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8.223788 - SIX (Les): Maries de la Tour Eiffel (Les)

Auric • Honegger • Milhaud • Poulenc • Tailleferre: Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel
Honegger: Six Poems by Cocteau
Milhaud: Les Machines Agricoles


“I have never wanted to be one of a school, because schools begin standing and end sitting down. I like the movement of youth. Even if youth is wrong, it is not wrong because it moves. Schools turn to stone.”
Genius feeds on paradox. The quotation is taken from an interview with Jean Cocteau published in July 1960 in the review Les Cahiers du Cinéma, that same Cocteau who, in the years after the Second World War, released unusual ferment in the world of Paris in gathering around him all those who shared his artistic convictions. He wrote, he drew, he directed in the theatre, but this poet of many talents could not be satisfied with creative work: he feIt the need, in the frenzy of the 1920s, to push others also to create. The muse changes into poet or the poet becomes muse… it matters little, for his force of character was irresistible. Satie experienced it, Stravinsky succumbed to it on several occasions and so too did the famous Groupe des Six, bringing together Milhaud, Honegger, Durey, Auric, Poulenc and Tailleferre.

A group but not a school, for it was really friendship that united these young composers and not a common artistic programme. In Le Coq et I’Arlequin, published in 1918, Cocteau claimed in artistic matters what he calls a French clarity and simplicity, inspired by popular music. Found side by side are vindictive aphorisms against Wagner and brilliant thoughts on creativity, but this collection has nothing of the manifesto about it. If the Six ever had a dominating influence it was rather to Satie that one should look or perhaps even to Chabrier.

It was, therefore, friendship that allowed the production of Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on 18th June 1921 under the direction of Inghelbrecht, with the Swedish Ballet of Rolf de Maré, Cocteau and Pierre Bertin speaking the text, hidden in large phonographs. “That interested and amused us all”, wrote Milhaud, “to take part in a show where so many elements were mixed and the fantasy of which would not have been repudiated by the Dada movement, then flourishing.”

This collective enterprise, however, had no result and the happy Saturday night dinners that brought together in a little restaurant in Montmartre musicians, painters and poets with Jean Cocteau, these meetings where “art was never mentioned”, ended after the premature death of Raymond Radiguet in 1923. Already in 1922 Satie declared: “There is no longer a Groupe des Six, but… there are simply six musicians, talented and independent, whose independent and individual existence is incontestable, whatever one may say or do.”

Although the original score of Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel calls for a sizable orchestra, the version realised by Marius Constant in 1987 makes use of only fifteen instruments, wind quintet, string quintet, trumpet, trombone, harp and two percussion. The music perfectly matches Cocteau’s biting text: a scathing criticism of the war and of conformism is evident on every page and each composer knew how to translate these texts into music in his own way; thus, at the dramatic climax of the Marche funèbre (Funeral March) Honegger adds in the bass Gounod‘s Waltz from Faust.

Arthur Honegger is certainly the composer whose presence among the Groupe des Six is most surprising, but this passionate Wagnerian had immediately understood that, apart from the flashes of the fashionable and of snobbery, Cocteau was above all a real poet. That is why he composed, between 1920 and 1923, Six Mélodies on poems by Cocteau, written for Rose Géart in Geneva, to be scored in 1930 by Arthur Hoérée for flute and string quintet. The same singer, some years before, had given the first performance of Pâques à New York (Easter in New York), three fragments taken from the first poem of Du Monde entier (Of the Whole World) of Blaise Cendrars. These songs, written at a time often regarded as purely frivolous and superficial, are really much more profound than they seem. An element of nostalgia colours their apparent light-heartedness.
It was with a certain enthusiasm that Honegger in 1923 wrote Pacific 231, as Milhaud had in 1919 composed his Les machines agricoles (Agricultural Machinery). In both cases the intention was in no way to carry out a hoax, but to translate into music a genuine fascination. Milhaud explained the origin of the work as follows: “I had set to music some descriptions of machines taken from a catalogue that I had picked up in 1913 at an exhibition of agricultural machinery… I had been so impressed by the beauty of these great multi-coloured metal insects, magnificent modern brothers of the plough and the scythe, that I had the idea of celebrating them… None of the critics understood what had compelled me to write this work or that the spirit that inspired it was comparable to that which once made composers sing of the harvests of corn and grapes.” Les machines agricoles, written for mezzo-soprano and an ensemble of seven instruments, flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and double bass, bears witness to the extraordinary mastery that Milhaud had of polytonal techniques. The use that he makes of these, his very elaborate counterpoint and his bringing together of timbres cunningly used reveal the astonishing beauty in sound of these machines in action. Les machines agricoles consists of six movements that Milhaud dedicated respectively to Jean Cocteau and to each of his colleagues of the Groupe des Six. La faneuse (The Haymaker) is dedicated to Germaine Tailleferre, while Honegger is given the Déchaumeuse-semeuse-enfouisseuse (Plough-Sower-Digger) and Auric the Fouilleuse-draineuse (Ditcher). Musicologists will no doubt question the malice that perhaps guidedthese choices…

Bernard Desgraupes
English version by Keith Anderson

Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel

In the preface to Les mariés Cocteau explains that a stage work ought to be written, to have decor and costumes and to have music, played and danced, all by one man alone. Since such a complete athlete did not exist, the individual might be replaced by something that was like such a person, a group of friends. While there might be many groups of musicians, there were very few such groups. Nevertheless he had been lucky enough to form such a group with some young musicians, poets and painters. Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel was the result, to which he was proud to have contributed.

It is impossible to summarise the action of the piece, set by the writer on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower. Better to turn once again to the words of Cocteau, who explained that Les mariés, because of its openness, is unlike an esoteric work: mystery makes the public afraid and here he has renounced mystery, illuminating and underlining everything: with no Sunday, no people or ready-made expressions, dissociation of ideas in the flesh, wildness of childhood, poetry and the miracle of everyday life, this was his work, understood so weil by the young musicians who provided accompaniment. The piece, to which Durey alone of Les Six did not contribute, consists of eight musical interludes, with three ritomellos by Georges Auric. The contributions of the five composers, which include the witty Marche funèbre of Honegger, based on the Waltz from Faust, are as follows:

1. Ouverture: Georges Auric
2. Marche nuptiale (Wedding March): Darius Milhaud
3. Discours du général (The Generals Lecture): Francis Poulenc
4. La baigneuse de Trouville (The Trouville Bather): Francis Poulenc
5. Le massacre (The Massacre): Darius Milhaud
6. Valse des dépèches (Despatches Waltz): Germaine Tailleferre
7. Marche funèbre (Funeral March): Arthur Honegger
8. Quadrille: Germaine Tailleferre
9. Marche nuptiale (sortie) (Wedding March): Darius Milhaud

Alain Cochard
English version by Keith Anderson

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