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CD Review

Music by Les Six

  • Auric, Milhaud, Poulenc, Tailleferre, Honegger: Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel (orch. Marius Constant)
  • Arthur Honegger: 6 Poésies de Jean Cocteau
  • Darius Milhaud: Les Machines Agricoles, Op. 56
Florence Katz, mezzo-soprano
Ensemble Erwartung/Bernard Desgraupes
Marco Polo 8.223788
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Musique pour rire.

As far as I know, the group of composers dubbed by music critic Henri Collet "Les Six" Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, and Tailleferre never produced a collective work. Les Maries is the closest they came. However, Durey refused to collaborate and shortly thereafter seceded from the group to pursue writing large cantatas for the proletariat, who as a whole probably could have cared less. But all the composers had their own musical agendas and had initially come together, not for artistic reasons, but for social ones. They liked each other's company. Nevertheless, too much has been made of their artistic dissimilarities. 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. Stravinsky, now based in Paris, had at the end of World War I embarked on experiments of style based on popular forms like ragtime, waltz, and tango, most notably in L'Histoire du soldat. Of course, most composers have gone to folk and vernacular sources for inspiration. 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.

We tend to deride music as entertainment, as in "mere entertainment," but we probably make a mistake. Entertainment is, after all, one facet of joy and interest. We ought to ask ourselves how easy it is to write joyous, interesting music. I expect quite difficult. When we think of composers who have done this, we find names like Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, as well as the horribly underrated Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Sullivan. Behind our troubles, I find the attitude that profundity requires that you pull a long face, but there was a reason why Dante saw Beatrice smiling in heaven. The art I consider "typically" French wit, elegance, beauty of the surface will probably never win the hearts of those who want music only to ennoble. However, if music has any power at all, it is a power that addresses all aspects of our lives, and we certainly don't live at a high pitch all the time. I somehow doubt that's even healthy. The man who smiles isn't necessarily a shallow idiot.

Most of Les Six also wrote music that showed their depths as well as their humor. Poulenc managed to write music simultaneously witty, pretty, and profound music that "tickles the feet of angels." I consider him one of the most important artistic figures of the century, although I admit I'm just about alone.

Honegger, although possessing a complete compositional technique from the get-go, nevertheless took some time to find his true voice. He went through Impressionism, Stravinskian jazz and "barbarism," and Dada hi-jinks before he settled on the arresting combination of neo-Bach counterpoint and French grand opera applied to Christian themes. The 1920s alone saw his jazzy Cello Concerto, Le Roi David, Judith, Pacific 231, and the works recorded here. The 6 Poésies de Jean Cocteau set Dada texts, but not particularly in a Dada way. Behind the flippancies, Honegger recognizes in Cocteau's poems the longing for childhood and the safety and unconditional love of the adored child. He beautifully scores for mezzo, flute, and string quartet. The liner notes by Bernard Desgraupes point out the similarities to Honegger's setting of Cendrar's Paques à New York for mezzo and string quartet, and the musical idiom and tone indeed share something with that earlier work. Florence Katz does well, if not spectacularly well, and the work receives a fine performance overall.

Milhaud's output shows an enormous emotional range from the lighthearted Suite Française to the grave Le chateau du feu and the second violin concerto, with a great number of "sociable" pieces as well. In Les Machines Agricoles, he sets descriptions from a catalogue of farming equipment. The texts don't look especially promising, but I suspect Milhaud was also inspired by the pictures, for he talks of "the beauty of these great multicoloured metal insects." They inspired Milhaud to his version of pastoralism, to find the kinship of mechanized agribusiness with "the painful plough" and Vergil's Georgics. This work too is beautifully scored for mezzo, flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and bass and the colors not only surprise but portray the motion of the machines. In "The Plougher-Sower-Digger" ("La Déchaumeuse-semeuse-enfouisseuse"), for example, one can see the arcing and snaking of the "flexible tubes" that sow the seed. Again, a very fine performance.

The CD gives us the first totally complete (with dialogue) recording of Les Mariés. However, it does so in a chamber arrangement by Marius Constant. The original called for full orchestra, recorded by Geoffrey Simon on Chandos (n.l.a., according to my Schwann), but the Constant orchestration gives you most of the color. The music is also crisply played by musicians who understand that it's also a loopy good time. I suspect the Poulenc excerpts are the best known. But the Auric "Ouverture: 14 Juillet" also shows the aesthetic of Les Six at its bouncy best. Honegger's "Marche funebre" pulls the Saint-Saëns joke of slowing the tempo to a well-known excerpt, in this case the waltz from Gounod's Faust. Milhaud's "Fugue du Massacre," recomposed in 1971 for inclusion in the published score (the original was lost), puts a wildly recalcitrant fugue subject through its contrapuntal paces. The performance includes the text, recited by the classy Jean-Pierre Aumont and Raymond Gérome. I don't care for Cocteau's text myself and find myself impatient to get to the next musical number. Fortunately, I can program the CD to filter out the text, and I do.

Sprightly performance, good sound, a great time.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz