by Robert Hugill (February 10, 2022)
She lived to be well over 90 and continued to compose until a few weeks before her death, yet the name Germaine Tailleferre is only ever associated with one thing, that she was the only female member of Les Six. Her surviving output is large, and there might have been even more; she was forced to abandon many scores when she fled France during the war and kept track of neither her manuscripts nor her royalties.
She studied at the Paris Conservatory against her father's wishes, and she had two husbands (one American in the 1920s and one Frenchman in the 1930s), neither of whom wanted her to compose music and the second was also abusive. And it should be noted that her modern style of composition in the 1920s, when she was associated with Les Six, only really came about after her father's death in 1917 when she had more freedom. And she changed her name to Tailleferre from Taillefesse in order to spite her father!
Yet throughout she continued to compose music (with some inevitable gaps), at one point taking to film music to earn much needed income. She would say of this, “I know that it is not grande musique. It is light and gay music, which explains why sometimes I am compared to the petits maitres of the eighteenth century, and I am very proud of this.” And a fellow member of Les Six, Georges Auric would say of her, “She had little flair for the politics of success.” (And indeed Auric himself turned to film music and would write music for such films as Passport to Pimlico).
Before the war she wrote the operas Zoulaïna and Le marin de Bolivar, and her masterwork, La cantate de Narcisse, in collaboration with Paul Valéry. Then after the war there were at least two ballets, plus the operas Il était un petit navire (with Henri Jeanson), Dolores, La petite sirène (with Philippe Soupault, based on Hans Christian Andersen's story The Little Mermaid), and Le maître (to a libretto by Ionesco), the musical comedy Parfums,
In 1955 she and librettist Denise Centore would create a cycle of five little operas, Du style galant au style méchant. Perhaps there was something in the air as another member of Les Six, Darius Milhaud would be rather fond of creating tiny operas too. Tailleferre's were written for French radio and each one was written in the style of an earlier composer. Only four survive, they are La fille d'opéra (a parody of Rameau), Le bel ambitieux (a parody of Rossini), La pauvre Eugénie (a parody of Charpentier), and Monsieur Petit Pois achète un château (a parody of Offenbach) and they still do not seem to be well known. These are charming pieces, designed to amuse and the writing is vastly different from Tailleferre's 1920s style.
Ella Marchment’s staging of these operas will be augmented by inclusion of overtures and other excerpts from the composers on which the four operas are styled, and Marchment comments, “Is it ironic that even now in order to be remembered a woman had to attach herself to men (to Poulenc and Milhaud through Les Six), and to these other composers through these operatic works. Was Tailleferre forced to live in the shadows or others or was this a box that she consciously chose to put herself in time and time again under a false belief that she was her own agent.”
And Marchment's approach to the staging will be firmly focused on Tailleferre herself: “The show opens as Tailleferre struggles to complete her four operettas in time to make her deadline set by Radio France. She has moved to the South of France and is under pressure to support her daughter Françoise through her composition. She is no longer composing art for arts sake, but accessible music that is guaranteed to please and earn her enough money to support her family . . . It is only when these operas are finally completed does Tailleferre free her imagination to live as she truly wishes too, and the closing scene of the opera sees her entering her imaginative world and reclaiming it for her own true self.”
Photo by Robert Piwko