In 1917, when many theatres and concert halls were closed because of World War I, Blaise Cendrars and the painter Moïse Kisling decided to put on concerts at 6 rue Huyghens [fr], the studio of the painter Émile Lejeune (1885–1964). For the first of these events, the walls of the studio were decorated with canvases by Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Modigliani and others. Music by Erik Satie, Honegger, Auric and Durey was played. It was this concert that gave Satie the idea of assembling a group of composers around himself to be known as Les nouveaux jeunes, forerunners of Les Six.
According to Milhaud:
[Collet] chose six names absolutely arbitrarily, those of Auric, Durey, Honegger, Poulenc, Tailleferre and me simply because we knew each other and we were pals and appeared on the same musical programmes, no matter if our temperaments and personalities weren't at all the same! Auric and Poulenc followed ideas of Cocteau, Honegger followed German Romanticism, and myself, Mediterranean lyricism!
— Ivry 1996
But that is only one reading of how the Groupe des Six originated: other authors, like Ornella Volta, stressed the manoeuvrings of Jean Cocteau to become the leader of an avant-garde group devoted to music, like the cubist and surrealist groups which had sprung up in visual arts and literature shortly before, with Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire and André Breton as their key representatives. The fact that Satie had abandoned the Nouveaux jeunes less than a year after starting the group, was the "gift from heaven" that made it all come true for Cocteau: his 1918 publication Le Coq et l'Arlequin is said to have ticked it off.
After World War I, Jean Cocteau and Les Six began to frequent a bar known as "La Gaya" which became Le Bœuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof) when the establishment moved to larger quarters. As the famous ballet by Milhaud had been conceived at the old premises, the new bar took on the name of Milhaud's ballet. On the renamed bar's opening night, pianist Jean Wiéner played tunes by George Gershwin and Vincent Youmans while Cocteau and Milhaud played percussion. Among those in attendance were impresario Serge Diaghilev, artist Pablo Picasso, filmmaker René Clair, singer Jane Bathori, and actor and singer Maurice Chevalier. Another frequent guest was the young American composer Virgil Thomson whose compositions were influenced by members of Les Six in subsequent years.
Although the group did not exist to work on compositions collaboratively, there were six occasions, spread over 36 years, on which at least some members of the group did work together on the same project. On only one of these occasions was the entire Groupe des Six involved; in some others, composers from outside the group also participated.
Auric and Poulenc were involved in all six of these collaborations, Milhaud in five, Honegger and Tailleferre in three, but Durey in only one.
1920: L'Album des Six
In 1920 the group published an album of piano pieces together, known as L'Album des Six. This was the only work in which all six composers collaborated.
In 1921, five of the members jointly composed the music for Cocteau's ballet Les mariés de la tour Eiffel, which was produced by the Ballets suédois, the rival to the Ballet Russes. Cocteau had originally proposed the project to Auric, but as Auric did not finish rapidly enough to fit into the rehearsal schedule, he then divided the work up among the other members of Les Six. Durey, who was not in Paris at the time, chose not to participate. The première was the occasion of a public scandal rivalling that of Le sacre du printemps in 1913. In spite of this, Les mariés de la tour Eiffel was in the repertoire of the Ballets suédois throughout the 1920s.
Overture (14 July) – Auric
Marche nuptiale – Milhaud
Discours du General (Polka) – Poulenc
La Baigneuse de Trouville – Poulenc
La Fugue du Massacre – Milhaud
La Valse des Depeches – Tailleferre
Marche funèbre – Honegger
Quadrille – Tailleferre
Ritournelles – Auric
Sortie de la Noce – Milhaud
1927: L'éventail de Jeanne
In 1927, Auric, Milhaud and Poulenc, along with seven other composers who were not part of Les Six, jointly composed the children's ballet L'éventail de Jeanne.
In 1949, Auric, Milhaud and Poulenc, along with three other composers, jointly wrote Mouvements du coeur: Un hommage à la mémoire de Frédéric Chopin, 1849–1949, a suite of songs for baritone or bass and piano on words of Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin in commemoration of the centenary of the death of Frédéric Chopin.
Jean Cocteau: Le Coq et l'Arelquin: Notes autour de la musique (Paris: Éditions de la Sirène, 1918).
Henri Collet: "La Musique chez soi (XII): Un livre de Rimsky et un livre de Cocteau – Les Cinq russes, les Six français, et Erik Satie", in: Comœdia, 16 January 1920, p. 2.
Henri Collet: "La Musique chez soi (XIII): "Les 'Six' français – Darius Milhaud, Louis Durey, Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc et Germaine Tailleferre", in: Comœdia, 23 January 1920, p. 2.
Fondation Erik Satie (ed.): Le Groupe des Six et ses amis: 70e anniversaire (Paris: Placard, 1990), ISBN2-907523-01-5.