The Chicago Outfit. Jesse James. Pretty Boy Floyd.
The early 20th century in America was a golden age of sorts for gangs and gangsters. Depression-era bad guys decked out in pinstripes made themselves public enemies by robbing, murdering and generally terrorizing major cities.
Around the same time in France, a different type of gang was making a name for itself by writing chamber music, symphonies and musical dramas.
“Les Six” — literally, “The Six” — were a group of composers who derived spiritual and musical authority from their own kingpin, composer Erik Satie. At 4 p.m. Monday in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall, members of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra (Rita and Dunbar VanDerveer Symphony Principal Chair for Flute Rick Sherman; oboist Jan Eberle; clarinetist Eli Eban; French hornist Mark Robbins; and bassoonist Jeff Robinson) will present music by members of this musical gang.
“They were friends, and they were sort of reacting against heavy Romanticism,” Sherman said. “These people fraternized and hung out together.”
Around that time, a discernible rift between German and French music began to form. Until the early 20th century, composers like Hector Berlioz and Camille Saint-Saëns emulated the dramatic flair and heaviness of Wagner and Strauss. After Satie, French composers eschewed what they saw as affected self-indulgence in their European neighbors’ music.
“It was about economy and transparency and more of a classical feel,” Sherman said.
That’s not to say the composers of Les Six didn’t have individual styles and tastes.
“There’s a lot of variety in this program,” Sherman said.
Darius Milhaud, for example, had a predilection for the strange and exotic. Sherman will perform Milhaud’s “Sonatine for flute and piano.”
“It sounds like there’s some jungle drums in it,” Sherman said. “The whole piece sounds kind of jazzy.”
At other times, Milhaud took his cue from previous musical eras. His woodwind quintet, “La Cheminée du Roi René,” emulates Renaissance music.
“The Renaissance-era dance rhythms and the way the wind and horn sonorities are blended together have a crumhorn band kind of feel to it,” Robinson said, referring to a curved double-reed instrument from that period. “It’s definitely 17th-century stuff.”
Francis Poulenc, on the other hand, espoused a more neoclassical aesthetic, preferring to write in standard classical forms with relatively tame harmonies. Eban will perform Poulenc’s clarinet sonata, which the composer wrote for jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. The piano accompaniment will be played by Chautauqua School of Music Piano Program Co-Chair John Milbauer.
“He was pretty painstaking with it. It took him a while to write,” Sherman said. “It’s really cohesive and has some of his best melodic ideas.”
The program will also include solo works by Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre (the only woman in Les Six) and Arthur Honegger.
“They’re all masterpieces,” Sherman said.
The program is bookended by the Milhaud quintet and one of Poulenc’s most famous works, his “Sextet” for piano and winds.
“These are both pieces that I played for the first time in my early 20s,” Robinson said. “They’ve been in and out of my life several times since then. It’s a pleasure to be able to revisit them.”
According to Sherman, the music of Les Six embodies a very unique style of wind writing.
“The tradition of French wind writing is so integral to the history of woodwinds,” Sherman said.
Robinson said this repertoire is very familiar to most wind players.
“And we’re very familiar to us, too,” Robinson said of his CSO colleagues. “We’ve been talking about this program since the spring and we’re looking forward to presenting it.”