Music Germaine Tailleferre
Louis K. Epstein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0275


Germaine Tailleferre (b. 1892–d. 1983) was a prolific composer of symphonic, chamber, film, and radio music who participated actively in French and international musical life for more than six decades. Tailleferre is most commonly remembered as the sole female member of Les Six, but her association with that group was relatively brief in the broader context of her career. Displaying early brilliance as a student at the Paris Conservatoire, Tailleferre won all the major prizes in her disciplines—Premier Prix in Harmony, Counterpoint, and Accompaniment—but never had the opportunity to compete for the Premier Prix in composition due to the suspension of the competition during the First World War. After leaving the Conservatoire, she studied with Charles Koechlin and Maurice Ravel. The latter in particular inspired her early efforts to imbue her music with neo-Baroque and neoclassical qualities. Tailleferre’s devotion to Ravel in the early 1920s, and her independence from the more capricious, experimental aesthetics pursued by Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Georges Auric, led her away from the sphere of Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie, who had helped usher Les Six into existence. In her first full-length ballet, Le Marchand d’oiseaux, composed for the Ballets Suédois in 1923, and in her Concerto for Piano commissioned by the Princesse de Polignac in 1924, Tailleferre demonstrated a propensity for pastiche and emulation, combining allusions to J. S. Bach, Chopin, Poulenc, and Stravinsky. From the beginning through the end of her career, many works reveal her attachment to perpetuum mobile rhythms and Bachian counterpoint. Although her music was widely performed in the 1920s and 1930s, and although she continued to earn accolades throughout her life, including one of the first state commissions from the French government (1938), the Prix de l’Académie des Beaux Arts (1973), and the Grand Prix Musical de la Ville de Paris (1978), her writings and her friends’ reminiscences reveal Tailleferre to have been extraordinarily modest. Due in part to her modesty, Tailleferre left behind far less music criticism and autobiographical writing than most other members of Les Six. Indeed, after Louis Durey, who left Les Six in 1921, Tailleferre is the next most meagerly documented member of Les Six, as a comparison between this article and those of her peers will attest. (See the separate Oxford Bibliographies articles “Arthur Honegger”, “Francis Poulenc”, and “Darius Milhaud”.) And those sources that do treat her output focus disproportionately on her interwar works to the exclusion of the many works she produced later in life, including Paris-Magie (1948) and Concerto de la fidelité (1981). But numerous sources touch on her contributions to French music and on her relationships with artists, composers, patrons, impresarios, and others.

General Overviews

Reliable information about Tailleferre’s life and activities is scant. Only one full-length biography exists (Hacquard 1998) along with several chapter- or article-length biographical profiles (Shapiro 1994 and Shapiro 2007; Potter 1992; Mitgang 1984–1985) based largely on Tailleferre’s own memoirs (Tailleferre and Robert 1986, cited under Writings and Interviews). While Hacquard 1998 and Mitgang 1984–1985 benefited from access to Tailleferre, none of the existing biographies appear to have corroborated or complicated Tailleferre’s own stories using archival sources, and several of the biographies offer little to no documentation for their sometimes sensational narratives. All are laudatory, even hagiographic, with the exception of Orledge 2001, who criticizes Tailleferre for the high degree of consistency in her style throughout her career; Orledge draws attention to the “circularity” of her career as well as her routine self-borrowing. But as Heel 2011a (cited under Tailleferre’s Music) argues, evaluations of Tailleferre’s output predicated on values such as “progress,” “originality,” or “experimentalism” inappropriately apply an androcentric—that is, male composer-focused—standard to a composer who was in many ways forced to follow a typically “feminine” path.

  • Hacquard, Georges. Germaine Tailleferre: La dame des Six. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998.

    The sole full-length biography of Tailleferre, Hacquard’s French-language account is a personal rather than scholarly one (he was headmaster of the private school where Tailleferre worked in her last years). His occasionally purple prose is poorly documented, relying in part on interviews conducted with Tailleferre toward the end of her life as well as access to her papers.

  • Harbec, Jacinthe. “Oeuvres de Germaine Tailleferre: Du motif à la forme.” PhD diss., McGill University, 1994.

    Though primarily concerned with analyzing the String Quartet (1917–1919), Image (1918), and Cantate du Narcisse (1938), chapter 1 of this French-language dissertation is a critical biography of Tailleferre drawing on Mitgang 1982, Potter 1992, and Tailleferre and Robert 1986.

  • Mitgang, Laura. “Germaine Tailleferre: Before, During, and After Les Six.” In The Musical Woman: An International Perspective 2. Edited by Judith Lang Zaimont, 177–221. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984–1985.

    An early feminist biography based on Mitgang’s master’s thesis and on interviews conducted with Tailleferre and her acquaintances in 1982 and 1983, this is a foundational, albeit limited study for later Tailleferre historiography.

  • Orledge, Robert. 2001. “Germaine Tailleferre.” In Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, 2019.

    Brief introduction to Tailleferre’s life and work that emphasizes personal and interpersonal failings (especially her “two unhappy marriages,” her “natural modesty” and “unjustified sense of artistic insecurity”) over possible societal limitations to her success. Includes a negative assessment of the high degree of consistency in her compositional style over the course of her career. Available online by subscription.

  • Potter, Caroline. “Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983): A Centenary Appraisal.” Muziek & Wetenschap 2.2 (1992): 109–128.

    A brief biography largely drawn from the first chapter of her dissertation, Potter focuses on Tailleferre’s career, including analyses of works such as the string quartet, Jeux de plein air, Ballade (1920–1922), Le marchand d’oiseaux (1923), and Six chansons françaises (1929).

  • Shapiro, Robert. Germaine Tailleferre: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

    With a chapter-length biography, works listed with premiere and publication information, and a collection of primary and secondary sources on Tailleferre, this reference work provides a solid foundation for beginning research. Caution is warranted, however, as Shapiro does not cite his sources for the biography, which, as Harbec 1994 has pointed out (p. 5), includes numerous errors. Both biography and bibliography sometimes offer outdated or incomplete information.

  • Shapiro, Robert. “Germaine Tailleferre.” In Les Six: The French Composers and Their Mentors Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie. Edited by Robert Shapiro, 243–276. London: Peter Owen, 2007.

    A more detailed, better documented rewrite of Shapiro 1994 that corrects some of the errors in the earlier source. Offers more attention to Tailleferre’s later works that does Shapiro 1994.

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