Dogs, Harps And A Woman Composer Who Rocks: Meet Germaine Tailleferre

Feb 28, 2019

Her father told her that studying music was no better than becoming, as he put it, a streetwalker. But that didn’t stop French composer Germaine Tailleferre from studying music and later becoming a pathbreaking modernist.

That moxie comes through in a beguiling way in Tailleferre’s sparkling Harp Concertino, one of the works I will feature on Settling the Score: Music by Women Composers, this Sunday, March 3, at 7 p.m. on Classical 101.

Settling the Score showcases an hour of music by trailblazing women who created new music during eras when women just didn’t do that.

Les Six

In fact, Tailleferre did a lot of things that girls and women of her day weren’t supposed to do.

In addition to studying music in the first place (see the streetwalker reference above), the child Tailleferre wasn’t supposed to continue her musical studies at the Paris Conservatory behind her father’s back, under a cloak of secrecy fashioned by Tailleferre’s mother with the help of a conspiracy of nuns.

As a young adult, Tailleferre wasn’t supposed to change the surname she was born with – Taillefesse – to Tailleferre to spite her restrictive father.

Tailleferre certainly wasn’t supposed to be the only woman composer to fall in with the most radical crowd of artists working in 1920s Paris. None other than the outlandish Erik Satie invited Tailleferre to join his group of modernists, Les nouveaux jeunes (“The Young Ones”).

Later, the poet, writer and designer Jean Cocteau invited Tailleferre to join his avant-garde group that came to be called Les Six (The Six), a clutch of some of the most prominent composers of the era – Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger and Louis Durey, in addition to Tailleferre.

“A woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs”

And according to many in her day, Tailleferre, a woman, wasn’t supposed to have composed any of the more than 200 works, including her Harp Concertino, that she ended up creating during her career.

She wrote the Harp Concertino in 1927, the same year that Scottish music critic Cecil Gray wrote of Tailleferre: “ … A woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

I had not heard Tailleferre’s Harp Concertino before I began compiling the playlist for Settling the Score. When I came across the piece, I was immediately taken with its effervescent freshness, its sparkling textures and its bubbling energy.

No, it’s not a soft drink – it’s a musical gem that quickly became one of my faves. And I think you’ll love it, too.

Tailleferre considered herself a neo-Classicist who liked to put her own spin on the “little forms,” as she called them, of the 18th century.

In her Harp Concertino, the harp sparkles like sunlight on a velvet sea, well-phrased melodies carry a piquant modernistic perfume, inventive rhythms bounce in a babbling leaven and, as though ripped from the pages of her older contemporary Stravinsky’s great ballet scores, exotic-sounding moments of folk-like tunes now and then pop to the surface.

Tailleferre’s Harp Concertino is not standard harp repertoire but, in my opinion, it should be. Please join me for this lovely piece during Women’s History Month on Settling the Score: Music by Women Composers, this Sunday, March 3 at 7 p.m. on Classical 101.