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Germaine Tailleferre made her mark

Germaine Tailleferre was the only female member of Les Six.
BBC
Germaine Tailleferre was the only female member of Les Six.

On Sunday, the Boston Conservatory Orchestra and pianist Janice Weber perform the “Ballade” by Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983), the only female member of Les Six, an ad hoc group of young French composers (named by critic Andre Collet, promoted by Jean Cocteau) that casually retooled the atmospheric advances of composers like Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy into crisp French neo-classicism. Tailleferre was perhaps the most impressionistic and the most classical of the group, a parallax pinpointing the “Ballade,” finished in 1922, swirling clouds of silky dissonance balanced with motivic rigor and contrapuntal clarity. (A five-to-a-bar waltz is exploited with clinical sure-footedness, right down to a brief fugue.) Such subtle prowess would be Tailleferre's trademark.

Her story was one of perseverance. Forbidden by her authoritarian father from studying music, Tailleferre attended the Conservatoire on the sly. A series of academic prizes subdued her father's opposition, but he still refused financial support; from then on, Tailleferre worked, performing, teaching, often living paycheck to paycheck. (At the age of 83, Tailleferre took a job playing piano for an elementary school dance class.) The reception of her music was tinged with sexist condescension. (The Globe, reviewing a 1926 Boston Symphony performance of Tailleferre's “Jeux du Plein Air,” remarked, “Seldom has a concert audience the chance to see a pretty girl come forth as composer.”) Her two marriages — disastrous and, in the second case, abusive — interrupted her career. But her skill and her Les Six association (and the strong friendships at the group's core) carried her through.

One of those Conservatoire prizes, in counterpoint, might be the most revealing. Tailleferre had approached the all-or-nothing, high-stakes test with a fatalistic air; tasked with producing a rigorously correct fugue on a provided theme, Tailleferre instead transformed the theme into a free composition for four-hand piano, a piece the judges — Fauré and Debussy — found so convincing that they gave her the prize anyway. Tailleferre always approached her music with that same paradoxical combination of self-assuredness and diffidence. She never abandoned her neo-classical style, admitting her fascination with newer schools of serial modernism and musique concrète but deciding she was too old to change course. (Her fellow Les Six composer Darius Milhaud remarked, in admiration, that Tailleferre was, musically, forever young.) She cultivated an air of composing for her own amusement, while producing scores of a polish and exactness few other professionals could match. Music was Tailleferre's sanctum: fluently exquisite, meticulously sound.

The Boston Conservatory Orchestra performs music of Ravel, Tailleferre, and Beethoven on March 6, 2 p.m., at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. Tickets: $10-$15. 617-496-2222, www.bostonconservatory.edu

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Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.