Formation of Les Six

The formation of Les Six, a loose confederation of French composers, diminished the influence of such figures as Richard Wagner and Claude Debussy and inaugurated an era of more direct and accessible music.

Summary of Event

The young composers who were to be dubbed “Les Six” in 1920 had appeared together on musical programs for several years and four of them—Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Arthur Honegger—had known one another for a decade as students at the Paris Conservatory. Although they may have shared some aesthetic principles, it was chance that brought them together and friendship that bound them for a few crucial years in postwar Paris. Six, Les
Music;Les Six[Six]
[kw]Formation of Les Six (Jan. 16, 1920)
[kw]Les Six, Formation of (Jan. 16, 1920)
[kw]Six, Formation of Les (Jan. 16, 1920)
Six, Les
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[g]France;Jan. 16, 1920: Formation of Les Six[05030]
[c]Music;Jan. 16, 1920: Formation of Les Six[05030]
Milhaud, Darius
Poulenc, Francis
Auric, Georges
Honegger, Arthur
Durey, Louis
Tailleferre, Germaine
Cendrars, Blaise
Satie, Erik
Cocteau, Jean

The single most important event leading to the group’s formation was the premiere of Parade
Parade (ballet) on May 18, 1917, in Paris. This ballet was the creation of writer and impresario Jean Cocteau and featured sets and costumes by painter Pablo Picasso. Its deliberately aimless scenario follows the antics of barkers and acrobats in front of a fair booth. Composer Erik Satie provided a score that was repetitious and disarmingly naïve, qualities that made the use of such “instruments” as roulette wheel, pistol, typewriter, and siren all the more striking. The audience felt itself insulted and erupted into a near riot. Cocteau and his collaborators had clearly intended to be provocative, but they seem to have underestimated the uproar the production would cause.

The event solidified the admiration younger musicians felt for Satie. A fifty-one-year-old composer of almost crippling modesty, Satie produced pieces that were brief and droll, in direct contrast to the solemn, massive works of German composers such as Richard Wagner. During World War I, works by Germans were suspect in France in any case, but Satie also rejected the colorful, atmospheric compositions of French composers such as his near contemporary Claude Debussy. Both Wagner and Debussy had been revolutionary in their time, but music such as Satie’s constituted a direct challenge to these composers’ continued influence.

Another writer who shared both Cocteau’s interest in new art and music and his talent for publicity, Blaise Cendrars, organized a concert on June 6, 1917, in honor of Parade. The scene was the Salle Huyghens in Paris, formerly an art school but subsequently the site of many informal concerts. A number of promising composers were invited to participate, among them Auric and Honegger and another potential member of Les Six, Louis Durey. Satie himself took part, and afterward he proposed an informal grouping of his young admirers, “Les Nouveaux Jeunes,” that in addition to Auric, Durey, and Honegger would eventually include Tailleferre and Milhaud. They appeared frequently in concerts at the Salle Huyghens and at another Paris music hall, the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier.

It was there on December 11, 1917, that Francis Poulenc, destined to become the final member of Les Six, appeared with a work called Rapsodie nègre. Rapsodie nègre (Poulenc) This series of songs is one of the first works clearly typical of the style associated with Les Six. Scored for baritone voice accompanied by flute, clarinet, piano, and string quartet, the songs took their lyrics from a collection of nonsensical, pseudo-African poems. Like Parade, Rapsodie nègre combined innocence and mockery; appropriately, it was dedicated to Satie.

By the beginning of 1918, Les Six existed in all but name. They gathered at Milhaud’s and Tailleferre’s apartments, dined together, went to the circus together, and performed together. Later that year, Cocteau provided them with a kind of manifesto in book form, Le Coq et l’Arlequin (1918; Cock and Harlequin, 1921). Cock and Harlequin (Cocteau) He praised music halls and jazz bands, attacked Wagner, and called for a music that was purely French. The book was dedicated to Auric and published by Les Éditions de la Sirène, a joint venture of Cocteau and Cendrars.

The six became Les Six on January 16, 1920, when critic Henri Collet Collet, Henri published an article in the magazine Comoedia titled “Les Cinq russes, les six français et Erik Satie.” Taking the Russian group of composers known as “The Five” as his reference, Collet identified six French composers who had, “by their splendid decision to return to simplicity, brought about a renaissance” in their country’s music.

The label caught on, despite the differing temperaments of the figures involved. As Milhaud noted later in talking about the more important members of the group, only Auric and Poulenc were followers of Cocteau. Honegger (whose parents were Swiss) took his inspiration from the German Romantics. Milhaud himself had been born in southern France and traced his musical roots to the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, the group gave “Concerts des Six,” published a set of piano pieces, Album des Six (1920), and collaborated on another of Cocteau’s leg-pulling ballets. Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel
Mariés de la tour Eiffel, Les (ballet) was presented on June 18, 1921, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. It concerns a wedding party repeatedly interrupted by such unlikely figures as a bicyclist and an ostrich hunter. The production brought together a number of typical elements: love of technology, from the simple (the bicycle) to the complex (the Eiffel Tower), a rejection of grandiose themes, and a delight in nonsense.

The production was significant in another way: Durey chose not to take part. Les Six remained friends but went their own ways artistically. Aside from concerts, there were to be no more joint projects.

Durey and Tailleferre did not achieve further prominence. Honegger came to be regarded as a major composer, but his work shows few traces of his early association with the group. Only Poulenc and to a lesser extent Auric and Milhaud were to shape their careers according to the tenets championed by Satie, Cocteau, and Collet.


The most important achievement of Les Six was to blur the distinction that had grown up between “serious” and “popular” music. They did this in a number of ways. First, they rejected the examples of composers whose works were, they felt, far removed from the realm of everyday experience. Instead, they borrowed freely from the circus and the music hall, incorporating folk music from as far away as Latin America and—filtered through the medium of jazz Jazz
Music;jazz —black Africa. Although Poulenc had based his Rapsodie nègre of 1917 on mock-African material, it was Milhaud who made the most creative use of folk and popular elements. The young composer had spent two years in South America as a diplomatic secretary, and he mixed tangos and sambas and similar dances into a bubbly and irreverent orchestral piece called Le Boeuf sur le toit (1920).

Milhaud’s score to La Création du monde (1923) Création du monde, Le (ballet) was to prove far more significant. The idea of dramatizing an African version of the creation belonged to Blaise Cendrars, who had visited Africa and produced L’Anthologie nègre (1921; The African Saga, 1927), celebrating the continent’s art and folklore. Milhaud, on the other hand, had visited Harlem; his orchestration for the piece called for the same seventeen instruments he had heard played in jazz bands there.

La Création du monde is generally credited with being the first symphonic use of jazz, and yet the interest in jazz in Europe and the United States was so great that other composers were bound to take it up sooner or later. In the years following, George Gershwin used jazz in his Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Aaron Copland in his Piano Concerto (1927), and Maurice Ravel in his two piano concertos (1931 and 1932). Not only was Milhaud first, however, but his work was also freer in spirit. Whereas most other composers adapted jazz elements to existing musical forms, Milhaud developed his forms to fit his material.

Interest in jazz was part of a larger and growing fascination among Americans and Europeans with the culture of black Africa. The German expressionists and the French painters known as the Fauves (wild beasts) were influenced by the African masks and sculpture that had begun to appear in Europe after the turn of the century. Critic Marius de Zayas published African Art: Its Influence on Modern Art in New York in 1916, and Blaise Cendrars published L’Anthologie nègre five years later. The movement culminated in France with the Colonial Exposition of 1931, which highlighted the art of France’s predominantly African and Oceanic empire.

Unlike many other artists, composers, and writers, Les Six welcomed the technological developments that were changing the lives of ordinary individuals. In its own lighthearted way, Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel had celebrated the enormous steel structure built for the World’s Fair of 1889. Inspired by a catalog of farm machinery, Milhaud wrote Machines agricoles in 1919. Even Honegger, who often differed with his colleagues, composed a famous musical description of one of the locomotives he loved so well, Pacific 231 (1923).

Another technological development of growing popularity was the motion picture. Before Cocteau created a ballet scenario around it, Milhaud had envisioned Le Boeuf sur le toit as an accompaniment to one of Charles Chaplin’s early comedy films. Honegger wrote more than thirty film scores, but it was Auric who embraced the new medium wholeheartedly, eventually producing scores to about one hundred films. His greatest popular triumph was the theme song to Moulin Rouge (1952), a dramatization of the life of painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Fascination with technology was in the air, and interest in science and machinery manifested itself in other art forms and in other countries. Painter Robert Delaunay produced vibrantly colored canvases of the Eiffel Tower, and he and his wife Sonia Delaunay-Terk painted enormous abstract works celebrating the principles of motion and dynamism. Fellow artist Raoul Dufy (who had designed the scenery for Le Boeuf sur le toit) went on to assemble one of the world’s largest paintings, a work measuring 60 meters by 10 meters (roughly 197 feet by 33 feet), illustrating the history of electricity, for the Paris World’s Fair of 1937. Commercial artist A. M. Cassandre immortalized locomotives and elegant passenger ships in posters that remain popular in the early twenty-first century. The artistic movements known as Futurism in Italy and vorticism in Great Britain celebrated motion and technology.

The music of Les Six has come to characterize the Paris of the 1920’s. With the end of World War I, many thought a new age had dawned. Old orders of politics and culture seemed to have been swept away, and technology appeared to be transforming the world for the better. The best musical tribute to the period is Poulenc’s only large-scale symphonic work, his Sinfonietta. Written in 1947, it is a kind of farewell to youth, mixing the gaiety and impudence of the 1920’s with a melancholy realization that the new age did not last after all. Six, Les
Music;Les Six[Six]

Further Reading

  • Cocteau, Jean. “Cock and Harlequin.” In Cocteau’s World: An Anthology of Writings by Jean Cocteau. Translated and edited by Margaret Crosland. London: Owen, 1972. A translation of Cocteau’s manifesto for Les Six in its later, 1926, version. Aphoristic and jumpy, and hard to follow for those not in the know.
  • Collaer, Paul. Darius Milhaud. Edited and translated by Jane Hohfeld Galante. San Francisco: San Francisco Press, 1988. Detailed yet accessible study of Milhaud’s music includes catalogs of his work arranged chronologically by category, opus number, and title as well as a discography and a brief bibliography. Features many musical examples. Intended for readers with some background in music.
  • Hansen, Peter S. An Introduction to Twentieth Century Music. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1978. Comprehensive survey of twentieth century music for the general reader. Chapter titled “Paris After World War I” discusses Cocteau, Satie, and Les Six, and chapter titled “Les Trois” discusses “France’s leading composers of the second quarter of the century”—Milhaud, Honegger, and Poulenc. Includes some musical examples.
  • Harding, James. The Ox on the Roof: Scenes from Musical Life in Paris in the Twenties. 1972. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1986. One of few works in English devoted to discussion of Les Six; includes information on Satie as well as on a number of individuals who were peripheral to the group. Begins with the premiere of Parade and ends in 1929; an “Envoi” brings the story up to 1961. Very readable. Includes photographs, bibliographies, and index.
  • Keck, George R. Francis Poulenc: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. Brief biography is followed by list of works and premiere performances, discography, annotated bibliography, alphabetical and chronological lists of compositions, and index. Good starting point for any extended study of Poulenc.
  • Milhaud, Darius. Notes Without Music: An Autobiography. Translated by Donald Evans, edited by Rollo H. Myers. 1953. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1970. Amiable autobiography mixes the minutiae of daily life with important cultural events. Ends in 1947, by which time Milhaud had composed most of his important work.
  • Rorem, Ned. “Cocteau and Music.” In Jean Cocteau and the French Scene, edited by Daniel Abadie. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984. An informal but perceptive consideration by a noted contemporary composer. Concludes with a list of works by Cocteau on which Les Six and other composers collaborated. The book containing this essay includes numerous illustrations, a chronology of Cocteau’s life, and a detailed index.
  • Whiting, Steven Moore. Satie the Bohemian: From Cabaret to Concert Hall. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Places Satie’s work in the context of the bohemian subculture of Montmartre. Includes discussion of Satie’s involvement with Les Six.

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