Germaine Tailleferre and Musical Innovation

Finding freedom only in music, hers was a difficult life, full of obstacles and prejudices.
Maria Chiara Mazzi

Let us imagine we are in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century: in painting (with Picasso and Cézanne), cubists are leaving the hazy world of symbolist dreams; in literature, the futurists are expressing a provocative innovation; in music, Stravinskij is changing the world of music with Le Sacre du printemps. At the end of World War I, these were the movements on which manifestations of change were based, such as Le Coq et l'Arlequin by Jean Cocteau (1920), and the experimentations which in the twenties made the French capital a breeding ground of research.

Jean Cocteau wrote "Enough of clouds, waves, aquariums, water-sprites and nocturnal scents; what we need is music of the earth, everyday music... music one can live in like a house". And "everyday music" found its irreverent place in the musical proposals of the so-called "Les Six", a group of six composers who rejected the traditional complex forms of music and, in search for simplicity, wrote music with South American and jazz rhythms as well as circus and funfair pieces.

Les Six were actually five composers ‒ Arthur Honegger, Louis Durey, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric and Francis Poulenc ‒ and a female composer named Germaine Tailleferre.

Together they worked on Cocteau's opera Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel for the Ballets suédois (1921), even though each one of them (except Durey who left the group; as for Auric, he went on writing very successful movie soundtracks) will follow their own path in musical innovation at the beginning of the twentieth century.

G. Tailleferre, F. Poulenc, A. Honegger, D. Milhaud, J. Cocteau, G. Auric - Eiffel Tower, Paris 1921

Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1981) began her musical studies to which were openly opposed her family and a society that considered musical culture for women only as a complement to education and not for an eventual profession. Women were considered totally unsuited for musical composition. So at twenty years of age, Tailleferre moved to Paris, where she studied with Koechlin and Ravel, and where, at the Conservatory, she met Milhaud, Auric and Honegger.

Together they were a familiar sight in Montmartre and Montparnasse settings, where she met writers (Apollinaire and Léger) and painters (Picasso and Modigliani) while increased the number of her works, published and performed.

Presented in the first concert of Nouveaux Jeunes, in 1918, her compositions began to be appreciated by the greatest soloists of the time, such as violinist Jacques Thibault and pianist Alfred Cortot. They achieved outstanding success as did "Le Marchand d'oiseaux".

Tailleferre then married caricaturist Ralph Barton in New York, where she moved for economic reasons. During her stay in America, she had the opportunity to socialize with the film community and make friends with Charlie Chaplin, who proposed to her that she compose soundtracks for Hollywood. But again, as happens so often in the history of women composers, as their career blossoms, the jealous husband envies their success and undermines their growth. Her husband prevented her to work and to expand her circle of friends, even attempting murder to hinder her success.

However, Germaine did not give up and, divorced, she returned to Paris where she began to compose again, working with Paul Claudel and Paul Valéry. Back again in the United States during World War II, she went back to France in 1946, where she worked until her death almost exclusively on soundtracks for films and documentaries.

Plaque on Germaine Tailleferre's last home - rue d'Assas 87 in Paris

Tailleferre's production is massive: from opera to ballet, from symphonic music to chamber and solo music, from concerts to songs, characterized with an eclecticism that was proof of her vast culture. Her life shows how against current thinking the idea of women composers was, such prejudices still lasting into the twentieth century; misconceptions that female creativity faced over the centuries.

When she was asked if she had encountered many obstacles throughout her musical life, Germaine, at eighty-nine years of age, replied: "Yes! Always! I married an American who became mad. The first thing he did was to buy me a toy piano. And then, my second husband, while I was writing the Cantate de Narcisse with Paul Valéry, consistently prevented me from working. I became rather rapidly well-known thanks to Les Six, but that irritated him. I really had a very difficult life, I don't like to talk about it. I write music for a sense of freedom. In any case, things were always against me, whatever happened."