Tailleferre, Germaine (1892–1983)

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Tailleferre, Germaine (1892–1983)

French composer, a member of the famous group of modern musicians known as Les Six, who emancipated herself from the musical constraints of academic training to create lively, crisp, straightforward music that echoed jazz. Name variations: Germaine Taillefere; Germaine Taileferre; Germaine Taillefesse. Pronunciation: Tal-e-fair. Born Germaine Marcelle Taillefesse on April 19, 1892, in Parc Saint-Maur, outside Paris; died on November 7, 1983, in Paris, at age 91; daughter of a Norman farmer and a pianist; admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, 1904; married Ralph Barton, in 1925 (divorced 1931); married Jean Lageat, in 1931; children: (second marriage) Françoise Lageat.

First admitted to the Paris Conservatoire (1904); forced by father to attend convent school (1906); reinstated at the conservatory (1914); proclaimed a musical protegee of Erik Satie (1917); was a member, with five other musicians, of group known as Les Six (1920–24); traveled to U.S. to perform and married Ralph Barton (1925); divorced Barton and married Lageat (1931); appeared in musical exhibit sponsored by the International Council of Music featuring Les Six (1952); honored with other members of Les Six at a celebration of their 35th anniversary in Paris (1954); awarded the Grand Prix Musical from the Académie des Beaux Arts (1973); awarded a second Grand Prix Musical by the City of Paris (1978).

In Paris in the 1920s, where Ernest Hemingway wrote novels, Gertrude Stein held her salon, Jean Cocteau designed stage sets, and Pablo Picasso created his radically new paintings, there was a sense that anything could happen. In the Latin Quarter and up on Montparnasse, cafés were filled with patrons drawn from all over the world by the cultural ferment. On Saturday nights, at a club called Le Gaya near the Place de la Concorde, crowds were also gathering to hear the new music being played by a group of six musicians. On any given evening, the likes of the Prince of Wales, Artur Rubinstein, and Princess Violette Murat were in attendance at the club, while others clamored outside to get in. Among the six performers was one young woman, Germaine Tailleferre, whose compositions epitomize the magic of that creative period.

Born on April 19, 1892, in Parc Saint-Maur outside of Paris, Germaine Marcelle Taillefesse was the youngest of three girls and two boys. She came from sturdy Norman stock; her family had tilled the land of the region for generations. Her mother, a pianist, sensed Germaine's artistic ability early on. While she taught piano to her older daughters, Germaine would often stay close at hand, then go to her toy piano and pick out the piece she had heard. She was also deft at drawing and needlework. But her strict, conservative father, who could be cruel, bitterly opposed her musical education. Even so, her mother helped her to practice the piano while he was away, and in 1904 she arranged for her daughter to audition for one of the teachers at the Conservatoire de Paris, the most important musical academy in France. Germaine was accepted as a student and entered the conservatory at age 12, but her father's objections remained so vehement that in 1906 she was removed and sent to a convent school. Still, she had won a First prize and began to teach music to earn money for her own musical education.

At the end of her convent schooling, Germaine was reinstated at the conservatory and proved to be an extremely gifted student under the tutelage of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, and Charles-Marie Widor. She became close to Ravel and made the acquaintance of Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, and Georges Auric, who would one day join her in the group known as Les Six. In 1914, the onset of World War I caused many students to leave the conservatory; Widor's composition class was comprised of only Tailleferre, Milhaud, Honegger, and Henri Cliquet-Pleyel. Wrote Francis Poulenc, "How ravishing our Germaine was in 1917, with her school girl's satchel full of all the Conservatoire's first prizes! How kind and gentle she was! … [W]hat a charming and precious contribution her music makes!"

In 1917, Tailleferre's father died in an accident and her mother suffered from phlebitis. Germaine continued to teach to help support her family. On Saturday nights she would often go to Montmartre, where the small apartment of Milhaud was a gathering place for young composers, musicians, and poets. Evenings "chez Darius" expanded her creative horizons as she got to know young painters and poets as well as musicians. She became interested in Cubism and the music of Igor Stravinsky, whose ballet The Rite of Spring had caused an uproar in Paris when it was first performed in 1913. In 1917, she traveled to Spain, and returned with the intention of studying art, but she continued to give music lessons to support herself and her mother. Around this time she began to call herself Tailleferre rather than Taillefesse, because she liked the sound better.

May 18, 1917, was a landmark date in the artistic life of Paris, when Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes performed Parade. Conceived by Jean Cocteau, with music by Erik Satie and sets

by Pablo Picasso, the new work took Paris by storm. Audiences loved the larger-than-life cubist costumes and the musical score which employed the sounds of typewriters, sirens, and airplanes. The creativity of the capricious, opinionated Satie attracted many young composers. When he heard Tailleferre reading through one of her own compositions for two pianos, he proclaimed her to be his fille-musicale and decided to include her music at the informal concerts he sponsored. Around this time Tailleferre also became a good friend of the pianist Artur Rubinstein, to whom she dedicated a Quatuor. Like Satie and others, Rubinstein appreciated Tailleferre's bold new style. Along with other young composers of the period, she demonstrated a need for "less ethereal music, closer to the realities of … daily life, for a cutting, biting music."

On November 11, 1918, WWI came to an end, and the seeds of modernism began to flourish. In Paris, change was suddenly everywhere. Cafés overflowed, automobiles crowded busy streets, and dresses rose above the knee, while artists and intellectuals believed that literature, art, and music must all be reshaped to fit a new dynamic. In this climate, Tailleferre and five friends found themselves at the helm of a brief musical movement. One evening in January 1920, a studio concert was held on the rue Huyghens. It was a small musical gathering typical of ones where young composers like Germaine had a chance to demonstrate their compositions. That evening the critic Henri Collet was in the audience and heard pieces by Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud, Louis Durey, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, and Germaine Tailleferre. Other than being young and French, the only force binding this group of composers was the fact that all were in the circle of Eric Satie. But articles by Collet soon appeared in Comoedia describing the works of Les Six, and creating a legend which changed the lives of all six performers. Although no philosophy or style bound them together, the friends decided to keep the name. As Auric said later, "Labels in concerts as in industry are very important. If one puts a label on a can of Coca-Cola, it sells much better than if one does not."

The label certainly helped to launch Tailleferre's career. Several of her compositions, including her String Quartet, Images, and Jeu de plein air, soon became well known. Some described her as a "princess" of modern music. Despite the tremendous attention she received, Tailleferre remained modest and shy, and somewhat overwhelmed by her newly glamorous milieu. She had little flair for the politics of success. To the displeasure of Satie, she remained friendly with Ravel, who encouraged her to enter competitions to win prize money that she badly needed, and she even became a milliner to augment her income. Her fame grew, meanwhile, as Les Six became the rage, and she completed Ballade, Sonata for Violin and Piano, and a ballet, Le Marchand d'oiseaux.

By 1924, the popularity of Les Six had peaked. The critics and the public, recognizing that the group was held together by no central theme, felt misled by the label and the composers themselves began to disclaim it, going on with their individual work. Another critic, Emile Vuillermos, wrote biting articles proclaiming that in the case of Les Six "publicity takes rank over art." But by this time Tailleferre had been invited to New York by the famous conductor Leopold Stokowski. On February 14, 1925, she performed her Sonata for Violin and Piano in New York's Aeolian Hall, and the following September she was performing in New York again when she met Ralph Barton, a famous caricaturist who spoke French fluently. Several years her senior, Barton soon proposed marriage, and she accepted.

It was Barton's fourth trip to the altar, and the marriage did not begin auspiciously. Largely because he did not want her to play or compose on a real instrument, Barton gave Tailleferre a player piano. In his mind, he had not married a musician; he had married a woman who could provide him with excellent French cuisine. The relationship did allow Tailleferre introduction to the talented and famous, including Charlie Chaplin, Sinclair Lewis, Ethel Barrymore , Somerset Maugham, Loretta Young , and Paul Morand. As well, some of her new works, including the orchestrated version of Jeu de plein air and a new Concertino for harp and orchestra, were performed in concert. The success rankled her husband, who announced he felt like "Monsieur Tailleferre," and his wife later described that period of her life by saying, "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I married a well-known American who went mad."

In 1927, Barton decided they should move to Paris, and the couple's life began to stabilize. Tailleferre found it easier to work and composed Deux Valses for two pianos, Pavane, Nocturne, and Finale for orchestra, a Sicilienne and a Pastorale in A-flat. In 1929, she wrote Six Chansons Françaises, but in 1930, her mother, who had always been a great support, died. Her husband had begun to travel to and fro between New York and Paris, frequently seeing other women. Not wishing to repeat her parents' confrontational relationship, Tailleferre remained conciliatory, which only enraged Barton, and she finally decided on a separation. On April 20, 1931, the divorce became final; one month later, on May 20, Barton committed suicide in New York, an event that was front-page news.

That same year Tailleferre married again. Her husband was a lawyer, Jean Lageat, and this marriage proved to be no happier than the first, since Lageat was also jealous of his wife and a serious illness aggravated his moods. Tailleferre gave birth to a daughter named Françoise Lageat and, to supplement the family income, began to write film music. She also composed an exuberant Overture, which many judge to be her finest piece. "I make music because I enjoy it," she said. "I know that it is not grande musique. It is light and gay music, which explains why sometimes I am compared to the petits maîtres of the 18th century, and I am very proud of this." In 1934, she wrote and performed her Concerto for Two Pianos, Chorus, and Orchestra.

Diagnosed with tuberculosis, Lageat was forced to spend three years in a Swiss sanitarium. Tailleferre accompanied him to Leysin, and her work suffered while she remained at his side. In 1936, she completed her Violin Concerto, and she continued to write film music. In 1937, she began a collaboration with Paul Valéry, the French poet, receiving a commission of 20,000 francs to compose a cantata using his lyric poetry. Recalling this happy time, Tailleferre described her walks with Valéry beneath the olive trees in the South of France. As they discussed the poem central to the work, "Narcisse," he would recite out loud while she would take down rhythmic dictation. The Cantate du Narcisse was performed in 1942 but never published. By this time Tailleferre and her daughter had followed her husband to New York to escape the Nazis. Germaine never felt at home in America, and she worried about family and friends in France. During those years she did not compose, but she did teach a few students. In 1948, when she returned to France, much had changed. Her home in Grasse had been occupied and pillaged by the Germans, and while trying to restore her household, she saw that her second marriage had become impossible. It would not end, however, until 1955.

In 1952, the International Council of Music sponsored an exhibit featuring manuscripts, stage sets, letters, and mementos of Les Six, and Tailleferre was drawn back to her early companions. On November 3, 1954, the 35th anniversary of the group was celebrated at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with a gala concert which drew 3,000 people to honor them. In 1955, Tailleferre bought a house in Saint-Tropez with her meager divorce settlement, and lived there with her granddaughter, Elvire, born to Françoise during a brief marriage. Raising the child and other family problems frequently kept her from work, but she still managed to compose. In the 1950s, she wrote a Second Sonata for violin and piano, a Sonata for harp, and a Concertino for flute, piano, and chamber orchestra. Her ballet Parisiana was first performed in 1953 in Copenhagen and again in 1954 at the Edinburgh Festival.

In 1961, Les Six, reduced to five by the death of Arthur Honegger, celebrated their 40th anniversary. Tailleferre continued to teach and to raise her adored young granddaughter. After the Paris riots in 1968, she joined the Communist Party to show sympathy with the students' cause. Because she never kept track of royalties or her music manuscripts, many of her works are incomplete or lost, and her life remained economically precarious. Six years before her death, however, friends formed an "Association Germaine Tailleferre" to look after her, and in 1973 she was awarded the Grand Prix Musical from the Académie des Beaux Arts. In 1978, she received a second Grand Prix Musical from the City of Paris. She continued to compose up to the time of her death, on November 7, 1983, at age 91—the last of Les Six.


Brody, Elaine. Paris. The Musical Kaleidoscope 1870– 1925. NY: George Braziller, 1987.

"Germaine Tailleferre," in The Times [London]. November 9, 1983, p. 16.

Harding, James. The Ox on the Roof: Scenes from Musical Life in Paris in the Twenties. London: Macdonald, 1972.

Mitgang, Laura. "Germaine Tailleferre: Before During and After Les Six," in Zaimont, Judith Lang, Catherine Overhauser, and Jane Gottlieb, Jane, eds., The Musical Woman: An International Perspective. Vol. II, 1984–1985. CT: Greenwood Press, 1987, pp. 177–221.

"La mort de Germaine Tailleferre. Compositeur au féminin," in Le Monde. November 9, 1983, p. 17.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia