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  • Trauma and Recovery in Germaine Tailleferre’s Six chansons françaises (1929)
  • Kiri L. Heel (bio)

During the summer of 1929 french composer Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983) endured the unimaginable. Childless still at the age of thirty-seven and married to New York caricaturist Ralph Barton (1891–1931) for two and a half years—enduring his frequent trips back to the United States, his jealousy of her career, and his tumultuous temperament—Tailleferre became pregnant. After learning the news, her mentally unstable husband tried to shoot her in the stomach in order to kill the fetus. Recounting the bizarre events in her memoir, written during the 1970s, Tailleferre describes hearing gunfire as she hid near their home in southern France.

In effect, Barton had become terribly nervous and, on the other hand, loving a ravishing compatriot, so much that his existence in France had become intolerable.1 One spring evening, having learned that I was pregnant, he took suddenly to a fit of madness and asked me abruptly to agree to him firing a gunshot at my stomach in order to kill the child. He vowed that it would be nothing, that I would be treated afterwards without pain! . . . [ellipses original] To my horror, he became more and more [End Page 38] threatening; he had visibly lost all reason. My only duty was to my safety. I hid in the shrubbery, because this place was deserted and there were no neighbors. I had expected no help; I heard shots. I reached in time the Grand Hôtel de Sanary where one of Ralph’s friends took me under his protection.2

Though not shot, Tailleferre miscarried as a result of the events. She also never saw her husband again: he returned to New York, she filed for divorce, and he committed suicide.

The following day, this friend also left the south for Paris. He took me with him after having made all the arrangements with Barton for proceeding with our divorce. I would never again see Ralph, because the following year, he committed suicide. When he had learned that this dramatic nighttime escape had led to a miscarriage, his joy was so great that he sent me—ordered from New York, where he had found out!—an amount of flowers so large that the clinic literally became submerged, and the nurses completely dumbfounded at this floral profusion; they envied me for having such a good and generous husband!3

With the benefit of several decades of reflection, Tailleferre took stock of her marriage and its violent and devastating end in her memoir, ultimately finding that it was an intrusion on her career.

Once I had found calm and health, I no longer wanted to postpone working. My musical career had been interrupted for two and a half years; the time missed by this marriage had profoundly affected me. I had, in reality, sensed that this pleasure would be temporary and false, and I had more or less been waiting for this sort of outcome. At the present, I no longer hoped for a married life nor for love; I thought only of adopting a child and of raising it alone. But, as I did not have the age [youth], I was forced, if I wanted a child, to have one myself. However, I refused to accept any new idea of marriage; the experience that I had just lived through was enough to leave me disgusted [with marriage] forever. I resumed with joy my musical life.4 [End Page 39]

And return to music she did, wasting no time.5 In June 1929 Tailleferre experienced gunfire, miscarriage, and divorce, and by August she had composed her Six chansons françaises (Six French Songs):6

  1. 1. “Non, la fidélité . . .” (No, faithfulness . . .)

  2. 2. “Souvent un air de vérité” (Often an air of truth)

  3. 3. “Mon mari m’a diffamée” (My husband defamed me)

  4. 4. “Vrai Dieu, qui m’y confortera” (True God, who will comfort me)

  5. 5. “On a dit mal de mon ami” (They spoke badly of my lover)

  6. 6. “Les trois présents” (The three presents)

If Tailleferre’s memoir is invaluable in elucidating her retrospective view...


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