American Musicological Society, November 2023.

This paper shows how Darius Milhaud’s Les Six contemporaries incorporated his style of dissonant polytonality into their own compositions, which gave the group a semblance of aesthetic coherence while simultaneously painting the target of antisemitism on their backs. After the First World War, Jean Cocteau called for music to be rebuilt in a way that is “French, of France.” In response, Milhaud devised a compositional style that uses the musical resources of the French Baroque and Classic periods in pursuit of the sound of modernist alienation. Milhaud admired Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal system, yet rather than merely emulate Schoenberg’s Teutonic influence, he combined tonal elements from disjunct tonalities to create polytonal mélanges. Combination became a lifelong preoccupation for Milhaud, who at first stacked triads to yield dissonant sonorities but later combined differently pitched themes before juxtaposing whole movement forms. And despite the originality of Milhaud’s mélanges, his writings assert their connectedness to a contrapuntal tradition that extends back to Zarlino while circumnavigating German Romanticism’s corrupting obsession with tonal unity and organicism. Thus, Milhaud’s dissonances serve an agenda to establish his dual identity as a French and Jewish person by inventing a new compositional language that is nevertheless rooted in tradition (Fulcher 2005).

Although the personal backgrounds, politics, and musical preferences of the Les Six members have dissuaded scholars from trying to articulate a group aesthetic (Shapiro 2011), Milhaud-like mélanges appear in each of the members’ works. For example, Arthur Honegger’s Rugby combines disparate melodies in strict parallel to create sweeping gestures that invoke the movements of hulking athletes. Meanwhile, Germaine Tailleferre’s Marchand d’oiseaux juxtaposes tonal melodies to pantomime fluttering birds while refreshing Classical period structures with modern harmonizations. And in Francis Poulenc’s contribution to l’Album des six, a tonally capricious melody slips playfully in and out of focus with a churlishly stubborn pedal point in the left hand. Whether or not the members of Les Six adhered to a group aesthetic, they were united in being denounced as “ultra-modern,” “Jewish,” and therefore degenerate (Kelly 2013)—by populist, antisemitic critics who could not reliably distinguish polytonality from atonality (Médicis 2005).