She was a pioneering French composer who helped shape the sound of France's music post World War I, but she also faced extraordinary challenges. John Banther and Evan Keely explore her music, life events, give you 5 recommended works to listen to!
Performances of Tailleferre's music!
The harp sonata, played by Anne-Sophie Bertrand. Do you hear the similarity between the final movement and a particular cartoon theme song?
Her only string quartet, played by the Metamorphosis Quartet
A select act from an opera made up of 1 act operas parodying other composers. In this one, she's mimicking the style of Jean Philipe Rameau!
Interested in hearing some of her film music? You can watch the 1938 film La Petit Chose, here.
John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we're your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's Evan Keely, and we're exploring the life and music of French composer, Germaine Tailleferre.
Her life was marked by world events like surviving a cholera pandemic and multiple world wars, and she also faced tragedy at home. But despite the obstacles in front of her, she composed a whirlwind of music in the 20th century from opera to ballet, chamber music, film score and more. Plus, stay with us as we give you five works you need to listen to by Tailleferre after the episode.
This, Evan, is an episode I really hope serves as a jumping off point for people who are unfamiliar with Germaine Tailleferre's music, because as you'll hear, well, the music speaks for itself and there's no reason why we shouldn't be hearing more of this and why it shouldn't be heard more in concert halls today.
Evan Keely: This is a composer who really deserves to be remembered. She was pretty well- known during her lifetime and her music is still performed. But I, like you, John, am hoping that this episode will be one of the things that increases interest in her music.
John Banther: And stay with us to the end to see if perhaps one of your favorite cartoons copied this composer. And a quick heads up, this episode does deal with abuse, domestic violence, and self- harm.
So, Germaine Tailleferre, born Germaine Taillefesse, and we'll explain the name change later, was born April 19th, 1892, and survived cholera. Right after being born as a baby, she survives cholera, and it's an interesting connection here. This cholera outbreak in Europe, while survived by baby Germaine, it's what kills Tchaikovsky the next year.
Evan Keely: 1892, 1893, this was a big problem in Europe.
John Banther: Yes, it's interesting to see those connections. Hundreds, almost a thousand miles apart, and unfortunately it was not a great home life. The parents' marriage was unstable. Her mother was basically forced into this marriage to be with someone under the same family name as prescribed by her father. But Germaine was interested in music at a young age, and her mother was a musician. She played the piano and she taught her how to play the piano. And Germaine, she was excelling at music, and she was also writing little tunes here and there as well.
Evan Keely: Yeah, she was very precocious from an early age. Even as young as 10, she's starting to compose some music already, although she hasn't had any formal training in composition at this point.
John Banther: Yes. No formal training yet. And unfortunately, we don't have anything surviving from this time. But her formal training would start a little bit after this, but not without some turbulence. She was 12 years old, excelling as a musician and encouraged to, " Well, you should try out for the Paris Conservatory, the Conservatoire, as it's often referred to." And the problem is her father was extremely against his daughter doing music. He told her, the 12- year- old Germaine, that her being a musician, " Well, that is akin to prostitution."
Evan Keely: Right. He did not think it was decent for women and girls to be making music in public. And why he felt this way, really hard to say, seems pretty irrational. But maybe he was a very controlling person and this was a way he exercised that tyrannical control.
John Banther: Yes. Just a totally normal healthy conversation you have with your 12- year- old. We can't unpack his issues here, but she auditions and she gets in. I imagine that was also kind of scary too, " Oh my gosh, now what?" And this is amazing. She was apparently able to attend classes a couple of days a week for years without her father knowing. He would leave for work, and I guess these nuns would come into shepherd her almost... I mean, it's like a movie trope almost. Get her to the conservatory.
Evan Keely: Yeah, they're like this covert op to get this talented girl to the conservatory with eight of these nuns. It's not really clear exactly how that worked, but like you said, John, this was this deception that she and her mother and others in the family pulled on her father. So, despite his disapproval, she was able to get some of the best musical training in Europe available at that time.
John Banther: But this clandestine nature of it, it was short- lived, wasn't it?
Evan Keely: Well, the charade was up when she won first prize in a solfege competition, a sight- singing competition, and it got mentioned in the local newspaper. Her father apparently was strangely very proud of this and would even run around town sort of crowing about, " Look what my kid did." You would think that he would be therefore like, " Wow, okay, my daughter is obviously very talented. Maybe I should change my attitude." But even that doesn't seem to have really softened his opposition to her pursuing music professionally.
John Banther: No, he was not supportive, although he would, I guess, kind of brag about it at times when the situation suited him. Now she's more in the public eye, able to pursue music as normal. I can't imagine having to practice in that kind of secrecy. That's no way to grow as a musician. And we can take a listen to something she wrote around this time a little bit later, 1909, she's 16, 17. This impromptu.
I really love this little impromptu, it's a short work. It's just a couple of minutes long, but there's so much happening here and it really just carries you through. And I think it's a great example of something she really excelled at, and that is how she treats melodies and how she carries them through a tune. It's just wonderful.
Evan Keely: One of the many things that is so interesting about her as a composer, there's not one style, there's not the Tailleferre style. She writes in a lot of different styles over the course of her career. I think it's actually a testament to her creativity that she's actually able to express herself so effectively in many different ways. And even from a young age, you see her picking up these influences that surround her, whether it's the so- called Impressionistic School. You think of a composer like Debussy, for instance. Later on, she becomes aware of composers like Stravinsky, and we'll talk about some of the composers she hung around with later in the episode, and how they influenced each other.
And you find in these multiple different ways of her expressing herself, there's a common vein of an accessibility. There's a real command of melody. There's a way in which the music is very appealing, it's intellectual, it's thoughtful, but it's also accessible in a way that makes you really interested in what she has to say, even though she's speaking in many different voices.
John Banther: Yes, I like that. Many different voices, but it's always interesting no matter where she's dipping her fingers into different styles and settings. So, she's at the conservatory, and being at conservatory, it is just as much networking as it is studying the musicians. And the colleagues you get here, they're with you for the rest of your life, these relationships, for better or for worse.
So, she meets composers like Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger. And with encouragement of others and telling her to keep composing, she publishes her first piece when she's 19, and it's a work for piano duet, Premières Prouesses.
Now, I wish I could find more information about this piece because I couldn't really find much. It seems like there's something more there. These are very short piano duet pieces. In English it's First Feasts. It's just, as you've already kind of mentioned, she becomes kind of a chameleon how she can go into different styles.
Evan Keely: And it's also indicative of some of the challenges of getting to know her music, John. There's a lot of these pieces, which maybe had a short shelf life in terms of public awareness. Here's this piece she writes at 19 years of age. When did she write it exactly? What were the circumstances? You find that a lot of this with a lot of her works that get performed once or twice or a few times, and maybe the score gets lost or it just falls out of the repertoire. We're not always sure about when things were written or where or under what circumstances or for what purpose. And as we're doing more and more scholarship on her, some of these things are coming to light, but there's still a lot of unanswered questions about her music.
John Banther: Unanswered questions. That's the big thing here. And frustrating thing. This isn't a composer from 400 years ago. This was the last century, and there are so many gaps and things left unexplained. So, she's studying, she's writing music, she's winning awards. And then, World War I breaks out. And Paris, of course, and the conservatory, it's basically shuttered. But this leads to a situation where students, Tailleferre included, start performing concerts just on their own in places big and small, all around Paris. And I find that they're making the best of it.
Evan Keely: It's somewhat analogous to me. We have this image in our minds of Johann Sebastian Bach at the Cafe Zimmerman in Leipzig, the coffee house. And they're all hanging out and they're making music there. And this is a similar kind of a thing, only under much more difficult circumstances.
So, Tailleferre and her friends are gathering in a restaurant or they're gathering in somebody's home. Like you said, John, there's these different venues where they're just sort of improvising ways of continuing their education as conservatory students, even though technically the conservatory is closed during the war. They managed to remain in relationship with one another as composers, as young composers, who are discovering new things about French music amongst themselves. And they continue to grow creatively even under these incredibly difficult circumstances in wartime.
John Banther: Yeah. And as this continues for a bit, two prominent French critics basically declare six of these composers as Les Six or The Six, and declare, " These are the next generation of French composers, the future of our music." And Tailleferre is among them. And today, we think of them as six great, emblematic French composers. But there was also some self- serving, I understand, with the critics. They want to, I don't know, either elevate their own position or something like that. But this really turned into something for several years, this group of six composers, a musical Rat Pack, I guess.
Evan Keely: Yeah, musical Rat Pack is a good analogy. This is actually relationships that went on for decades. Tailleferre was the one who lived the longest. And like you said, John, there's a self- serving piece. I think there's also a kind of a nationalistic piece as we're in wartime and emerging from that period. And look at these brilliant young French composers, (French) . There's this nationalistic pride, which I think in this particular case, is not necessarily... There's a benign quality to it. There's a sense of being proud of one's culture and one's people.
And it's also analogous to me in the late 19th century, you have those five Russian composers that were known as the Mighty Five, and some critic pointed out these five composers. So, you have a similar kind of a thing like, " Well, look at us here in France. Look at what we've got. We've got these six geniuses." And Tailleferre is the only woman among Les Six, the only one of these six composers who is female, which emerges as an interesting theme through her life, but also you see the ways in which she's regarded as an equal among these six very gifted young composers.
John Banther: And so far we've been saying Tailleferre, right, for her name. But she's been Taillefesse up to this point. And in 1916, her father dies. And from the abusive aspect of everything, this is seen as a relief for Germaine and the rest of the family. She never really forgave him for his total refusal, basically, to support her. And so she changes her name from Taillefesse to Tailleferre to remove this association with him. And that's something I also see happening today. Although there was another benefit to changing her name, I guess Taillefesse meant something like butt sizer or something, butt cutter or something.
Evan Keely: Tail size, maybe it's like a tailor kind of a thing. (French) , the tail, the rear end. It's maybe not a very glamorous name for a butting musician.
John Banther: So, she survived recess somehow. But in the end, changing her name for the better. And looking at her life up to now, getting into her... she's in her 20s, when she's 25 years old. She's facing a life and challenges that her male colleagues don't, the abusive nature of... well, the patriarchy situation that she experiences growing up, having to attend school in secret, having to practice in secret. So, she works extraordinary hard and she wins awards. She still does face pushback as a woman writing. And you can see in the types of works that she writes, how that also plays out.
But one composer early on literally kind of walked into her music and supported her. The famous French composer, Erik Satie. There was a famous French pianist giving a recital, and he was playing a work of Tailleferre's, Jeux de Plein Air. And Satie walked in, heard it, and I guess immediately became a champion of her music. Called her his musical daughter.
Evan Keely: Yeah. And this is not the only instance of her really impressing very gifted and accomplished people.
John Banther: Now in 1919, she writes her one- string quartet, and this is the first of five works we're going to recommend you listen to, especially if you are unfamiliar with her music. I love the string quartet. It really speaks for itself. The frustrating thing is Tailleferre was like other French composers around this time in that she had the habit of writing one great string quartet, and then just whatever.
Evan Keely: Where are the rest of the string quartets? Debussy and Ravel and Tailleferre, why only one string quartet? Why? We want more, more. But yeah, it is a marvelous work.
John Banther: Yes, I love how she treats the harmony. It is so colorful. Some of the transitions are clever. And again, how she treats and carries the melody through these movements. And the third movement, especially for me, is just the sound of it, is what I love about 20th century string quartet writing.
Beginning in the 1920s. She writes several compositions that really support her career. The one of them is the Ballad for Piano and Orchestra composed in 1920. This is the second work that I would also recommend. This one is so fantastic. I wish this was performed more. I don't understand why it isn't.
Also, Evan, shortly after this, of a third work we could recommend is her Concertino for harp and orchestra. And this is where we start to see her become influential, actually really even through today, how she writes for the harp.
Evan Keely: She became well acquainted with the harp as an instrument through her relationships with musicians and composers that she knew. And she has composed a number of works for the harp that any harpist will tell you are standard repertoire for harpists, and deservedly so.
John Banther: Yes, a lot of her harp writing is still in the standard repertoire for harpists, but it also goes even further in how she wrote for the harp within context of an orchestra, shaped how the harp was actually written for in just all kinds of pieces involving orchestra and harp throughout the 20th century. But unfortunately, Tailleferre was not one to really promote herself. She said at one point, " I write music because it amuses me. It's not great music, I know, but it's gay, lighthearted music, which is sometimes compared with that of the (French) of the 18th century, the little masters, and that makes me very proud."
Evan Keely: You see a lot of these comments with her in interviews and so forth. It goes beyond modesty, I think. And there's a really kind of a self- deprecating quality to her attitude. It's a weird paradox to me because throughout her life, she's composing music. So, clearly there's some sense that she has something to say. She's sharing her music, she's not hiding it. And yet, when she talks about it, she often does it in this manner. It's difficult to unlock the mystery of her attitude.
John Banther: And it may have just been an expectation that she wouldn't be, I guess, bragging or equating herself with her colleagues in some way.
Evan Keely: Maybe so. I'm not sure.
John Banther: And as she describes it, kind of self- deprecating, " It's lighthearted music," or whatever. I mean, you hear the opposite in her music where she's conveying all kinds of things like in her ballet, Le Marchand d'Oiseaux, there's all kinds of things here, which I would not use the words she used to describe it.
Evan Keely: Yeah, yeah. The sense of like, " Oh, my music is just this light, fluffy thing." Or whatever. And clearly, that's not what she's doing. Yeah, how much of that was even almost like a self- marketing kind of strategy, like, " Oh, don't mind me, I'm just writing this light little music." And then, I don't know, under- promising maybe. It's a really fascinating thing to think about.
John Banther: And we'll get into next. One critic's reaction to Germaine Tailleferre, right after this. Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music, is made possible by WETA Classical. Join us for the music and insightful commentary anytime, day or night. You can stream the music online at wetaclassical. org or through the WETA Classical app. It's free in the app store.
And as she gains more attention, especially being a woman writing music, critics react even more, I think, as she becomes too good to ignore and too long- lasting to ignore. One, I guess prominent critic, and also composer, was someone Cecil Gray. He had a popular yearly publication survey of contemporary music. And in 1927, said of Germaine Tailleferre, " Sir, a woman's composing is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It's not done well. But you were surprised to find it done at all."
Evan Keely: I mean, this is absurd.
John Banther: Yeah. I was going to say, we can put Cecil on blast here, but you know what, Evan, I can't find his music anywhere. He was a composer, right? I can't find his music. I can't find any recordings. I read that he had, " Difficult relationships with women, drank heavily in excess, and had a habit involving a powdery white substance," which I wasn't aware that was even happening at the time. And he died decades before Tailleferre due to his lifestyle. Yeah.
Evan Keely: Now, he's a footnote in the life of Germaine Tailleferre. So, she has the last laugh there.
John Banther: That's the funniest part. I love that. But it's terrible how she has to face this again and again. Even colleagues, people who like her music and admire her music, like Francis Poulenc, described her music in not the greatest terms.
Pooling said, " How lovely she was in 1917, our Germaine, with her satchel full of all her first prizes from the conservatoire, how sweet and gifted she was. She still is, but I somewhat regret that through an excess of modesty, she was never able to exploit all the possibilities in herself as could, for example, someone like Marie Laurencin," if I can pronounce her name correctly, sorry, another composer, " who knew how to extract the most from her feminine genius. Be that as it may, she made a most charming and precious contribution to music, and one that always delights me." So precious, it's charming. She's not a genius. She's a feminine genius. It's unfortunate to see that even among people who like her music, the infantilization or... you know what I'm saying, of-
Evan Keely: It's kind of condescending seeming attitude. It's hard to unlock how Poulenc really felt about her. Those comments are certainly not the most encouraging, and yet they were lifelong friends.
John Banther: Yes. And there was the expectation for her that the music should reflect femininity as however they defined it. And it's more likely to be accepted that a woman is writing light salon music, solo piano music, chamber music, not really pushing to things like the big stage symphonies, operas and things like that. And also, this was a very big time of change in France and other places in the 20th century after the war. So much social change also around gender and those roles too.
Evan Keely: And John, you and I had a conversation last season about Cécile Chaminade, another French composer, and she lived... She was born a few decades before Chaminade... Tailleferre, rather, but their lives overlap quite a bit. And you have the same set of expectations: write solo piano music, write songs. Chaminade certainly did that quite brilliantly. And yet, there's these expectations for a woman composer that are much more narrow than there would be for a male composer.
John Banther: Yes. And teaching is the accepted position for a woman to have.
Evan Keely: Yes. Preferably being paid less than the men doing the same teaching, which is another thing that unfortunately here in the early 21st century, we're still dealing with on some level.
John Banther: Yes. And the Paris Conservatory did it explicitly at that time. Now, in 1925, Germaine Tailleferre comes to the United States, to New York, in hopes of landing one of those teaching jobs. It was ultimately unsuccessful. She did not get a teaching position, which I mean, after hearing her music and her stature, that's very unfortunate. But in 1926, she meets caricaturist Ralph Barton, which she probably regretted for the rest of her life. He proposed to her in the car on the same day he met her, which is already a massive red flag.
Evan Keely: Yeah. They meet at a party or something, and he is giving her a ride home. And he just met her that day and proposes to her right there. And she accepts, which I also find rather intriguing.
John Banther: Yes. That's just something we don't know more about. And very sadly, I mean, Barton, he suffered tremendously with his mental health. He was violently abusive. And as she was successful and getting more successful, he was really trying to stop her.
Evan Keely: Yeah. He even becomes known jokingly in some circles as Mr. Tailleferre, which he doesn't seem to have found that very amusing.
John Banther: And a year after this, in 1926, they move back to France, and this is where things get really tragic for Germaine Tailleferre. She tells him one day that she is pregnant. And instead of reacting with some kind of joy, happiness, or support, just really turns, says he's going to get his gun, point it at her stomach and shoot her, kill the baby. And presumably, I imagine, ultimately by extension, her. She flees the apartment, hides in bushes. I've heard she says shots were fired at some point.
Evan Keely: Yeah, maybe. He's threatening her with a gun, certainly verbally, he threatens to shoot her. He apparently shot at her, or we're not really sure exactly what happened. She runs away. And as a result of this terrible episode, she has a miscarriage, not too long thereafter. And he's not supportive at all. So, this is clearly, as you were saying, John, this is a man who's... certainly no excuses to be made for his terrible behavior. He's clearly got very serious problems.
And in fact, shortly after this episode, he commits suicide. This is clearly somebody who just was not capable of coping in a healthy way, and ends up almost destroying her. She survives, she's carrying a child, and the child dies through a miscarriage, and then he kills himself. So, it's just a horrendous, horrendous situation that she alone survives.
John Banther: Yes. And thankfully, it was the last time she saw him. She was able to get to a hotel where there was a close family friend visiting, and she was taken care of after that. In 1931, a few years later, she meets someone else, a lawyer, they have a child and also get married. Unfortunately, this is also short- lived for any kind of happiness. He was also an abusive alcoholic, and he would spill and splatter ink on her compositions.
Evan Keely: Right. He really didn't want her composing. And he would, maybe in a state of inebriation or whatever, but he apparently spilled ink on her manuscripts and was, in other ways, very abusive. And needless to say, not at all supportive of her ambitions.
John Banther: No. So, despite these enormous challenges, the sexism she faces in the public sphere, the violence, the abuse that she's facing at home, she's still composing and she's actually writing music for movies and documentaries. In fact, I heard she was approached by friend Charlie Chaplin who was... yeah, just her friend, Charlie Chaplin. Yeah. Just reaches out, asks her to write music for one of his movies. She says, " You know what, you can do it yourself." And we know how that turns out, of course, all the great music Chaplin wrote for his movies.
Evan Keely: Yes, he was a very gifted composer, wrote a lot of music for his films. Apparently, he met Tailleferre in Boston. The Boston Symphony under Koussevitsky was performing one of her works, and Chaplain was there for a rehearsal. And he was immensely impressed with her confidence and her skill.
And again, this is where we see this paradox where she speaks disparagingly of herself, and yet conducts herself with such confidence. Chaplain was very impressed, obviously a peculiar and troubled individual himself in many ways, but certainly very gifted. And they became friends, and there was certainly some mutual encouragement there.
John Banther: Unfortunately, it's really, really hard to find examples of her film music. I have found two of them from the Internet Archive and somewhere else as well. I'll put links on the show notes page at ClassicalBreakdown. org. But as you hear these even a little bit now, with this reduced quality, it brings back what you said earlier, not the chameleon aspect of, but how she's able to really fit into any situation. Her music for the film, it's different than her other music, and it just fits perfectly.
Evan Keely: Yeah. And again, this is where we see yet another instance of how her music gains quite a bit of attention at the time she's writing it. And then in the years that follow, very often it becomes very difficult to find performances of this music, to find scores. This is a problem many are still working on.
John Banther: Yes, I scoured the internet. I'm on Internet Archives, looking up all kinds of things, very hard to find. And another work actually from also the 1930s, an overture she composed for orchestra. And a similar situation, you can hear the recording that we have is quite old. It's from 1953. And this is just another one of her works that I think should be recorded and performed more. But in addition to movie music, music for orchestra, she also writes a work for piano. And I did not know about this one, basically at all, until you showed it to me, Evan, just a little bit ago. This Berceuse.
Evan Keely: Yeah, we're not sure exactly when she wrote it. It seems to have written in the early 1930s, early in her second marriage. Again, we were talking about this husband who was spilling ink on her manuscripts and so forth. So, not the most productive time. They have a child together, he abuses her as well as their daughter, and yet she's able to create something as exquisite as this Berceuse.
John Banther: So, that is the fourth piece we really recommend. I'm going to be listening to this one a lot myself. Now, I really feel for Tailleferre. She experienced so much trauma in her life, privately, but also publicly at what's happening with society. She's in her 40s. Another war breaks out. I complain enough, I think a lot of us complain. We were experiencing too many once in a lifetime events, but Tailleferre was experiencing that as well with what's going on. So, World War II breaks out. And she moves to Philadelphia, a suburb, in 1942.
Evan Keely: And during this time, there's a quote from her, " For an artist to work under these conditions is almost impossible. Two years of experience under German rule have taught me that all expressions of pride, dignity, spirit, aspiration of the human will, can be made only clandestinely. It is a historical truth that the human mind makes its greatest progress under freedom."
John Banther: A kind of quote we see from, I think many composers when it comes to not just World War II, but wars from centuries, even Beethoven.
Evan Keely: Or oppression of any kind. Shostakovich is one name that leaps to mind, and this is a powerful statement, I think, in any era. Creativity is only really possible under freedom.
John Banther: Yes. And in 1946, after the war, Germaine and her daughter, they move back to Paris. And thankfully, the husband stays in the United States. And so when she gets back to Paris, she finds that her home was, I guess, used by the Nazis as a communication center. So many of her compositions... I mean, you can imagine all your stuff is destroyed. So much has been lost because of that.
Evan Keely: Yeah. Well, yet another instance of her music being lost and so much, of course, lost to humanity during the most terrible war in history. And this brings a very personal aspect of it to her life as she returns to her home. And this Nazi officer had been using it as his headquarters and she has to rebuild her life.
John Banther: And also, just to put things in more perspective for her, she's in her 50s, and now after World War II in France, she gets the right to vote. She's in her 50s when that happens for her. And it is from this point forward, we see her writing a lot of music and a lot of variety and a lot of large scale works too.
Three operas, two ballets, concertos for various instruments, double concertos. She writes a few of those, which are kind of difficult. Also, sonatas. There's just a lot that she's making. And unfortunately, there's not a lot of examples of her opera music being recorded. And hopefully, there will be some commercial recordings in the future.
One I found is on YouTube. I'll put a link on the show notes page. It's La Fille d'Opéra. And when I first heard it, I thought, " Wow, this is a really different sound from Tailleferre than what I was hearing before." And as I look into it, it's a one- act opera, part of a cycle of five in total. Each one is a parody of a different, very well- known composer. And then when I heard she was parroting Jean- Philippe Rameau.
Evan Keely: So, this is an example of her chameleon- like quality that we've been talking about, John. But it also is a way of highlighting her profound reverence for composers of the past. Jean- Philippe Rameau, Jean-Baptiste Lully. These are French composers of the distant past whose music she studied. She created some additions of their works. She was very well- acquainted with them and had a profound reverence for them, had a deep reverence for Johann Sebastian Bach. She actually had a portrait of him over her piano.
So, she is certainly a very modern composer. She's hanging out with these five other young guns, French composers, Les Six. And yet, she's also very much connected to the past and has this profound reverence for it. And you really hear that in her music. Domenico and Alessandro Scarlatti are two other composers from the past that she revered, and you hear their influence in her music as well. And she's able to take those influences and translate them into something which is both very modern and also very characteristic of her own personality.
John Banther: And frustratingly, out of the five operas in the cycle, only four survive, which it does make me think of composers past, in the past, like Jean- Philippe Rameau, whose operas have survived centuries. But remember, this is 1955 for Tailleferre. Not the 1650s. I mean, did we really lose one of her operas in the second half of the 20th century?
Evan Keely: And this is unfortunately the case with quite a lot of her music.
John Banther: Yeah. We're getting into the later part of her life now, and there's just a couple of works that we want to... we'll share with you. Well, the fifth and last recommended work we have for you, for those uninitiated with her music, is her harp sonata.
We've already mentioned how influential she was on the harp, and you may remember I mentioned before, something about your favorite cartoon copying this composer. Well, I heard a harp recital of harpist, Emily Levin, and she mentioned from the stage that perhaps the people who wrote the Flintstones stole that little line from Tailleferre. I mean, Yabba- dabba, you owe me money. I mean...
Evan Keely: Well, you know-
John Banther: Copyright. I mean, that could be total coincidence, obviously. It's just a little lick. But I found that so funny, and I've heard this... I've listened to this harp sonata so many times, especially over the summer. It was part of our recommended listening. It's just great to listen to. And she writes very idiomatically for the harp, meaning as all of that experience she had decades before with the harp teachers and colleagues in Paris at the conservatory, comes to fruition when she's able to write music very naturally for the harp.
Evan Keely: She really knows the instrument and how to write for it. And the harp, it's not like, " Oh, I'll just take this piano piece and transcribe it for the harp." It's a whole different way of playing. And there's pedals and it's a very complex thing that a composer needs to know how to write for the harp. Any harpist will tell you who the composers are who know the instrument, and who are the ones that really don't, and she knows the harp.
John Banther: So, that was 1953. Another work I want to mention is the 1972 Sonate Champêtre, and this one, I love her chamber music. And there's moments in here where it's like, " Wow, she really liked Stravinsky." There's some real moments that pop out that it's like Rite of Spring. But the way she quotes these little bits from other works or other composers, even that's just really well done. Sometimes you hear it and it's there for the cleverness sake or for its own little thing, but it feels very naturally woven into the music.
Evan Keely: And it's worth mentioning too, that she met Stravinsky, and early in life she wrote a transcription for two pianos of the Rite of Spring. She got to meet Stravinsky, and the two of them actually created a piano role of that two pianos transcription she had written of the Rite of Spring. Clearly, Stravinsky was familiar with her early on and admired and appreciated her, just as she clearly had a great reverence for his music.
John Banther: I will keep looking for that piano role. I haven't found anything yet. That'd be great to have a recording.
Evan Keely: Yeah. I don't know if it's been recorded or if it still exists, but we know that that is a thing that occurred.
John Banther: Yes. And as we see that relationship, we hear it in her music as well. The next year, 1973, she writes this corral for trumpet and piano, and all these works are so different from each other. This is one that I think I might play myself. I mean, this one is... it's beautiful. What was it written for exactly or why? I don't fully know, but it's definitely one that I think is worth listening to.
So, she composes all the way to the end. She died November 7th, 1983. She stopped composing just a couple of weeks before she passed. And what was her last completed composition? 20 solfege lessons for voice and piano. I can't find a recording unfortunately, but what a thing to finish on. A solfege study when her entire career, it seemed, kicked off with her winning that award and being in the public eye for the first time.
Evan Keely: Well, it's also a wonderful way of showcasing the balance between... This is a very intellectual composer in many ways, and this solfege study, she's also really interested in the human voice, obviously wrote a number of operas and other vocal works. And toward the end of her career in particular, really experiments a lot with choral music and solo vocal music using either nonsense words or even just syllables and using the voice just as an instrument, rather than merely a way of articulating a text like you'd find in a traditional opera or something like that.
John Banther: Her music really deserves to be played more, in my opinion. I hope we see it more in performance in not just chamber music, but her orchestral works, and hopefully by extension her operas as well. Unfortunately, so many things still, I think, remain locked up in archives. Information is really fragmented on the internet about Germaine Tailleferre. But a big thanks to people like Megan Landfair and Brittany Elizabeth Patterson whose thesis or thesis, however you say, it really helped shore up some aspects of her biography to help give a clearer picture of her life.
Evan Keely: I also want to give a shout- out to musicologist Robert Shapiro, who wrote a bio bibliography about Tailleferre in 1994. That was certainly a helpful source for me as I'm learning about this great composer.
John Banther: And what a life. It is tragic that it seems like it took decades for her to get to where she should have been all along, in a place where she could write all these different big works and small works on her own volition, without the challenges that she faced throughout her life with her marriages and what she was up against with just critics. Well, thank you so much, Evan, for getting into all things Germaine Tailleferre with me.
Evan Keely: Well, thank you, John. This is a composer that I'm just at the beginnings of learning about. I'm glad you and I could have this conversation because it gave me an opportunity to learn more about her, and I am eager to learn still more.
John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more information on this episode, visit the show notes page at ClassicalBreakdown.org. You can send me comments and episode ideas to ClassicalBreakdown@ weta. org. And if you enjoyed this episode, leave a review in your podcast app. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.