Germaine Tailleferre is best known for being the only female member of the French group of composers known as Les Six, alongside Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc. Although a prolific composer, until recently little of her music was performed regularly, and even now, forgotten works are being rediscovered.
Tailleferre studied at the Paris Conservatoire despite her father’s opposition to a musical career. In 1913, she met Auric, Honegger and Milhaud in Georges Caussade’s counterpoint class, and from around 1916 these four composers appeared on concert programmes together in unconventional venues in Montparnasse, many traditional concert halls being closed because of the War. Many of these concerts were given in conjunction with poetry readings and exhibitions. The polymath Jean Cocteau positioned himself as the group spokesman, publishing the polemical essay Le Coq et l’Arlequin (1917) in which he promoted Satie as the model for young composers, and the group was baptised in 1920 by the journalist Henri Collet. Tailleferre’s music was often programmed in Paris in the 1910s and 20s, and her musical style, combining neo-Classicism with a ready wit and energy, can be compared to Poulenc’s and Milhaud’s.
Tailleferre contributed very little to Les Six polemics as published in the review Le Coq, which lasted only four numbers. She was friendly with Ravel and visited him at his home in Montfort l’Amaury (his house still has a miniature porcelain sofa on display that was a gift from Tailleferre), and she would no doubt have felt uncomfortable with the criticisms of this composer in Le Coq. 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. This marginalisation by resorting to gender-based statements rather than engaging with a creative artist’s work was sadly characteristic of this period.
Tailleferre’s musical language is remarkably consistent throughout her career. Her thorough training in Classical harmony is evident in her editions of 18th-century works by Italian and French composers. But her original works combine an essential Classicism with distinctly 20thcentury twists. She often creates tonal ambiguity or bitonal harmony by superimposing two or more different ostinati or scalar passages, and she combines straightforward Classical tonal material with complexifying harmony.