HONEGGER: Le Roi David
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Arthur Honegger (1892-1955): Le Roi David(King David)
Born in 1892 at Le Havre to parentsoriginating from Zurich, Arthur Honegger was deeply influenced by this doubleidentity, his Protestant ancestry and the Catholic country in which he wasborn, the sea and the mountains, Honegger's life, dedicated to music, wasrelatively uneventful, apart from the difficult war years spent in Paris, aftera short period of military service in Switzerland. It was in 1947 that thefirst signs of heart disease overtook him, during a visit to New York. He diedseveral years later, in 1955, in Paris.
Honegger's musical training began at LeHavre under local teachers and continued in Zurich, where his vocation becameclear. At the Paris Conservatoire he was a pupil of Widor for composition andorchestration and of Vincent d'Indy for orchestral conducting, but, moreimportantly, of Andre Gedalge for counterpoint. Gedalge, who taught FlorentSchmitt, Koechlin, Enesco, Ravel, Milhaud and Ibert, handed down to him thelove of a difficulty conquered, the custom of writing down sketches and a solidtechnical foundation.
The dual nature of Honegger, oscillatingbetween symphony and opera, showed itself in childhood: his first compositionsincluded sonatas for violin and piano in the style of Beethoven, but alsofragments of operas and even an oratorio-cantata, Le Calvaire (Calvary).
This same duality informed all his work: in accordance with the period and withcommissions and helped by a prodigious musical imagination, Honegger wrote agreat deal for the theatre, including eighteen ballets (with the FuneralMarch for the collaborative Les Maries de la tour Eiffel of LesSix), 26 varied stage pieces, including Saul for Andre aide, Antigonefor Cocteau and Le Soulier de satin for Paul Claudel, two operas andfour operettas, as well as some thirty film- scores. Honegger's taste forso-called pure music is seen in four concertos, chamber music and a largenumber of orchestral works, including five symphonies and the well-known Pacific231. Finally, he also wrote a quantity of songs and established the revivalof oratorio in the twentieth century.
Although a member of Les Six, withMilhaud, Durey, Auric, Germaine, Tailleferre and Poulenc, Honegger remaineddistant from the music-hall aesthetic advocated by Cocteau, their mentor, inhis manifesto Le Coq et l'Arlequin (The Cock and the Harlequin). He saidthat he had no admiration for the fairground and the music-hall, but on thecontrary for chamber music and symphonic music of greater seriousness andausterity. A balanced man, deeply anchored in musical tradition, Honeggerstated his only creed when he said that Debussy and Fauro had provided a veryuseful counterweight in his aesthetic to the classics and to Wagner.
In 1908 the Vaudois poet Reno Moraxestablished a theatre in the village of Mezi?¿res. The stage was deep enough toallow large-scale productions and Gluck's Orphee had been mounted therebefore 1914. The First World War brought a pause in the activity of the theatreuntil1921, when Rene Morax struck on the idea of the biblical subject of KingDavid for the re-opening. It was in February, with the rehearsals about tostart in the following month, that the poet became worried about the music. TheSwiss composers he had approached having refused, he sought the advice of theconductor Ernest Ansermet, who proposed the name of Honegger, then little knownin his own country. Morax hesitated but was encouraged in this choice byStravinsky himself.
Honegger began by composing the choralparts, which made use of a number of amateurs. It was, however, only after anunexpected visit to the bedside of his mother, who was seriously ill, that heenvisaged two important movements, the Dance before the Ark and the Deathof David. Everything was completed on 28th April, in two months, apart fromthe orchestration for a small ensemble of six woodwind, four brass, aharmonium, a piano, two timpani, a double bass, a gong and a tam-tam.
The work was a success, both musically andwith the public. Shortly afterwards an enthusiastic patron provided anopportunity for Honegger's work to be heard in Paris, strangely coupled withFauro's Requiem. The orchestra was enlarged to include strings, withoutdetracting in any way from the sound qualities of the original version. Thetransfer of a stage work to the concert hall, however, posed the problem of theaction, met, on the advice of Morax, by the introduction of a narrator. Thischange had an unexpected effect. Honegger revived, almost by chance, theoratorio, giving it new vigour by the use of spoken narration. The form was aproductive one and some years later gave rise to another masterpiece, Jeanned 'Arc au Bucher (St Joan at the Stake), with the collaboration of Claudel.
Honegger's music is not afraid to suggest,to accompany action descriptively: the various fanfares, such as No.3bis, theentry of Goliath, the victorious military marches of the Cortege and Marchof the Hebrews or absurdity in the March of the Philistines. Sometimesthe music paints the scene, as in the nocturnal atmosphere disturbed bytrumpet-calls in Saul's Camp or the divine anger of the Psalm In thisterror. Above all, though, the music underlines the various ideas in thetext, like a mosaic. The Psalm Have pity on me, O God is the bestexample of this. the tortured chromatic language of the first part is followedby the shining brass chords that underline the idea of confidence recovered.
Often present in the French theatre butrare in oratorio, melodrama unites the music subtly to the text. The mournfulatmosphere of the Incantation comes principally from this unusualcombination of music and speech that reinforces the poignant sorrow of the Lamentof Gilboa or gives solemnity to the Crowning of Solomon. Beyondthat, however, Honegger, for whom the unity of a work came from therelationship between music and words, uses the spoken text and music toreinforce the structure of the whole work.
The oratorio benefits enormously from thissearch for unity, realised through various elements, chords of fourthssuperimposed, the use of the oriental augmented second and from the beginningthe various sections built on repetitions, such as the Lament of Gilboa andthe Servants' Song, but also from the desire for balance, from the dramaticorder and structure, between the different characters present in the work. Asynthesis of this art of combining, the contrapuntal mastery of Honegger isheard in all its power in the final movement, with the clever superimpositionof Alleluia over the bass theme of God tells you.
Honegger's own view of Le Roi David developedwith time, but he continued to value the two principal sections, the Dancebefore the Ark and the Finale, as well as the penitential chorus. Nodoubt the success of the work annoyed him, as did that of Pacific 231,for it worked to the detriment of compositions of similar quality. Yet thedeeply dual nature of Honegger is expressed strongly at the heart of Le RoiDavid: a pervasive pessimism stemming from the impression of living at theend of a civilisation goes together with the delicate and confident lyricism ofthe final works, as the Death of David carries with it the seed of thefuture. "A day shall come when a flower shall blossom from your stem,green once more."
English version by Keith Anderson