Posted on:Monday 25th May, 2020
If Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983) is known at all today, it is because she was the only female member of the Paris-based group of composers Les Six, alongside Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud. They were promoted by Jean Cocteau who, although not himself a musician, set himself up as the spokesman for avant-garde composers in his tract Le coq et l’arlequin (1918). The cockerel, a symbol of France, is here contrasted with the harlequin, representing eclectic foreign influence. In this short book, Erik Satie (who was in fact half-Scottish) was praised as the composer of ‘everyday music’, as opposed to Wagner’s lengthy operas and the elaborate orchestral textures of Debussy. Cocteau called for music that drew on popular styles, not music to be listened to ‘with your head in your hands.’
Typical compositions by Les Six in the late 1910s-early 1920s are short, punchy, stripped back, and insouciantly witty. The composers reinvented classical forms such as the sonata and string quartet, expanding the classical musical language with unexpected twists and turns and acidulous harmonies. The young composers’ formative years coincided with World War I, which presented its own challenges. Concert venues were closed during much of the war, many musicians were absent on war service, and power shortages and police restrictions on gatherings were in force. But like imaginative young composers today, they were involved in concerts in unconventional fringe venues.
One of these spaces was 6 rue Huyghens, a Montparnasse artists’ studio where the Swedish composer Henrik Melchers organised a concert series. Here, music was performed surrounded by art and often on the same programmes as poetry readings. Tailleferre met Melchers in the café La Rotonde, and her String Quartet, Piano Trio and two-piano piece Jeux de plein air were played in these programmes and in the nearby Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, where the singer Jane Bathori ran an adventurous concert series.
During a rehearsal at the home of the piano-playing sisters Marcelle and Germaine Meyer one Sunday afternoon, Satie overheard Tailleferre play Jeux de plein air with Marcelle Meyer and called her his ‘fille musicale.’1 (I have seen a piano score of Satie’s ballet Parade dedicated by Satie ‘à ma douce & gentille fille Germaine Tailleferre’, to my sweet and kind daughter).2 In Tailleferre’s words, her life was ‘transformed’ as a result.
The number of female performers active in Paris wartime concerts is noteworthy. Marcelle Meyer is at the centre of Jacques-Emile Blanche’s portrait of Les Six, wearing a dress by the designer Germaine Bongard (Tailleferre is in the bottom left hand corner), and the war years saw the emergence of the all-female Quatuor Capelle and Quatuor Jourdan-Morhange, both of whom played Tailleferre’s 1917 string quartet. Under the title Sonatine, it was first performed by the Quatuor Jourdan-Morhange on 15 January 1918 at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier (its first violinist, Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, was a close friend of Ravel). This piece was heard again less than a month later, again at Vieux-Colombier but this time as part of a programme including the poet and humourist René Chalupt and a verbal presentation by Satie.
While Tailleferre was present on concert programmes in the late 1910s, even at this stage she was marginalised as a composer compared to her contemporaries. Cocteau was condescending to her, describing her as ‘une Marie Laurencin pour l’oreille’ (a Marie Laurencin for the ear), more it seems because both artists are women than because there are real parallels in their work. Resorting to gender-based statements rather than engaging with a creative artist’s work was sadly characteristic of critical engagement with women artists at this time.
Fortunately, Tailleferre had other influential supporters, including the Princesse de Polignac, née Winnaretta Singer, who provided financial support and a public platform for many women musicians including Wanda Landowska, Nadia Boulanger and Ethel Smyth. Tailleferre’s participation in Les Six led to an introduction to the Princesse’s salon, where she often performed her piano transcriptions of the ballets Stravinsky wrote for the Ballets Russes: Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.
The Princesse was fond enough of Tailleferre to invite her to work in peace at her many properties outside Paris. In winter 1920, Tailleferre composed her first Violin Sonata at the Princesse’s St Jean de Luz home. Tailleferre had met the violinist Jacques Thibaud earlier that year in England, at a dinner attended by their common friend Arthur Rubinstein; they began a relationship, which soon made Tailleferre unhappy as Thibaud’s schedule meant they could rarely be together. He premiered the sonata in June 1922 with Alfred Cortot at the piano, but their personal relationship soon ended.
One of Tailleferre’s biggest public successes was the ballet Marchand d’oiseaux (Bird Seller; 1923), composed for the Ballets Suédois, who were resident in Paris from 1920-25 and commissioned avant-garde composers including Prokofiev, Satie and members of Les Six. While many of their performances provoked media scandals – especially Satie’s Relâche, which features a film interlude by René Clair and apparently naked dancers wearing flesh-coloured body stockings – Tailleferre’s immediately appealing Marchand d’oiseaux was both critically acclaimed and popular, receiving 94 performances in Paris and abroad before the company disbanded. Unfortunately, no commercial recording is currently available: Tailleferre’s reputation has been harmed by the neglect of one of her finest works.
Following this success, the Princesse de Polignac commissioned a piano concerto from Tailleferre, specifically because she was impressed by her blend of 18th century musical gestures and 20th century harmonic language in Marchand d’oiseaux. Tailleferre completed the concerto at another Polignac residence, in Bouzaréah, Algeria, and she could not have better followed the princess’s wishes as the concerto is very similar in style to the ballet: even the openings of both works are closely related, and Bach’s 3rd Brandenburg Concerto is an obvious ancestor of both. In fact, she made two orchestral versions of her concerto, one for a small group of 12 instruments (this manuscript is now in the Moldenhauer Archives at the Library of Congress in Washington DC) and one for full symphony orchestra.
Tailleferre’s Piano Concerto was premiered in London on 3 December 1924 by the British Women’s Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gwynneth Kimpton with Alfred Cortot as pianist;3 he said of the slow movement: ‘Voilà qui n’est pas moins beau que Bach’ (Here’s something no less beautiful than Bach).4 Its continuously flowing melody evokes the baroque era, though its poignant and pungent harmony could only have been written in the 1920s. And Tailleferre was particularly flattered that Stravinsky, whom she considered to be ‘the greatest contemporary composer’, admired the work, calling it ‘honest music.’5
Cortot gave the US premiere of Tailleferre’s Piano Concerto in March 1925 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky, and Tailleferre herself performed it in New York in April 1925 with Willem Mengelberg conducting, yet this attractive concerto is a real rarity nowadays. While Tailleferre’s music was performed and generally well-received, in the long term she lacked consistent champions and works by her are still being discovered and published for the first time. Fortunately, outstanding young artists of today, including the pianist Alexandra Dariescu and conductor Jessica Cottis, are now championing her music: let’s hope that Tailleferre’s music will, post-lockdown, receive the attention it deserves.
1 Germaine Tailleferre, ‘Mémoires à l’emporte-pièce.’ Revue international de la musique française, 19 (February 1986): pp. 7-82, at p. 26.
2 Satie and Tailleferre performed the piano duet version of Parade at the Société Nationale on 7 June 1919.
3 See Michael O’Brien, ‘Germaine Tailleferre: Concerto pour Piano et 12 Instruments’, accessed May 2020: https://www.loc.gov/collections/moldenhauer-archives/articles-and-essays/guide-to-archives/germaine-tailleferre/
4 José Bruyr, ‘Germaine Tailleferre’, in Musica, xxxvi (March 1957): p. 32.
5 Tailleferre, Mémoires, p. 33: ‘C’est de la musique honnête!’