83. Listening Recommendations – Les Six and Post-Impressionism
Part Three in the series “Regaining Control—Towards New Principles of Organization in the Years following World War I”
What is POST-IMPRESSIONISM? In music, it is a term applied to a group of composers who were based in Paris and first rose to prominence in the years following World War I. Although there was not one “Post-Impressionism” (just as there was never one “Impressionism”), the composers associated with this aesthetic agreed that they had to get away from what they perceived as the overly lush orchestrations and formlessness of Claude Debussy, the composer most associated with musical Impressionism. Instead, the Post-Impressionists sought clear, unblended timbres where lines of individual instruments could be readily distinguished as well as a formal clarity which favored intentionally straightforward structural plans. These aesthetic choices, the Post-Impressionists believed, contributed to their attempt to regain control after the perceived excesses of the pre-War years, as the Classicists and Neo-Classicists (discussed in my previous articles) had made attempts of their own. Towards these ends, the Post-Impressionists saw Erik Satie as their chief forerunner—sometimes capitalizing on his sense of wit—but the Neo-Classicism of Igor Stravinsky also provided a necessary example in some cases. Additionally, the Post-Impressionists hoped to learn from the sounds that accompanied everyday life, whether this was popular music or the noises of city life and industry.
This Post-Impressionist aesthetic is best represented by the composers of LES SIX: a group of friends and occasional collaborators which included Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc, Germaine Tailleferre, Georges Auric, and Louis Durey. This title first appeared in a newspaper article published in 1920 by the critic Henri Collet who likened these composers to the Russian Five who, a half-century earlier, had established a national idiom for Russian concert music. Collet echoed these composers’ self-appointed spokesman, the writer Jean Cocteau, in hoping Les Six would be equally fundamental in bringing new vigor to French music. Cocteau was also eager to cultivate musical troublemakers: true radicals who could upset the cultural establishment with music which disregarded good taste. Cocteau, recall, had previously suggested that Satie add various noise elements to his ballet Parade, aiming to match the success de scandale which had accompanied the premiere of The Rite of Spring. Within a few years of the 1920 article, only Poulenc retained any interest in the flippancy the group had inherited from Satie and Cocteau; Honegger had never quite subscribed. In what follows, I shall look at representative works by the members of Les Six as well as highlight compositions by two of their contemporaries whose music is also associated with Post-Impressionism.
DARIUS MILHAUD (1892-1974) is an interesting and important figure whose music unfortunately gets less playtime than his ideas get discussed. While the theory textbooks like to discuss his application of polytonality and the jazz textbooks will sometimes mention him as Dave Brubeck's teacher, the history textbooks also mention how Milhaud liked to incorporate not only jazz but also Brazilian influences into his music. Milhaud's Sonatina for flute and piano, Op. 76 (1922; Listen Here!) is a good place to start our exploration of Post-Impressionism as it exemplifies the movement’s essential qualities without heading into either the jazz or Brazilian directions that often overwhelm discussions of Milhaud's music, as interesting as these other aspects might be. It is a compact work full of the refinement we so regularly associate with French music.
One of Milhaud’s most intriguing works, the Octet for strings, Op. 291 (1948-49; Listen Here!) is also Milhaud's String Quartets Nos. 14 and 15. Milhaud composed these quartets in such a way that they could be performed simultaneously as an octet (as heard in this recording). Also take a few minutes to listen to Milhaud's Six Sonnets composés au secret, Op. 266 (1946; Listen Here!), set to texts that poet Jean Cassou wrote while held as a political prisoner in World War II. Milhaud's a capella setting for either chorus or vocal quartet lends this work a certain Renaissance feeling, but its harmonies readily reveal its twentieth-century origins.
Although Swiss, ARTHUR HONEGGER (1892-1955) studied at the Paris Conservatoire alongside Milhaud and Auric, and like these classmates became a fixture of Parisian musical life as a member of Les Six. Honegger’s Symphony No. 3 Liturgique (1946; Listen Here!) came as his response to the senseless destruction of World War II. Each movement is named after a section of the Requiem Mass. The opening Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) is particularly potent with its screaming brass and fierce march rhythms. For lighter fare by Honegger, check out his Pastorale d’été (1920; Listen Here!). This early work still has much of the warmth of Debussy and has been compared with this composer’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.
Another composer associated with Post-Impressionism is FRANCIS POULENC (1899-1963). In a work like his Sextet for piano and winds (1932; Listen Here!), we hear the Post-Impressionist concern for form, but the sections are shorter and more concise than in Honegger’s music for example. Variants are piled-up on one another in a way that, at first hearing at least, might sound somewhat haphazard. This is classic Poulenc: a little absurd, but always alive and engaging! Poulenc’s Concert champêtre (1927-28; Listen Here!) is full of parody. A harpsichord concerto, this was one of several works written by different composers for the Polish virtuoso Wanda Landowska, who during the interwar years was reviving this neglected Baroque instrument.
Also worth investigating is Poulenc’s Concerto for organ, strings, and timpani (1938; Listen Here!). The Organ Concerto is more severe than much of what I have heard by Poulenc, yet the references to the organ traditions of past centuries maintain some element of the witty parody, so commonly associated with Poulenc. In some ways, the gravity of the Organ Concerto prefigures the more serious, often religious, turn that many of his later compositions tended to take. For a late work, be sure to listen to Poulenc’s Gloria for solo soprano, chorus, and orchestra (1959; Listen Here!) which has become one of his most celebrated works.
Among the composers of Les Six, there was one female composer placed aside the men. This lone woman was GERMAINE TAILLEFERRE (1892-1983). Unfortunately, I am not as familiar with Tailleferre's work as I am with that of the three male composers already discussed. I recently discovered, however, her wonderful Concertino for harp and orchestra (1927; Listen Here!). Its version for harp and piano which I have shared is quite fascinating in the way the timbres of its two instruments are contrasted: a remarkable combination which is not often heard! Auric and Durey are by far the composers of Les Six whose music is least-known.
Outside of Les Six, there were several other French composers active in the interwar years whose music is associated with Post-Impressionism. JACQUES IBERT (1890-1962), a classmate of Honegger and Milhaud in their conservatoire days, was one such composer. Like those of his classmates, Ibert’s compositions are also typically identified with Post-Impressionism. Here is his Concertino da camera for alto saxophone and eleven instruments (1935-36; Listen Here!).
Of a later generation than the other composers whose music I have shared here, the aptly-named JEAN FRANÇAIX (1912-1997) was able to profit from the examples of both Ravel and the members of Les Six in his pursuit to create music that was undeniably French in character. To this end, he once commented, his aim was “to do something that can be called ‘Français,’ with both an ‘s’ and an ‘x,’ that is, to be jolly most of the time—even comical… to avoid the premeditated wrong note and boredom like the plague.” Here is Françaix's Concerto for two pianos and orchestra (1965; Listen Here!) which was written for him and his daughter Claude to perform together; they are the featured soloists on this recording.
From 1939 to 1945, World War II and the Occupation of France did much to challenge the Post-Impressionist aesthetic, not least forcing Milhaud to flee to the United States. Another, greater aesthetic challenge had already emerged, however: by the 1930s, the next generation of French composers had begun to establish itself, and young composers like André Jolivet and Olivier Messiaen sought reconciliation with Impressionism. These events will be covered in upcoming units. For now, my attention will shift to the German-speaking world where Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schoenberg, and others were pursuing their own means of regaining control following the collapse of the tonal system.
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar, composer, and advocate of music. Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College located in Natchitoches, Louisiana in May 2013 after completing his undergraduate thesis “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” As series director of the successful Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series from May 2014 to April 2016, Jackson played a vital role in the renewal of interest in chamber music across central Louisiana. This interest has encouraged the creation of the annual Sugarmill Music Festival and the new series Nachtmusik von BrainSurge, both of which Jackson remains active in as concert annotator and creative consultant. He also blogs at MusicCentral where he shares concert experiences, gives listening recommendations, posts interviews with contemporary composers, and offers insights into his own compositions. As a composer, he has worked to integrate a modern vocabulary into established classical forms in ways that are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. In fall 2016, Jackson began graduate studies in musicology at the University of Louisville where he also sings with the University Chorus and participates in the School of Music Composition Seminar. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.