Fictional Letter from Milhaud to Cocteau [May 1926]

May 4, 1926
Dear Mr. Cocteau,

I’m writing to follow up on the conversation we had about our group, Les Six. You appeared to be somewhat concerned about how we get along and the effectiveness in our work, particularly whether Germaine is pulling her weight. I appreciate your understandable concern (being our leader, spokesman, booster, and friend). Now, we both know I’m biased (being one of her best friends),[1] but she has been very important to our group by being the only female member and providing musical contributions and artistic collaboration.

I remember when we (Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Germaine, and I) first met in 1913 in George Caussade’s counterpoint class and then later took composition from Eugene Widor together.[2] At times, she found studies to be tedious but what fun we had at the Paris Conservatoire! Francis Poulenc reminisced,
How delightful Germaine was…with her schoolgirl’s satchel full of all her First Prizes from the Conservatoire! She was so nice and so talented. She still is but I rather regret that her excessive modesty has prevented her from producing everything that a Marie Laurencin, for instance, was able to draw from her feminine talent. Even so, her music is so charming and distinguished! I’m always taken by it.[3]
It is quite an honor for someone like Francis to say her music is distinguished! I’m thankful we met back then in school. It was the beginning of not only the formation of our group, but the beginning of our collaborative efforts that have continued for years. We got to know each other’s personalities and music styles.

It is true that she is so modest that she does not promote herself well.[4] However, a person can simply be a fantastic writer and poor promoter. For some reason, she is insecure about her musical talents (despite her successes and many prizes she won at the Conservatoire). I have tried to encourage her greatly to build her self-confidence.[5] Perhaps she is also a bit ambivalent about her vocation…but who hasn’t been at some point? Although she left the Conservatoire in 1915, she took lessons off and on from Charles Koechlin until 1923 and has studied with Ravel, so she’s obviously still trying to improve her skills. [6] Her desire for continual improvement is something the rest of our group admires. It is true that her music is not particularly innovative, but it doesn’t lack originality either.[7]

Regardless of all this, she is so very talented! Very underrated! Her musical talents far outweigh her flaws. Her specialization is in piano; she’s even performed reductions of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Rite, and Firebird.[8] She has natural gifts for melodic construction and orchestration.[9] When she feels the need, she is able to utilize both atonality and polytonality in her writing. She shows no hesitation to experiment with new forms or genres that are unfamiliar to her. [10] She even said, “I do not have a great deal of respect for tradition. I write music because I enjoy it. I know that it is not great music; my music is light and cheerful, which is why I am sometimes compared with the petits-maîtres of the 18th century, of which I am proud.”[11] Her musical knowledge and gifts have clearly manifested themselves in her writings, which have been a welcomed balance to pieces other members of our group have written.

We both know she has had several unfortunate personal and professional struggles in her life so far. Her father never supported her musical endeavors, financially or otherwise. (She has yet to forgive him, despite the fact he passed away a decade ago.)[12] She has been married to that Ralph Barton for less than a year (they’re currently living in New York), but I have noticed her writing has taken a hit because of it. No, it’s not that her mind is lost in the sea of love, but rather, her heart is aching because her husband does not support her either. He is draining her creative spirits.[13] How sad! However, it seems that she has been able to use these set-backs as opportunities to increase her fortitude and still contribute to our group.[14]

But take a look at her recent successes! She has written a variety of serious works and collaborated with some of us others in Les Six on several pieces, the most well-known ballet being Les Maries de La Tour Eiffel with Auric, Honegger, Poulenc, and myself.[15] The Ballets Suédois has given Le Marchand d’oiseaux 93 performances![16] Any one of us should be jealous. Remember the story behind Concerto pour Piano et Orchestra? She had participated in the musical evenings at Princess Edmond de Polignac’s salon, when one day the Princess commissioned Germaine to write a piece for her! It premiered on December 3, 1924 in London by the British Women’s Symphony Orchestra. It was very well received and critics hailed her as progressive. Stravinsky even remarked that “It is virtuous music!”[17] It continues to do well and be one of her more famous works. Who knows what the future holds for her? This is just one example that shows why our group is understandably glad to have her on our team.

Just because we follow separate aesthetics does not mean we should part ways by any means! As Francis said, we are
a group of friends, certainly, but in no way following a common aesthetic. What could be different than Auric and Milhaud, or Honegger and myself? The surest proof that we were bound only by ties of affection is that…with all of us pursuing our own paths, we have remained good friends.[18]
Germaine is just as important as each of the rest of our circle of friends and she brings her unique talents to the table. As I have said, “Tailleferre is a delightful musician…she produces little but each work is remarkably mise au point.[19] Her music is sophisticated, well-crafted, intriguing, and most importantly, emotional.[20]

Even if we weren’t such close friends, I would still vouch for her importance in our group. Not only because (and not just because) she is the only female member, but because she is has influenced us five composers more than we expected. Personally, I think she deserves more fame and recognition. I greatly enjoy listening to her perform and to performances of her pieces. I don’t know what I would do if she was no longer in Les Six. Hopefully this letter assures you and your worries can subside. If you’d like to talk further about this, please contact me.

Darius Milhaud

Shapiro, Robert. Les Six: The French Composers and Their Mentors, Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie. London: Peter Owen, 2011. 245.
[2] Shapiro 245.
[3] Poulenc, Francis. 1953. For French Radio Interview by Claude Rostand. Radio. Reprinted in Poulenc, Francis. Francis Poulenc, Articles and Interviews: Notes from the Heart. Edited by Nicolas Southon and Roger Nichols. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2014. 199.
[4] Orledge, Robert. “Tailleferre, Germaine.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 5, 2015,
[5] Shapiro 245.
[6] Shapiro 246.
[7] Shapiro 261.
[8] Library of Congress. Moldenhauer Archives., Rosaleen Moldenhauer, Jon Newsom, Alfred Mann, and Hans Moldenhauer. The Rosaleen Moldenhauer Memorial: Music History From Primary Sources : A Guide to the Moldenhauer Archives. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2000. 429.
[9] Shapiro 259.
[10] Shapiro 260.
[11] Shapiro 261.
[12] Shapiro 244-246.
[13] Orledge n.p.
[14] Shapiro 243.
[15] Schueneman, Bruce R., and Studwell, William E. (1997). Minor Ballet Composers: Biographical Sketches of Sixty-six Underappreciated yet Significant Contributors to the Body of Western Ballet Music. New York: Haworth Press, 1997. 82-83.
[16] Nichols, Roger. The Harlequin Years: Music in Paris, 1917-1929. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002. 159.
[17] Moldenhauer 429.
[18] Poulenc 98.
[19] Milhaud, Darius. “The Evolution of Modern Music in Paris and in Vienna.” The North American Review (1821-1940) 217, no. 809 (04, 1923): 550.
[20] Shapiro 261.

Bibliography of Additional Sources:

Hill, Edward Burlingame. “Maurice Ravel.” The Musical Quarterly 13, no. 1 (1927): 130-46. Accessed October 5, 2015.

Isabel, Morse Jones. “Pro-Musica Rekindles Interest.” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File), Oct 03, 1928.

“Tailleferre – Piano Concerto No. 1 (I-II).” YouTube. July 5, 2011. Accessed October 5, 2015.