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How "Les Six" became the most recognizable brand in French music
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Les Six in the 1920s: Jean Cocteau (at piano), Darius Milhaud, outline of Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, Francis Poulenc, and Louis Durey (file photo)

St. Paul, Minn. — The writer and artistic gadfly Jean Cocteau is most famously credited with having defined and led that group of young French composers known as "Les Six" Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc and Louis Durey. However, a less well-known but equally remarkable character was as instrumental in creating the conditions in which The Six presented their music together for the first time, and became the most recognizable "brand" in French music.

Blaise Cendras was a writer who hated to write. He craved action, danger, risk. He'd been an explorer, a beekeeper, a diamond dealer, a musicologist, novelist, truck driver, and art critic. He ran away from home at fifteen and met a traveling merchant who hired him as an assistant. Cendrars wandered the world from Russia to Persia to China. One month he might live in a hotel penthouse; the next he starved. The Great War took away his right arm, but that didn't keep him from driving racecars or exploring Africa and bringing home folk art and sculpture.

Cendrars helped establish one of the trendiest artistic scenes in wartime Paris. He was a founding member of Lyre et Palette, a society formed to present music recitals (originally Erik Satie, Ravel, Debussy), poetry readings (mostly by Cendrars and Cocteau), and exhibitions of paintings by Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso. The studio at 6, rue Huyghens was cramped, foul smelling, and by turns freezing and sweltering. Soon it was the place to see and be seen.

And there, on June 6, 1917, a few weeks after Satie's ballet "Parade" marched defiantly into the French bourgeois imagination, half the illustrious group Satie had named "les Nouveaux Jeunes" made their first public appearance together. Georges Auric contributed a new Trio; Arthur Honegger brought settings of poems by Guillaume Apollinaire; and Louis Durey presented a two-piano piece called "Carillons" played by Auric and one Juliette Meerowitch. Satie was there, too, and played a piano version of the already infamous "Parade."

Germaine Tailleferre was in attendance, but not on the program. Francis Poulenc was just entering the army, and Darius Milhaud, ineligible for active duty, was working for the French Embassy in Brazil. It would be another two years—April 5, 1919—before all six of The Six would appear on the same concert program, again in the homely digs of the Lyre et Palette. Informality ruled.

Volunteers from the audience moved chairs and pianos between pieces. A balky stove had to be coaxed to life by the musicians. Milhaud was back from Rio with his tango rhythms and rain forest exoticisms. The audience heard his String Quartet No. 4. Poulenc's "Mouvements Perpetuels" were played by pianist Ricardo Viñes. Louis Durey's "Images à Crusoe "and pieces by Honegger, Tailleferre and Auric rounded out the evening.

It was a typical concert at 6, rue Huyghens, with one exception. A music critic named Henri Collet was in the audience, and his instinct for a catchy hook led him to compare the six young French composers to the famous Russian Five—Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Cui. His review bore the headline "Les Cinq Russes, les Six Français et Satie." The inclusion of Satie was a nice bit of knowing respect, like citing Muddy Waters when you mention the Stones.

The combination, the alliance, the group seemed to please the public. Immediately, they were known as the collective "Les Six." Never mind that they were all distinct artists, highly diverse in their tastes and interests and influences. Although the Cocteau-Satie approach to music and spectacle touched them all, only Poulenc and Auric thought of themselves as true disciples.

Milhaud's powerful Jewish-Provençal heritage, as well as his South American experiences, exerted a more substantial pull than a fashionable aesthetic.

Honegger, a French-born Swiss, was mad about Richard Strauss and Max Reger.

Durey still loved Ravel and Debussy, at least until his infatuation with the ideals of the Communist Revolution.

Germaine Tailleferre, devoted early to Ravel, experimented with many styles.

Yet they, and their self-appointed ringleader Jean Cocteau, were smart enough not to blow against the wind. Though the alliance was completely artificial—a creation of the press nurtured by a public defenseless in the face of savvy branding—they continued to present themselves, to great demand, as a Supergroup. The music of "Les Six" was a product of their respective, individual gifts. Their notoriety, on the other hand, was the result of a killer proto-marketing campaign.

Which still hypnotizes us after all these years: "Open Air" will present music by "Les Six" Tuesday night, May 31 at 8 on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Stations.