poet-diplomat Paul Claudel, and returned to France with a passion for samba rhythms and jazz. Composed in 1919, Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Ox On the Roof) was described by its creator as a 'cinema symphony' combining popular melodies, tangos, sambas and even a Portuguese fado. The bizarre title was borrowed from a popular Brazilian song. At the Champs-Elysées on 21 February 1921, the piece was presented as a farce performed by acrobats and clowns, the latter sporting large cardboard heads painted by Raoul Dufy. the piece also lent its name to the celebrated cabaret bar on Rue Boissy d'Anglas, an indelible emblem of the Roaring Twenties. Poulenc's contribution, Cocardes, was a breezy setting of three Cocteau poems. Six months later the show was also staged at the Coliseum in London.

Between May and June 1920 members of Les Six edited four issues of the periodical Le Coq, a continuation of Cocteau's earlier tract, but were never again fully reunited. When Cocteau and Auric were commissioned to create a new work for the Swedish Ballet, Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, Auric ran short of time and sought help from his friends in Les Six. Durey feigned illness and declined to take part, thereby departing the group, and the hurried result was a musical cum ballet cum absurdist revue. Shorn of its visual trappings, it amounted to little more than a compositional prank, and was bluntly dismissed by Poulenc as 'merde'. Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel (The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party, but originally titled The Wedding Party Massacre) was premiered at the Thé‚tre des Champs-Elysées on 18 June 1920, but following the obligatory scandal surrounding this debut Les Mariés... fell into oblivion, the score remaining untouched and unpublished until the first full recording of the work in 1966, supervised by Milhaud. Other partial collaborations followed, notably L'éventail de Jeanne in 1927 (by Milhaud, Poulenc, Auric and others), and La guirlande de Campra (Honegger, Poulenc, Auric and Taillefaire) in 1952. However, L'Album des Six of 1920 remains the only true joint work.

Satie died in July 1925, having fallen out with all of his protègés except Milhaud, and instead promoting another (lesser) group of composers, L'Ecole d'Arcueil. Poulenc, Milhaud and Honegger alone would go on to substantiate the claim Satie made two years earlier that 'several members have entered irretrievably into the realms of Glory', and the subsequent careers of Auric, Durey and Tailleferre proved somewhat uneven. However, Cocteau continued to collaborate with several erstwhile members of Les Six. Auric, always his favourite, scored five films directed by the poet, notably Le Sang d'un poËte (1930), La Belle et la BÍte (1946), L'Aigle ‡ deux tÍtes (1947), Orphée (1949) and Le Testament d'Orphée (1959), as well as The Wages of Fear (1952) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). He also scored ballets for Diaghilev, although his best known single work remains the waltz from the 1952 Hollywood version of Moulin Rouge. Durey's commitment to communism distanced him from the contacts and commissions necessary to sustain a commercial career, which was also punctuated by periods of silence, and eschewed theatre and orchestra in any event. Tailleferre also failed to establish herself as a major figure, lacking the panache of Poulenc, or the mischief of Milhaud, and later wrote mainly to commission. However, despite personal and financial problems she produced some pleasing neoclassical music, including opera and scores for film and television.

Claims that Les Six were linked to Paris Dada and Surrealism are somewhat tenuous. While Les Six were to some extent pranksters, their principle link with Dada was both retrospective and at one remove, after Satie hastily included Adieu, New York (Auric) and Caramel mou (Milhaud) in Tristan Tzara's riotous Soirée du Coeur ‡ barbe in July 1923. Auric also briefly sat on a 'congress' organized by Andre Breton in 1922, but the Surrealists were dismissive of music as a creative form, and shunned Cocteau. Yet if the conceptual art credentials of Les Six are somewhat lacking, the fleeting collaboration between the protagonists retains more than mere historical interest, while the co-dependency of the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol's exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia events in 1966 perhaps provide us with a valid modern comparison.

Nor were Les Six in any way Futurists. As a child, Arthur Honegger was fascinated by trains, and always made a point of inspecting the engine before boarding. In 1923 he was inspired to compose Mouvement symphonique no. 1 'Pacific', being the large engine used by heavy express trains in Europe. 231 referred to the wheel ratio. The thunderous piece now commonly referred to as Pacific 231 was premiered in Paris in May 1924, and is sometimes described as Futurist in character. True, it served to inspire some of the later 'machine music' of Socialist Realism in the USSR. However, Honegger arrived at the same destination by a very different route, for Pacific 231 was essentially architectural in character, and modelled on the chorales of Bach.

Honegger later wrote: "What I have tried to depict in Pacific is not the imitation of the noise of a locomotive but the reproduction of a visual impression and a physical sensation through musical design. This reproduction stems from concrete observations: the quiet breathing of the machine standing still; the straining at the start; the gradual gathering of speed to lyrical steadiness culmination in the powerful exuberance of a 300 ton engine rushing at 120 kilometres per hour through the night. I wanted to give the feeling of a mathematical acceleration of rhythm, while the actual motion of the piece slowed down."

James Nice

Recording Notes:
Track (1) recorded by Jean Cocteau in 1953.
Tracks (2) to (7) performed by Andrew West (piano) in 2000. Released under licence from Hyperion Records Ltd, London.
Tracks (14) and (15) performed by Jean Cocteau with the Dan Parrish Jazz Orchestra in March 1929. The music track on The Goldren Fleece is Holidays (Dan Parrish) and on The Child Snatchers is Pourquoi J'ai Regrette (V Lowry).
Tracks (16) to (20) are dubbed from original prints of the films, and we apologise for flaws in the sound quality.