Classical: They really were just friends

There was little artistically to link these French composers in 1920, but now they seem stuck with the label of `Les Six' forever.

There's more to a name than meets the ear, one is tempted to say, as regards Les Six. It was a writer on music called Henri Collet who did the damage in 1920 with a couple of magazine articles which hailed a miscellany of up-and-coming young Parisian composers as the contemporary equivalent of the 19th-century Russian school known as The Five - Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov - who had striven to mightily to create a new nationalist tradition.

Maybe he was put up to it by Jean Cocteau, who was dying to mastermind a new, post-war spirit in the arts after the stripped-down, anti-Romantic ideal of Erik Satie, and who had recently published a pamphlet entitled Le Coq et L'Harlequin that denounced the impressionism of Debussy as demode and calling for a bright, vernacular-based, everyday music. Or maybe Collet hoped to earn the same vicarious glory as the art critic who, decades before, had by way of disapproval, flung the term, "impressionist" at a canvas of Monet's, only to find that he had indelibly branded an entire movement in painting.

Whatever Collet's motives might have been, he was all too successful; the articles attracted international attention and no subsequent history of 20th-century music has been able to escape including a chapter on Les Six. Yet the composers so singled out were to spend the rest of their disparate careers denying that they had ever formed more than a loose, affectionate confederacy, let alone worked out a collective aesthetic programme.

The oldest of them, Louis Durey (1888-1979), was already 30 when the ballyhoo began and, within a year, would remove himself from Paris to devote the rest of his long life to the communist cause in France and, eventually, to setting the words of Chairman Mao. Four years younger than Durey were the Paris-born Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983), the Provencal- Jewish Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) and Arthur Honegger (1892- 1955), who was of German-Swiss descent.

The trio had first met at the Paris Conservatoire in about 1912 and formed the nucleus of the group Les Nouveaux Jeunes that immediately preceded Collet's proclamation of Les Six. Yet Tailleferre's slender gift remained too derivative of pre-war Faure and Ravel quite to rise to Cocteau's brash new spirit. Milhaud, at least, had recently fallen for the popular music of Brazil during a stint there as secretary to the French ambassador, and would soon be hopping across to London to catch up on jazz at the Hammersmith Palais. But he also harboured rather too serious ambitions to establish polytonality as a revolutionary new technique, while Honegger, with his background in the Austro-German tradition and leaning towards such monumental forms as oratorio, felt out of sympathy with Cocteau from the start.

Of the two youngest group members, Georges Auric (1899-1983) duly proved a dab hand at the kind of saucy, wrong-note theatre music that the post- war period seemed to demand, and was soon being commissioned by Serge Diaghilev; whereas Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), a rich-boy amateur untutored by the Conservatoire and notorious for a mere handful of brief salon successes, appeared to possess the slightest talent of all. Yet, if little save their lasting friendships found these composers together, they were agreed on one thing: that having been hailed as the collective cutting edge, they might as well make the best of the publicity while it lasted.

Accordingly, under Cocteau's direction, the sextet began to mount group events in the spirit of music hall, published a piano Album des Six, and in 1921 they all collaborated (except for Durey) on a burlesque, anti-bourgeois ballet devised by Cocteau and entitled Les Maries de la Tour Eiffel.

The score of the latter makes salutary listening today. Whether in the Ouverture by Auric or the Quadrille by Tailleferre, the Marche nuptiale by Milhaud or the Marche funebre by Honegger, the fun and games sound laboured and diffuse, and only Poulenc's "picture-postcard in colours", La Baigneuse de Trouville, achieves the requisite knife-edge balance between vulgarity and charm.

And that was really the end of Les Six as a group manifestation, save for the odd photo-call from Cocteau to capture them all 30 years on - or for such posthumous "historical" concerts as that which the lead players of the Britten Sinfonia will be offering at lunchtime next Monday in their Proms Chamber Music Programme at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The concert's programme has been ingeniously planned not only to present six representative works, but to suggest, in their ordering and scoring from one to six players, the relative standing of their composers today. So the recital begins with a short Romance sans parole for solo piano by Durey, a composer who is now so little heard or recorded that it is difficult to form any idea of his musical personality.

Next comes a duo Arabesque by Tailleferre, who continued to work doggedly on through the eras of Messiaen and Boulez, even attempting a 12-tone clarinet sonata in the 1950s, but who has disappeared almost as completely apart from a few "useful" pieces such as her sonata for harp. Then there is the finale of a woodwind Trio by Auric, whose more serious output may now be little heard, but who eventually rose to the exalted directorship of the Paris Opera, and meanwhile found his true metier writing music for the cinema. Most of Cocteau's films boasted scores written by Auric, and in 1953 the composer achieved a truly popular hit, such as the rest of Les Six could only dream of, with his waltz for the film Moulin Rouge.

With Honegger's early Rhapsodie for two flutes, clarinet and piano programmed next, the case grows more complex for, Cocteau not withstanding, there was never any doubt as to Honegger's earnestness of purpose, whether exalting express trains or games of rugby in futuristic tone poems or diagnosing the crisis of modern man in a series of agonised cantatas. There have been recurrent attempts since his death to relaunch his five symphonies and blockbuster oratorio Jeanne d'Arc au Bucher as works of a major master. But somehow they fail quite to transcend the cliches and melodramatics of their time.

As for Milhaud, who is represented on Monday by movements from his wind quintet La cheminee du roi Rene, the problem remains not merely one of getting to grips with an output of such ultimately vast proportions, but of making sense of a bar-to-bar garrulousness which hardly ever sounds more than approximately focused. He survives, of course, on a handful of early and relatively clear-cut pieces, such as his jazz ballet La Creation du Monde; but the bulk of his 11 symphonies, 15 operas, 18 string quarters and numerous other works are surely by now a lost cause.

Which just leaves Poulenc, so frequently belittled in his lifetime for his plagiarism and inconsequentiality, yet - thanks to the precision and honesty with which he brought both his strengths and weaknesses to account - sounding, within his idiosyncratic limits, ever more inimitable and necessary as the years roll by. And rarely more so than in his Sextet for wind and piano - that farrago of cod Mozart and silent-film chase music so touchingly resolved in its serene closing bars - which crowns Monday's programme.

It would be nice to draw the conclusion that even the manipulations of a publicist as canny and indeed talented as Jean Cocteau are irrelevant in the long run to the emergence and recognition of true worth. But so sophisticated and pervasive have grown the techniques of image building and marketing in more recent decades that one cannot help but have the horrid suspicion that all of these composers may now be parcelled together enough to keep certain less than deserving talents afloat more or less indefinitely.

Proms Chamber Music, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1pm, 23 August. Booking (before the day of the concert) 0171-589 8212; or at the door until 12.45pm. The concert will be broadcast live on Radio 3, with a repeat on 28 August

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