Les Six and Montparnasse- The Object of My Affection –

A Breeding Ground of Musical Inspiration for Alice in Wonderland.

Les Six is a name associated with a group of six composers who came together in the Montparnasse district of Paris in 1920. Their music is often seen as a reaction against Wagnerism and Impressionism. The members, who possessed distinctive creative individualities, were united by a striving for a new simplicity and structural clarity in musical language and by a renunciation of the aesthetics of impressionism. The members of Les Six are associated with the music aesthetic that emerged in France after the First World War. Influenced by the new focus on simplicity as described by poet Jean Cocteau, and embodied in the music of Erik Satie, Les Six produced music that is light, unpretentious, and appropriates form and gesture from informal settings such as circus music, popular music, and jazz.

 The group consisted of: Georges Auric (1899-1983), Louis Durey (1888-1979), Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) & Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983). Despite the elements the six composers had in common, their differences were far greater. In the 1920s each of them was pursuing solo careers.

They originally around and found a degree of inspiration from the idiosyncratic composer Erik Satie (1866-1925) but they eventually broke away and formed their own respective styles, which echoed his disdain for the conventions of the time. The context was post WWI Paris, which had become the world’s leading arts centre, attracting people as diverse as Diaghilev, Picasso and Gershwin.

Their music is very different, though. Auric is mainly known for his film scores, whilst Milhaud was influenced by Jazz and the folk music of his native Provence. Poulenc, one of the first openly gay artists, was the most versatile of the group, producing songs, chamber works, ballets, operas and concertos. Perhaps the most serious composer of the lot was Honegger, who produced the orchestral showpiece Pacific 231 and the profound Symphonie Liturgique.

The composer I have utilized the most in my scoring of Alice is Francis Poulenc.

My personal favorite, Poulenc, who is again a somewhat underrated composer is one of the most melody-gifted composer of the 20th century. Being very musical and talented by nature, unfortunately his personality and art preferences allow him to compose only works of limited deepness. As with other great composers, his style is original and individual, undoubtedly recognized from few measures of work. His style is a curious mixture, and can go from extreme dissonance to Debussyian voluptuousness from one bar to the next. La Voix Humaine, a one act opera with one character, a woman who is carrying on a conversation by phone with her ex-lover, is very moving and dramatic. He has created a very varied output, with such gems as the Concert Champetre, for Harpsichord and Orchestra. I consider Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani, to be a great work. The ascending theme played by the organ against a background of strings, which makes its appearance at the beginning & end, is so gripping & memorable. Anyone who dismisses the work of Les Six as trivial or superficial should listen to this work. In my opinion, it thoroughly beats Saint-Saens’ similar effort, Symphony No. 3 ‘Organ Symphony.’ The Poulenc Concerto provides much more of a visceral experience & is more profound.

The setting of Montparnasse

Like its counterpart Montmartre, Montparnasse became famous at the beginning of the 20th century, (the Crazy Years), when it was the heart of intellectual and artistic life in Paris. From 1910 to the start of World War II, Paris’ artistic circles migrated to Montparnasse, an alternative to the Montmartre district which had been the intellectual breeding ground for the previous generation of artists. The Paris of Zola, Manet, France, Degas, Fauré, a group that had assembled more on the basis of status affinity than actual artistic tastes, indulging in the refinements of Dandyism, was at the opposite end of the economic, social, and political spectrum from the gritty, tough-talking, die-hard, emigrant artists that peopled Montparnasse.

 They came to Montparnasse from all over the globe, from Europe, including Russia and Ukraine, from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, and from as far away as Japan. Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, Camilo Mori and others made their way from Chile where the profound innovations in art spawned the formation of the Grupo Montparnasse in Santiago. A few of the other artists who gathered in Montparnasse were Pablo Picasso, , Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger, Amedeo Modigliani, Ezra Pound, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Rousseau, Salvador Dalí, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Joan Miró and, in his declining years, Edgar Degas.

 The Montparnasse cafés were the rallying sites for the so-called ‘Lost Generation’ and for the Surrealists and the Existentialists of Paris. These cafés, La Closerie des Lilas, La Coupole, Le Dôme, La Rotonde and Le Sélect, attracted the likes of Lenin, Trotsky, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Matisse, and Toklas. Toklas, Hemingway and Fitzgerald seemed to favor La Closerie des Lilas. Jean-Paul Sartre, Josephine Baker, Roman Polanski attracted their ‘family’ at La Couple and at the Deux Magots on St-Germain des Prés. Gertrude Stein held her court at 27 rue de Fleurus, near the Alliance Française Virtually penniless painters, sculptors, writers, poets and composers came from around the world to thrive in the creative atmosphere and for the cheap rent at artist communes such as La Ruche. Living without running water, in damp, unheated “studios”, seldom free of rats, many sold their works for a few francs just to buy food. Jean Cocteau once said that poverty was a luxury in Montparnasse.

Between 1921 and 1924, the number of Americans in Paris swelled from 6,000 to 30,000. While most of the artistic community gathered here were struggling to eke out an existence, well-heeled American socialites such as Peggy Guggenheim, and Edith Wharton from New York City, Harry Crosby from Boston and Beatrice Wood from San Francisco were caught in the fever of creativity. Robert McAlmon, and Maria and Eugene Jolas came to Paris and published their literary magazine Transition. Harry Crosby and his wife Caresse would establish the Black Sun Press in Paris in 1927, publishing works by such future luminaries as D. H. Lawrence, Archibald MacLeish, James Joyce, Kay Boyle, Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker and others.

The poet Max Jacob said he came to Montparnasse to “sin disgracefully”, but Marc Chagall summed it up differently when he explained why he had gone to Montparnasse: “I aspired to see with my own eyes what I had heard of from so far away: this revolution of the eye, this rotation of colours, which spontaneously and astutely merge with one another in a flow of conceived lines. That could not be seen in my town. The sun of Art then shone only on Paris.”


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