Tailleferre and Tokenism

Megan Sarno, University of Texas at Arlington

According to French composer and musicologist Henri Collet, the early works of Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983) "finally reveal a feminine nature without coquetry and fragility. They are the works of a young lady of today, slim and straight, refined and knowledgeable of every daring aspect of her art." Writing in 1920, Collet was establishing discourse about a composer at the beginning of her career. By describing her music as feminine, Collet related Tailleferre's musical sound to her gender, implicitly or explicitly singling her out as the only woman member of "Les Six." Though she benefitted from being included in this infamous group of French composers, she also faced challenges as a result. Through their focus on her gender, Collet and other critics turned Tailleferre into a token, a person whose identity is among a numerical minority in a group or profession dominated by a different identity. And tokenism took its toll on Tailleferre. Although the French musical community respected her work, she never achieved the same fame as her colleagues. Likewise, her music has only seen a small amount of scholarly attention. In this paper, I argue that the pressure of being tokenized from nearly the beginning of her career positioned Tailleferre for limited ambitions, achievements, and appreciation. Through a critical reading of her early reception and analysis of her early piano works Jeux de plein air and Hommage à Claude Debussy, I question the validity and consequences of tokenism and therefore reconsider Tailleferre's legacy.