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Arthur Honegger: Overview

Arthur Honegger: Arthur Honegger, (born March 10, 1892, Le Havre, France—died Nov. 27, 1955, Paris), composer associated with the modern movement in French music in the first half of the 20th century.

Born of Swiss parents, Arthur Honegger spent most of his life in France. He studied at the Zürich Conservatory and after 1912 at the Paris Conservatory. After World War I he was associated with Les Six, a group of young composers that also included Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, and Louis Durey. Arthur Honegger soon asserted his own strong personality in the “dramatic psalm” Le Roi David (1921; “The King David”). Two successful orchestral works followed: Pacific 231 (1924), an impression of a locomotive in action, and Rugby (1928), which reflected the composer’s love of speed and virile sports. Also from this period was the Pastorale d’été (1921; “Summer Pastoral”) for chamber orchestra. Much—but not all—of his music from the 1920s is rhythmic, dissonant, and austere and shows great freedom in the treatment of tonality. Polytonality sometimes occurs. With his dramatic oratorios Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (“Joan of Arc at the Stake”) and La Danse des morts (“The Dance of the Dead”), both on texts by Paul Claudel, he turned toward the mysticism and religious meaning that underlie many of his later works.

Arthur Honegger was a prolific composer and made notable contributions to opera (Judith, 1926; Antigone, 1927; Amphion, 1931), ballet (Skating Rink, 1922; Sémiramis, 1934), choral music (oratorios, including Cantique des cantiques, 1938), and orchestral music (five symphonies, symphonic poems, symphonic movements). His chamber music includes three string quartets and sonatas for violin, viola, and cello. He also composed the music for several films, including La Roue (1922; “The Wheel”), Pygmalion (1938), and Cavalcade d’amour (1939). Arthur Honegger's music is written in a bold and uninhibited musical idiom that combines the harmonic innovations of the French avant-garde with the large forms and massed sonorities of the German tradition. He published an autobiography, Je suis compositeur (I Am a Composer), in 1951.

Arthur Honegger was born in Le Havre, in northern France, but his parents were Swiss from Zurich and Arthur Honegger retained his Swiss citizenship throughout his life, most of which he spent in France. His mother was a keen amateur pianist, and the boy was trained as a musician from an early age. At eighteen he went for two years to the Zurich Conservatory, and then returned to Paris for a further course in the Conservatoire there. This was interrupted by military service in Switzerland in 1914. Nevertheless by 1916 Arthur Honegger was already producing works which were to make him a considerable reputation in Parisian musical circles, some time before the wider notoriety arising from his association with 'Les Six' after the war. A group of songs, 'Quatre Poemes', given in Paris in 1916, the first string quartet in 1917, and in 1918 the first violin sonata, with Arthur Honegger himself as violinist partnered by Andree Vaurabourg, w horn he later (1926) married.

The episode of 'Les Six' was for Arthur Honegger more or less accidental. He can have had little sympathy with the more whimsical or deflating objects of that so-called group, invented by the critic Henri Collet in 1920, fathered by Erik Satie, mothered by Jean Cocteau, but soon dispersed by the sheer triviality of its artistic creed. As Arthur Honegger's own music was already demonstrating his nature was serious, religious, conservative, and by no means devoid of that rhetoric which 'Les Six' were supposed to despise. Only the Piano Concertino (1924) survives as a document of his short trip up a blind alley. Far more characteristic are the oratorio Le Roi David, first performed at Mezieres in Switzerland in June 1921, Judith (1926: another oratorio, though intended to be staged as a 'biblical opera'), the 'mimed symphony' Horace Victorieux (1921), and the Symphony No.1 (1930). Arthur Honegger's most interesting essays in modernism are less satirical than impressionistic: the 'mouvements symphoniques' Pacific 231 (a portrait of a steam engine in motion) and Rugby, which was actually first performed in a football stadium, owe something aesthetically to the futurists Carra and Russolo, and musically to Stravinsky's early ballets. But the idiom itself is not particularly advanced.

By the 1930s Arthur Honegger had firmly renounced any association with enfant terriblisme. Two more large-scale oratorios, Jeanne d'Arc au bucher (1934-5, first performed in Basle in 1938) and La Danse des Mom (1939) are the most significant and typical products of these years. Arthur Honegger spent the war in occupied Paris, and his Second Symphony (for strings but with a phoenix-like trumpet solo in the last movement) records something of the tension and austerity of that period. After the war Arthur Honegger wrote three more symphonies, two of them intensely serious in style and content: No. 3, the Liturgique (1946), and No.5, Di tre re (1951). By this time, however, he was suffering from heart disease, to which he eventually succumbed in Paris in 1955.

Arthur Honegger's music is sometimes underrated, partly one must assume through his known connection with 'Les Six', whose work has a reputation for being both trivial and dated. In fact, as we have seen, Arthur Honegger was a serious and ambitious artist. His early works show the conventional influences of the day, Ravel, Debussy and later Stravinsky and Prokofiev, but never Satie, whose aesthetic was completely alien to him. Later on he developed a reasonably individual style of a faintly neoclassical cut, based on polyphony and dense bitonal harmony but always propelled by muscular rhythms. The oratorios and biblical operas also reveal a taste for melodrama and even for heavy religious symbolism. Sometimes the effect is turgid, but it can also be original and inspired, as in Jeanne d'Arc au bucher, where the novel idea of telling Joan of Arc's story as a series of flashbacks as she waits to be burned at the stake is finely rendered in music of great vividness and resource. The episodic character of this work is typical of Arthur Honegger. Even so he was capable of more extended musical thought, as the Second and Fifth Symphonies, in particular, show.

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