It’s not often that we hear lots about the female composers of the 20th century, but that’s about to change, and you heard it here first.

Germaine Tailleferre learnt how to play the piano at home with her mother, though this was much to the disappointment of her father, who was always refusing to support her musical studies. So, Germaine decided to spite him. She changed her surname from the original Taillefesse to Tailleferre, and as you may imagine, this hurt her father’s pride enormously. Power to you, Germaine!

And thank goodness she was able to ignore her father’s wishes and pursue what she loved. She ended up with a place at the highly regarded Paris Conservatory, following in the footsteps of other legendary composers like Berlioz, Debussy, Satie and Ravel. It was there that she would meet the other members of what became Les Six (she just didn’t know it yet!).

Les Six

Les Six was made up of Louis Durey, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, and of course, our girl of the moment, Germaine. As a collective, their music was seen as a response to Wagner, Debussy and Ravel, but individually, their paths couldn’t have been more opposed! With Auric and Poulenc inspired by French writer Cocteau, Honegger by German romanticism and Milhaud by Mediterranean lyricism, it’s safe to say that they were not united by style!

But we particularly enjoy the setting in which Les Six was born. Back in 1917, lots of the theatres and concert halls were closed due to World War I – a situation that is all too familiar to us in covid times! This meant that smaller gigs were put on in art studios. You can almost picture yourself there in that dimly lit room, walls adorned in works by Picasso and Matisse, the sweet melodies of Erik Satie swirling through the air (we’ve all heard the Gymnopédies, right?). With painters, composers, poets and playwrites coming together to share inspiration and ideas… what a fascinating room that must have been.

The Glory Days

In 1923, Tailleferre began spending lots of time with Maurice Ravel, and this kicked off what would be the most successful decades of her life, her most important years, where she wrote many a concerto, opera cycle, film scores, ballets – not forgetting what is considered her masterwork, “La cantate de Narcisse”.

But most importantly to us, it was amid these glory years that she composed the work you can find in our RSL Classical Piano Grade 7 syllabus, “Valse Lente”. Part of her Deux Valses, the piece is a melancholic waltz for two pianos, and it wasn’t until 1963 that it was republished for solo piano.

“Valse Lente” is gentle and reflective with gorgeous, elegant textures, and certainly perfect for the Grade 7 level we have benchmarked it at. There are some big leaps in the left hand which can prove challenging, especially when balanced against what needs to be a very quiet, delicate and melodic right hand. These techniques certainly require refinement to get the desired effect across, but it feels extremely rewarding in the end!

We’d love to see the female composers in our Classical syllabus get all the attention they deserve, so make sure you check out the full spectrum of remarkable repertoire across the grades here!

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