Les Six

The activities of one particular group of French composers during World War II has become a popular topic of discussion over the last few years. 'Les Six' (The Six) were established as a group in the 1920s after they shot to fame under the guidance of Jean Cocteau. The group consisted of the composers Francois Poulenc, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, and Germaine Tailleferre. Shortly after World War I, Milhaud wrote in his Notes Without Music: ‘I know that Poulenc, Durey, Auric and Desormiere were all active in the Resistance’. This quotation has sparked excitement amongst French musicians who are keen to uphold Les Six as icons of French composition. In fact, their engagement with Resistance movements was enormously varied and even, at times, dubious.

Germaine Tailleferre and Darius Milhaud

Two of the members of Les Six escaped the war by emigrating, so did not become involved in resistance activity. Shortly after the Nazi invasion, Tailleferre abandoned her house in France and escaped across Spain to Portugal. From here she caught a boat to the US where she lived in Philadelphia until she was able to return to a liberated France in 1946. Milhaud similarly escaped with his family to America in 1939, returning only after the liberation.

Louis Durey and Georges Auric

Two other members of Les Six took a stance of almost complete compositional silence during the Occupation, to demonstrate their refusal to cooperate with Nazi control of France. Durey refused to compose anything new whilst the Germans were in power, instead turning to the collecting and arranging of songs. This became an important Resistance activity, as the songs he chose to collect were old French folk songs which depicted life in France before the war, and Renaissance secular music such as that of Clément Janequin, which had been banned by the Nazis as 'pagan'. Durey also joined the French Resistance organisation Front National des Musiciens and became a prominent member, working to hide Jews and preserve banned French music.

Like Durey, Auric disapproved ideologically of composing under Nazi rule. At the start of World War I, he had quoted Debussy saying 'I never wanted my music to be played before the fate of France had been decided, because France can neither smile nor cry whilst so many of us are headed for ruin.' In October 1944, just after the liberation, Auric echoed this sentiment: 'to be heroic, whilst peacefully sheltered from bullets, seems to me to be ridiculous.' Despite this, Auric did write a powerful composition, 'Quatre chants de la France malheureuse' (Four songs for a miserable France), which used poems by resistance poets such as Eluard and Aragon. He also named it after French poet Jules Supervielle's 'Poemes de la France Malheureuse' which was a resistance work published abroad and then secretly distributed in France.

However, by far Auric's most significant contribution to the Resistance were his clandestine articles. A number of these were written for the newspaper Les musiciens d'aujourd'hui (Musicians of today) and discussed fears about the future of French music under German cultural domination. In one, from 1943, Auric railed against the concept of universal music, writing that this would simply revert to German music. He wrote: 'if music has no country, musicians do', warning composers not to put 'our orchestras and conductors, our virtuosos, our singers, at the service of the monumental works of the German school'. He complained that the Nazis imposed their own music under 'the pretext of covering up the so-called insufficiency of French musical culture.'

Auric also took a firm stance on the iconic French composer Claude Debussy. Debussy was praised by Vichy at the start of the war as a national cultural symbol who showed the strength of French culture. His Wagnerian influence was highlighted to show the compatibility of German and French culture. However, as Vichy politics became more closely aligned with Nazi ideals, members of the Resistance re-appropriated Debussy for their own purposes. They claimed that Debussy had not been influenced at all by Wagner, and in June 1942 he was hailed as 'Debussy la libérateur' (Debussy the liberator). Auric continued in this Resistance vein in his own articles on Debussy. He praised Debussy for refusing to write because it was demanded of him during World War I, instead remaining silent for a year and composing again only when he felt the urge. This, Auric argued, made him a true fighter for French thought and art, because he did not try to mobilise music for political end ('Debussy ne mobilise pas la musique'). Auric also condemned the music critic André Coeuroy, who translated the work of the German scholar Heinrich Stroebel rather than writing his own historical account of Debussy. Under Stroebel's pen, Debussy's life and works were skewed towards German propaganda aims. Even worse, Coeuroy deliberately mistranslated some of Debussy's own comments so that they fitted in more with the German message. Auric called Coeuroy a 'perfect example of a 'professional conscience' in a collaborator who had lost all their other conscience.'

Francois Poulenc

Poulenc is perhaps the member of Les Six whose music demonstrates the greatest act of resistance. It has been noted that almost all of Poulenc's works of 1938-44 relate directly to the experience of war in some way. Following the Munich crisis of 1938, Poulenc wrote 'Priez pour paix' (pray for peace) on poems by Charles d'Orleans about the Virgin's intercession to create peace. Later that year he wrote 'Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence' (four motets for a time of penitence), anticipating the horrors of the war that would follow, and in 1939, 'Bleuet' (cornflower), which was a setting of a WWI poem by Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire wrote his text after suffering a head wound fighting on the front, lamenting the loss of peace and innocence. The song is characterised by death, including the line 'You know death better than life', highlighting Poulenc's fears about the threatening war. From 1939 Poulenc was too hesitant to embark on any new compositions in case he was called up for war, but by the time he was sent to fight in June 1940 France had already fallen. After the occupation of France, Poulenc did not befriend the Nazis as many of his associates, including Jean Cocteau, chose to. Indeed, he initially worried about returning to a German-occupied Paris, and bemoaned the loss of Jewish musicians, writing in October 1943 to a friend: 'without being a philosemite, I must say that Jewish yeast is indispensable for making the custard batter rise in the concert halls.' Poulenc himself was not completely safe from the Nazi persecution as he was openly gay. His partner at the time, Raymond Destouches, only narrowly escaped arrest and deportation. Nevertheless, Poulenc managed to escape unharmed.

Poulenc without a doubt enacted some deliberate Resistance acts. As well as being a member of Resistance organisation the Front National des Musiciens (the national front of musicians), Poulenc hid some subversive melodies and texts in his wartime compositions. His ballet Les Animaux modèles (Model animals) included a section of an Alsation song 'Non, non, vous n'aurez pas notre Alsace-Lorraine' (No, no, you will not have our Alsace-Lorraine), referring to the German annexation of this region from 1871-1918. It became popular as a Resistance song in 1940 when the Germans took over the region again. The ballet was premiered in the presence of several German officers in Paris in 1942 and was conducted by Roger Desormière, another Resistance member; the reference seems to have gone unnoticed. In the same year, Poulenc composed his Chansons villageoises (Songs of the villagers) which included the song 'Le Mendiant' (the beggar) inspired by Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death. This prominent emphasis on death recalled his earlier song 'Bleuet' and cried out against 'the damned race that feels no pity', warning that the 'worm will turn'. The work was performed in public during the Occupation, but again Poulenc avoided punishment.

Poulenc's most important resistance works were those that set the works of French resistance poets. One of the poets Poulenc turned to was Louis Aragon, himself a member of the Resistance and known by the alias Francois la Colère. Aragon lived close to the Maquis resistance fighters in the mountains near Lyon and wrote simple verses that could be set to music and help inspire courage amongst the French people. Poulenc chose to set his 'Fêtes galantes' (Chivalrous festivals), which gave an offhand depiction of life in occupied Paris, and 'C', named after the popular battle ground of Ce, near Tours, which labelled the sequence of bridges over the Loire which the French, defeated and dismembered, had to cross during the 1940 exodus. He even entitled them 'Two poems of Louis of Aragon', making no attempt to hide the illegality of his compositions. Poulenc also set the works of communist poet Paul Eluard. Eluard wrote a number of Resistance poems during the war which were smuggled to London and broadcast by the BBC on Radio London; hundreds of thousands of copies were also dropped by RAF parachutists into Occupied France. Following this activity, Eluard and his wife had to go into hiding in 1942 and sought refuge in a lunatic asylum in the mountains of Lozère. A friendly doctor declared them incurably insane, and they were able to continue their resistance activities under Eluard's pseudonym of Jean du Haut. Poulenc received a copy of Eluard's 'Liberté' in 1942 after it was passed hand-to-hand through a network of friends. He decided to encode it in the finale of his cantata Figure Humaine (human figure). Poulenc referred to this as 'a secret work ... clandestinely prepared for the Resistance'. Due to its overtly political nature, the work was not premiered until January 1945 in London. Poulenc was flown in by a special military plane to attend the final rehearsals. He reportedly played the work to himself at his piano every day prior to the liberation, and when Paris was finally freed he placed the manuscript in the window of his apartment as a sign of his resistance.

However, several of Poulenc's letters and even works have undermined his status as a Resistance fighter. In a letter of 10 July 1940, the day that Vichy voted an end to the French 3rd Republic, Poulenc wrote to his friend: 'In a word, I am happy', showing a curious sense of elation in the face of defeat. The following month he wrote to several friends expressing gratitude towards 'the dear Maréchal' for saving him. This was not an unusual reaction, as many people hoped that Pétain would be able to save France and its citizens. However, other acts have further undermined Poulenc's Resistance efforts. His Chansons villageoises (Songs of the villagers) have been seen as a musical version of Vichy's return to traditional life under the motto, 'Travail, Famille, Patrie' (Work, Family, Fatherland). Similarly, in May 1944, just as the war was approaching its climax, Poulenc embarked on a comic opera called Les Mamelles de Tiresias (the Breasts of Tiresias) which has had a rather ambivalent reception, being seen as a both a pro-Vichy work and a Resistance declaration. It proclaims the need for more children to be produced, which went along with the ideas of Maréchal Pétain, who had famously blamed the defeat of 1940 on trop peu d'enfants (not enough children). The implications are ambiguous: if Poulenc's tone was serious, it does indeed seem that the work displays pro-Vichy sympathies. If his tone was mocking, the work instead distances him from Pétain's regime.


This issue has been rendered even murkier by the lies Poulenc told after the war to ensure he was not arrested. He claimed that all the wartime concerts in which he was involved with singer Pierre Bernac consisted exclusively of French music, whilst we have proof that he included many German composers such as Schumann. Poulenc also stated after the war that Figure Humaine was performed in London in January 1945, which would have made it an active Resistance activity during the last stages of the war. In fact, it was performed only in March, after the war had ended. These are small quibbles, but the fact that Poulenc felt the need to lie suggests that he was concerned about his wartime behaviour. Whatever view we choose to take of Poulenc, however – whether a Resistance hero or simply a self-centred composer who wrote what he felt most inspired by, without giving much thought to the political implications – Poulenc was not an anti-Semite. He continued correspondence with Darius Milhaud during the war, and after the liberation published articles praising Milhaud's works and arranged concerts in his honour to try and make his return to France easier.

Arthur Honegger

Arthur Honegger has often been seen as the weak link in the chain of Resistance activity amongst 'Les Six'. Honegger was treated with suspicion during and immediately after the war, and given his dealings with the Nazis, it is somewhat remarkable that he escaped without being tried. As early as 1941, Honegger became closely involved with German musical life. In November he was invited to Vienna for the international Mozart festival organised by the German Ministry of Propaganda under the direction of Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler's closest associates. Notorious collaborators such as composers Florent Schmitt and Marcel Delannoy and fascist critic Lucien Rebatet were also present, and the whole event was designed to celebrate cultural collaboration. After his return to France, Honegger wrote enthusiastic reviews of his experiences and of the German music he had heard in the magazine Comoedia, a paper spurned by Resistance fighters. Following this event, Honegger attended meetings of the German cultural authorities in Paris, formed a friendship with a German officer, and returned to Vienna in February 1942 to a festival at the German embassy for Heinz Drewes, the head of the German music department in Berlin. In 1942 Vichy adopted him as French, despite his Swiss heritage, devoting an entire issue of the magazine L'information Musicale (Musical Information) to him. Honegger also enjoyed enormous popularity during the war as his musical style even before the war bridged French and German traditions. This fitted in well with German cultural ideals as it showed the creative potential of collaboration with other European countries. In July 1942 the Germans allowed a week-long festival to commemorate Honegger's 50th birthday in appreciation of his music.

This paints a very suspicious portrait of the composer. However, many of these actions can be excused or understood. For a start, it should be remembered that Honegger was Swiss, so officially neutral in the war. In 1939 he had spoken out against the war altogether, announcing in a paper in 1939 that he was organising a committee in favour of pacifism. His work La Naissance des Couleurs (the Birth of Colour), written just as France was falling in May 1940, included these final lines expressing his desire for peace

Unissez-vous, o peuples de la terre
Fraternisez dans la blanche lumiere ... 
Et que vos voix fraternelles s'unissent
Dans cette paix que donne la justice

(Unite, people of the earth
Fraternise in the white light ...
And let your brotherly voices unite
In this peace which gives us justice.

Furthermore, despite his chance to escape back to Switzerland, he stayed in France, writing 'I am not a rat who deserts a sinking ship.' The trip to Vienna in 1941 may have been an opportunity to get the manuscript of his 2nd Symphony abroad. Indeed, shortly after this trip, German authorities granted him exit visas for concert tours around Europe, which he used to further his own career by touring his 'Pacific 231', a work which was actually considered 'degenerate music' by the Nazis. He also wrote of his meetings with German officers: 'Going to the enemy's camp does not automatically mean that one supports his cause.'

Other pieces of evidence have been offered to clear Honegger's name. In 1941 we know that Honegger became involved with Resistance activities. He joined the group Front National des Musiciens after his defence of French music in Comoedia had caught their attention. He showed no signs of antisemitism, continuing his unwavering loyalty to Milhaud and, in December 1940, setting Psalm 140 to music, which describes the children of Israel returning from exile. He also became involved in Resistance films with Pierre Blanchar, the head of the Resistance cinema, writing the music for Secrets and Un Seul Amour (A Single Love) in 1942-3. His 2nd Symphony has also been hailed as a Resistance work. It was written whilst Paris was being invaded and charted a move from lamentation, to oppression, to distress, followed by an energetic rising-up showing that man is not beaten, and finally a trumpet chorale expressing hope again. The work was played in cities all over the world during and immediately after the war, and came to be seen as a universal message of freedom. However, none of this was enough for the Resistance itself. In 1942 an internal report from Front National des Musiciens reported that everything was good, 'sauf un cas de collaborateur à Comoedia avec illusions'. (Except in the case of the a collaborator working for Comoedia who had illusions.) This is a clear reference to Honegger. What we will never be sure of is whether the Resistance truly believed Honegger was collaborating, or whether they were so scared of being discovered that they had to exclude him just to be safe.

It would seem that Honegger himself was equally confused about his position. Biographers have keenly awaited the discovery of Honegger's 'Chant de libération' (Song of liberation), which featured in one of the first concerts after the Liberation on 22 October 1944 in Paris. This song caused the French author Maurice Brillant to write, 'For our joy and honour, Honegger was a composer of the Resistance’. This work was finally discovered in 2010, but instead of clearing Honegger, it possibly incriminates him. The melody of the song came from the music for the film Joan of Arc on which Honegger had worked in 1942. The figure of Joan of Arc was assigned to Maréchal Pétain in an act of propaganda designed to direct French hostility towards Britain, rather than Germany or Vichy. In fact, Honegger also wrote an oratorio on the same subject, Jean d'Arc au Bucher (Joan of Arc at the Stake), which the Vichy government toured around 27 cities in Southern France to promote the Vichy regime. These were very much not Resistance activities, but point towards collaboration. However, Honegger claimed in a catalogue of his own works that he appropriated the melody of Joan of Arc and turned it into a Resistance song in April 1942. The new text set to the melody celebrated the Allies' arrival and encouraged the French to help liberate their land, mixing in quotations of patriotic songs such as 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary', 'The Star-Spangled Banner', and 'La Marseillaise'. This would have meant that Honegger set a Resistance text to music early on in the war and was being loyal to the Resistance despite his public association with the Nazis. However, the manuscript uncovered in 2010 in fact reveals a different date: April 1944. His sketchbooks from this year show how he worked Resistance elements into the older tune. Instead of placing Honegger as a Resistance composer, it suggests that he feared he would be accused of collaborating, so wrote a Resistance song and lied about its date to provide evidence that might save him during a trial. Shortly after this, in May 1945, Honegger composed another song, 'Hymne de la délivrance' (Hymn of deliverance), which closely imitated Resistance songs that had been broadcast by the BBC on Radio Londres, and two months later he set it into the score for a film about Resistance fighters: Un Ami Viendra ce Soir (A Friend is Coming Tonight). It is somewhat strange that Honegger's burst of Resistance activity happened all at once, at the point that it became clear that Germany was going to lose the war. As if unable to leave the subject alone, Honegger entitled one of the chapters of his autobiography I Am a Composer, 'I Have Collaborated', before going on to discuss his musical development with no mention to the Occupation in the book at all. It has all the hallmarks of  a case of, 'don't mention the war'.

These late Resistance activities suggest that Honegger was not a staunch collaborator, but they do suggest that he felt some kind of guilt or need to atone for his misguided actions earlier in the war. The most likely truth is that Honegger was self-centred and an opportunist who took all opportunities that came his way during the war, regardless of the political implications of his actions.

Raymond Deiss

A final person connected to Les Six who deserves recognition for his resistance is Milhaud's publisher, the unsung hero Raymond Deiss. Four months after the Occupation, Deiss started a protest sheet called Pantagruel, which may have been a satirical reference to the popular 16th century French novel by Francois Rabelais, The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Very Renowned Pantagruel describing the actions of the eponymous giant. Sixteen sheets were issued before Deiss was deported. He was decapitated in prison in Cologne two years later.

by Daisy Fancourt


Richard E Burton Francis Poulenc (Bath, 2002)

Roland Penrose Au service du peuple en armes (1945)

Benjamin Ivry Francis Poulenc (London,m 1996)

Alan Riding And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris (London, 2010)

Honegger I am a composer (London, 1966)

Jane F. Fulcher 'Debussy as National Icon: From Vehicle of Vichy's Compromise ot French Resistance Classic' The Musical Quarterly (Oct, 2011)

Myriam Chimenes ed. La Vie Musicale Sous Vichy (Brussels, 2001)

Harry Halbrech Arthur Honegger (Geneva, 1995)

Pierre Meylan Honegger: son oeuvre et son message (Lausanne, 1982)

Bernard Grasset Georges Auric: Quand j'étais la (Paris, 1979)

Georges Auric Ecrits sur la musique 'lettres françaises [clandestine]' ed Carl B. Schmidt (New York, 2009)