Poulenc’s Suite from Les Biches

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Despite the fact that Andre Breton, the most prominent surrealist writer, despised Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), the great French writer and cultural personality, as a “notorious fake”, during the mid 1920’s the experimentalism of Cocteau, the composer Erik Satie and a group of young French composers who looked to Cocteau and Satie as inspirations—“Les Six” (Poulenc, Milhaud, Honegger, Auric, Durey and Tailleferre)—had much in common with the first wave of surrealist thinking of the 1920’s.

Cocteau admired Satie for his daring and simplicity. “Les Six” and the surrealists both rejected the pretensions of visual and musical impressionism, of Debussy and Renoir. Likewise the complex and mystifying surface of modernism, particularly in music, seemed to Cocteau and the surrealists as a continuation of an artificial, nearly Wagnerian elevation of the aesthetic over the everyday; the perpetuation of a dated dichotomy between experience and ordinary life on the one hand and imagination and art on the other. Furthermore, both groups were driven by a sense of generational revolt, a need to shock and pierce the surface of bourgeois respectability.

In 1920 Cocteau organized a “Spectacle-Concert” in Paris. This even imitated a music-hall evening. It was filled with dancing, clowns, acrobats, and theater. Cocteau sought to infuse the staid concert ritual with aspects of the séance and the circus. Popular and dance music was included alongside works by Poulenc and Milhaud. As Souris’ surrealist concert of 1929 later underscored, what avowed musical surrealists shared with Poulenc and Milhaud was an attraction to prepetition, circularity, spontaneity, playfulness and the rejection of essentially German notions of music development and progression in favor of techniques of abrupt juxtaposition and satire.

Throughout the 1920’s, however, the differences among “Les Six”, the modernist credos of Busoni and Schoenberg and the views of surrealism remained blurred. Despite an aversion to the Wagnerian ambitions of Schoenberg’s musical modernism, the surrealists, even the neo-classicists and the followers of Satie and Cocteau all shared the mantle of revolution and the desire to shock and overturn what was perceived as the tyranny and superficiality of received taste, rationality, convention, morality and consciousness. Underlying these artistic movements was, after all, profoundly critical political sensibility. Art needed to serve the transformation of the political system and cultural values and conceits which had resulted in the senseless carnage of World War I.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) wrote Les Biches in 1923 as a ballet for Serge Diaghilev and his “Ballet Russe”. It was premiered in 1924 with sets by Marie Laurencin. The Choreography was by Nijinska. The ballet scenario was essentially surrealist in the sense that it was, in Milhaud’s words, the result of “full fantasy” unencumbered by the usual conscious effort “to describe, to suggest, to express, to comment upon”. The blurring of the distinctions between reality and imagination and between logic and fantasy was an explicit intention of Les Biches. Even its title mirrored the inextricable unity inherent in language use. The title directly exploded the surface appearance of contradiction. It refers at one and the same time to hind, the female deer, and darling. In line with the surrealists’ defense of “automatic” writing and free association, the title came to Poulenc spontaneously in a taxi. The ballet was decidedly erotic and playful.

The set of Les Biches might be compared profitably with a surrealist canvas, particularly Magritte’s Le Monde invisible/The Invisible World (1954) and La Chambre d’ecoute/The Listening Room (1952). The background was all white and the only object on stage was an enormous blue sofa. The revelation of the seemingly limited meaning of objects was achieved in the ballet through the use of the blue sofa changing character. The penetration of the distinction between the seen and the unseen and the alteration of the idea of the visible occurred through sudden changed created by turning the sofa around and using it as a mobile character. The subject of the ballet, if there was one, was sexual pleasure.

The ballet score launched Poulenc’s career. The music has been compared with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella from 1920 because of Poulenc’s evident use of 18th-and early 19th-century musical forms and gestures. The work is a suite of events It presents a mix of styles, parody, rapid contrast, interpolations of jazz elements, allusions to the past, and clear appropriations. Like pictorial surrealism, it avoided a modernist surface. Rather it used easily grasped musical events—the simple and familiar—in order to jettison established associations between music and experience. The work is like a surrealist word-game which employs recognizable musical images in humorous but provocative and psychologically penetrating ways. Cocteau noted, “I doubt whether this music knows it hurts”. As in surrealist painting there is, as Nancy Perloff has observed, a “tragic sound lurking beneath the tuneful surface”. In 1939, Poulenc reorchestrated the ballet and produced the orchestral suite performed in this concert.