Which of the following is a classical composer?
"A Marie Laurencin for the Ear" was how Jean Cocteau described the music of Germaine Tailleferre, the only female member of the famous Group des Six (which also included Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honneger, Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc). This quotation, which brings to mind the essentially decorative watercolors of Laurencin, was perhaps an unfortunate association. Images of naiveté, "freshness" and essentially "feminine" art have been associated with the Music of Germaine Tailleferre since she began her career with the launching of the Group in 1920. If one wishes to play the game of absolutely making a comparison between music and painting, it is more evident to compare the painting of Sonia Delaunay with the music of Germaine Tailleferre, given the rich sound palette that Tailleferre tends to use.
The idea which has been put forward is that Tailleferre wrote a series of short charming works, especially for the piano, during the 1920's-1930's and essentially stopped composing after the end of World War II. While Tailleferre did write many shorter works for the piano, as well as songs and chamber music, she also wrote two piano concerti, as well as the Three Études for Piano and Orchestra, a Violin Concerto, Three Vocal Concerti, a Concerto Grosso for two Pianos, Eight Solo Voices, Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra, four full-length ballet scores, Four full lengths Operas as well as many shorter operas, two musical comedies as well as a great deal of orchestral and chamber music. Much of this music was written in the period between 1945 and her death in 1983. The majority of this music has been, up until the recent past, unpublished and unrecorded. It has only been recently possible to have a more complete picture of Tailleferre's work and her value as a composer.
Germaine Tailleferre was born April 19. 1892 at Saint Maur Des Fossés, a suburb of Paris. Her Mother, Marie-Desiré Taillefesse was forced by her father to break her engagement with another man and to marry the young Arthur Taillefesse because he had the same family name. This arranged married proved to be very unhappy, and Marie-Desiré's only solace was in her children. The young Germaine began studying piano with her mother at home and also composing short works. Despite her father's opposition, she began studying piano and solfege at the Paris Conservatory, where she would win a first prize in solfege. This initial success also lead to her father's acceptance of her musical vocation, although he would refuse to support her studies financially. Her revenge came later when she changed her name from the slightly risqué "Taillefesse" to the more attractive "Tailleferre".
Tailleferre met Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric and Arthur Honneger at the Paris Conservatory in 1912 and also began to be seen with the artistic set in Montmartre and in Montparnasse, which included Apollinaire, Laurencin, Paul Fort, Fernand Léger and the sculptor Emmanuel Centore, who married Tailleferre's sister Jeanne. In 1913, she won a first prize in Counterpoint and in Harmony at the Conservatory and in 1915, she won a First prize in Fugue. During her period at the Conservatory, she also became acquainted with the Assistant Professor of Harp, Caroline Tardieu, for whom she wrote the 18 short works in the Petit Livre de Harp de Madame Tardieu.
It was her artistic connections, which by 1917 also included Picasso and Modigliani, however which lead to her initial success It was in the Montparnasse atelier of one of her painter friends where the initial concert of the "Nouveaux Jeunes" took place, which also included Francis Poulenc and Louis Durey on January 15, 1918, with Tailleferre's Jeux de Pleine Aire as well as her Sonatine for String Quartet, which was later to become the String Quartet (with the addition of a third movement). The publication of Jean Cocteau's manifest for a typically French Music Le Coq et L'Harlequin in 1918 paved the way for Henri Collet's articles in 1920 in the French journal Commedia. It was also Collet who choose the name Les Six, in direct reference to the Five Russians of the 19th century nationalist movement. These two articles, which appeared in January of 1920, lead to overnight fame for the famous group Des Six, which only officially participated in one project together, an album of Piano works. The six musicians remained close for the rest of their lives, however.
The legend that Durey ended the Group Des Six with by refusing to participate in Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel is not exactly true. The work was supposed to be written by Auric who did not have time to finish the commission in time. In order to help their friend, the work was parceled out to the other members of the Group who were available and Durey, who was not in Paris at the time, simply didn't take part. The Group Des Six existed in spirit up to Tailleferre's death in 1983, and even today, the children and friends of the various members continue to see each other.
Tailleferre's First Violin Sonata was written for Jacques Thibaud, a French Violinist with whom she had a close friendship and was premièred in 1922 by Thibaud and Alfred Cortot in Paris. During 1923, her ballet "Le Marchand d'Oiseaux" scored a great success with the Ballets Suédois. The Princess de Polignac commissioned Tailleferre to write a Piano Concerto in same neo-classical style as "Le Marchand" which was premièred to great success by Alfred Cortot.
In 1923, Tailleferre began to spend a great deal of time with Maurice Ravel at his home in Monfort-L'Amaury. Tailleferre had met Ravel in Saint Jean de Luz near Biarritz in 1919-1920 when she spent the Summer with Jean Cocteau's cousin Marianne Singer. Ravel championed Tailleferre's work, even encouraging her to enter the infamous Prix de Rome Competition. This relationship was not romantic, as some sources have suggested, but merely an friendly exchange of professional competence: Ravel was very interested in the music written by Stravinsky as well as Les Six and gave Tailleferre advice on orchestration and composition. These visits, usually in the form of long hikes in the countryside around Monfort, followed by long sessions with Tailleferre playing for Ravel at the piano, mysteriously ended suddenly in 1930 and Tailleferre never saw Ravel again. She refused to give a specific reason, even to her closest friends.
In 1925, Tailleferre married the American caricaturist Ralph Barton and established herself in his apartment in Manhattan. During her marriage to Barton, she also became close to Mr. Barton's best friend, Charlie Chaplin. It was during this period that she composed her Concertino for Harp, which is dedicated to her husband. Barton did not appreciate his wife's reputation as a serious composer and it was difficult for her to compose during her marriage. In 1927, on Barton's urging, the couple moved to France and Tailleferre received a commission from Paul Claudel to write music for his dramatic ode in honor of the Scientist Marcelin Berthelot, which was entitled "Sous les Rempart d'Athènes". The original score of this work has been lost, but a reconstruction has been done by the French Composer Desiré Dondeyne. Tailleferre also completed a ballet La Nouvelle Cythère which was intended for the ill-fated 1929 season of the Ballets Russes which was canceled after Diaghilev's sudden death. The work was believed lost for many years, but the two-piano short score is now published by Musik Fabrik. An orchestration for symphony orchestra and for Concert band has also been reconstructed by Désiré Dondeyne
1929 also marked the end of her marriage to Ralph Barton, who was to commit suicide several months after returning to America. Her Six Chansons Françaises may be seen as a reaction to her divorce, using texts from the XV to XVIII centuries which speak of the problems of women in decaying relationships. Each of the six songs was dedicated to one of her female friends and may be seen as a rather rare expression of feminism in Tailleferre's work.
During 1931, Tailleferre's main project was a comic opera Zoulaina which has never been produced and only exists in manuscript, except for the famous Ouverture which is one of her most frequently performed works. In November of 1931, she gave birth to her only child, Françoise. In 1932, she married her daughter's father, the French Lawyer Jean Lageat. Again, this marriage did not have a positive effect on her composition because of her husband's critical attitude towards her musical life. In spite of his opposition, she was extremely productive during this period, composing the Suite for Chamber orchestra "Divertissement dans le style de Louis XV", her Violin Concerto which has been lost in it's original form (the second Sonata for Violin and Piano is a the reduction of the Concerto, without the initial Cadenza) and her masterpiece, the Concerto Grosso for Two Pianos, Saxophone Quartet, Eight Solo voices and Orchestra (1934). She also began her long series of film scores during this period. In 1937, she collaborated with Paul Valéry on her Cantate Pour Narcisse, for solo Soprano, Baritone, Women's chorus and strings.
During the beginning of 1942, Tailleferre completed her "Trois Études pour Piano et Orchestre" which were dedicated to Margarite Long and her friend François Lang. The work was never orchestrated and only exists in two-piano form. The German Occupation of France during WW2 lead to increased hardships and Tailleferre and her daughter were forced to leave their home in Grasse to try to find passage to America. Traveling across Spain to Portugal, they finally found passage on a boat headed for the US, where they spent the War years in Philadelphia. She did not compose much during this period, preferring to devote herself to the upbringing of her child. She did write an Ave Maria for a cappella women's chorus which was premièred at Swarthmore College and has been lost.
Tailleferre returned to France in 1946, and reestablished herself in Grasse, near Nice. Her relationship with Lagaet was deteriorating, but the couple remained married. Her first major work after returning to France was the Ballet "Paris-Magie" which was premièred at the Opéra Comique in 1949 to very favorable reviews. This was followed by her Comic Opera "Il était un Petit Navire" with a surreal book by Henri Jeanson which was roundly panned by the critics, although some of them thought that the music was good. The production did not run for very long and the Opera only exists in manuscript. She also wrote during this period her Second Piano Concerto, which has been lost, her famous Harp sonata, the Concerto for flute, Piano and Orchestra, the musical comedy Parfums, written for Monte Carlo in 1951 and which has been lost, and the Ballet Parisiana which was premièred in Copenhagen in 1953.
In 1955, Lagaet and Tailleferre finally officially divorced and Germaine's daughter Françoise gave birth to her daughter, Elivre de Rudder. During this same year, she wrote her series of five short Comic Operas Du Style Galant au Style Méchant for Radio France. During the following year, she wrote her Concerto des Vaines Paroles (text by Jean Tardieu) which has been lost, except for the transcription of the First Movement "Allegro Concertante". In 1957, during a brief period of experimentation with the twelve tone technique, she wrote her Opera "La Petite Sirène" as well as her Sonata for Clarinet Solo as well as a work for her friends the Piano Duo Gold and Fitzdale, the Toccata for Two Pianos. The decade ended with her opera Le Maître based on a play by Eugene Ionesco.
Due to her daughter's personal life, Tailleferre became the guardian of Elivre, her granddaughter. During the sixties, she composed a large number of scores for films and television as well as her Concerto for Two Guitars and Orchestra, (which has recently been found at Radio France and which is now available through Musik Fabrik) and Hommage à Rameau for Two pianos and two percussionists. In 1970, she became a professor at the Schola Cantorum but soon left the post due to lack of students for her classes. Through a mutual friend she met the composer Desiré Dondeyne who encouraged her to write for the symphonic band and also helped her complete several projects.
From 1970 on, it became increasingly difficult for her to support herself and her granddaughter and in 1976, at the age of 84, she took the post of accompanist for a children's music and movement class at the École Alsacienne, one of Paris' best private schools. It was this financial security which allowed her to complete her last series of works, which include the Sonata for Two Pianos, The Sérénade en La mineur for four winds and piano or harpsichord, the Allegro Concertante "Les Vaines Paroles" and the Sonate Champêtre for Three Winds and Piano. Her last major work was a commission from the French Cultural Ministry which was intended merely to be a charitable gesture, but which lead the 89 year-old composer to write her Concerto de la Fidelité for high voice and Orchestra (with an orchestration by Desiré Dondeyne), which is a reworking of her harp sonata and an earlier work for high voice and orchestra. Tailleferre continued to compose up until a few weeks before her death, on November 7, 1983 in Paris. She is buried in Quincy-Voisins near Meaux.
I spent 90% of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted - George Best