Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Born in Le Havre on 10th March, 1892, Arthur Honegger was ofSwiss-French parentage, an ancestry in many ways determining the nature of hismusic, far removed from the self-conscious gaiety and whimsicality frequentlyevoked by the other members of the Paris-based group Les Six. Studies at theParis Conservatoire during 1911-18 instilled in him a love of counterpoint andfugal procedure, evident throughout his work, while a lifelong appreciation ofthe possibilities of technology is evinced in his extensive output for film andradio, not least Abel Gance's 1927 epic film Napoleon (Marco Polo 8.223134).
Despite the fact that his international career was launchedin 1921 by the dramatic psalm Le roi David (Naxos 8.553649), and that operasand ballets occupied the major part of his creative thinking between the wars,Honegger is now best remembered for a sequence of vivid and increasinglydramatic orchestral works. During the 1920s and 1930s, these took the form ofshort tone poems and mood pictures, often with a specific evocation in mind.Latterly, the composer preferred more abstract titles, composing his FirstSymphony in 1930 and three further symphonies during the 1940s. Dating from1951, the Fifth Symphony is among his last major works, a defiant statement bya composer who, undermined by serious ill health from 1947, was increasinglyuncertain about the artist's r??le in a world haunted by the threat of its owndestruction. He died in the Paris district of Montmatre, where he had livedsince 1913, on 27th November 1955.
A tone poem depicting summer in the Alps above Berne,Pastoral d'ete, prefaced by a quotation from Rimbaud, J'ai embrasse l'aubed'ete (I embraced the dawn of summer), was a notable success at its premi?¿re in1920, and has remained one of Honegger's most performed pieces. Calmlyundulating strings provide the backdrop for a ruminative horn melody, continuedby oboe and complemented by graceful clarinet arabesques. Violins take up thetheme, leading in a gradual crescendo to the central section of the piece, alivelier, folk-like theme shared between woodwind. Strings add their animatedcontribution, resulting in an overlay of 'folk' themes at the central climax.This quickly subsides, and the initial melody and rhythm return, albeit with reminiscencesof the central section. A version of the 'folk' theme, sounding ethereal onflute, brings the piece to a gentle close.
Few pieces caught the mood of the time, and the imaginationof musicians and public alike, as did Pacific 231 (1923), Honegger's graphicmusical depiction of a train in motion, in which he expresses acceleration bydecreasing note values, while actually slowing the tempo. The trajectory of thework is very simple. After a ghostly initial inhaling and exhaling on upperstrings and woodwind, the rhythmic momentum gets under way in earnest. As thepulse-rate gradually increases, so does the stridency of the orchestration,with numerous rhythmically-defined gestures coalescing in ever-new patterns andcombinations. Particularly notable is a tarantella-like woodwind idea, and anangular trumpet motif which constantly returns in new guises. At lengtheverything comes together in a hectic tutti, with the brakes applied as themusic slows inexorably to its final chord.
Although Honegger might be thought to be repeating the trickagain in Rugby (1928), this piece is less the graphic depiction of a game ofrugby-football than an effervescent scherzo that can be heard and enjoyedpurely as music. The opening chorale-like theme on brass acts as a framingdevice throughout, with a broad-spanned string melody the main source ofcontrast. In between, incisive exchanges between orchestral groups imply asense of opposing forces trying to secure the upper hand, culminating in theaffirmative return of the chorale-theme to impart a sense of victory, thoughwho has triumphed over whom is left very much to the listener's imagination.
Perhaps it was a sense that titles were becoming a hindrancethat led Honegger to label a third potentially descriptive piece simplyMouvement Symphonique No. 3, commissioned in 1933 by Furtwangler for the BerlinPhilharmonic Orchestra, a work that aroused Nazi hostility, for whateverreason. The musical language here is emotionally more ambiguous. Stridentopening gestures effect a sequence of hard-edged, tensile ideas, but only alively theme on trumpet and strings manages to impose itself on the restlessmusical discourse. Midway through the piece, rhythmic activity comes to a head;after a sequence of grating chords, the very different sound of tenorsaxophone, plaintive against halting lower strings, assumes the foreground.Other woodwind, then strings, take up its melody, leading to a pensiveconclusion which confirms that the composer is intent on seeking a deeper veinof expression.
An expression that found fulfilment in numerous stage-worksand concert pieces over the 1930s, before the onset of World War Two, broughtabout a further expressive intensification of Honegger's musical language. HisSecond Symphony (1941), written in the darkest days of French subjugation, endswith a chorale which points to future victory. That victory over Nazism cameabout four years later, but its successor (1945) is far from a triumphaldisplay: mankind had been drawn to new levels of destruction, such as presentedgrave questions as to its very survival. Questions such as those thatHonegger's Third Symphony, his Symphonie Liturgique, where each movement isheaded by a title drawn from the liturgy, tackles in earnest.
The first movement, Dies irae, suggests hate that destroyseverything. Scurrying strings quickly erupt in an impassioned theme for hornsand strings, goaded on by shrieking trumpets and woodwind. The turmoilcontinues over a pounding string ostinato, with a listless melody on violinsand upper woodwind emerging to provide necessary expressive contrast. The musicquietens for a tense central interlude, in which an oriental-sounding theme,underpinned by unsnared side drum, briefly assumes prominence. Activity soon mounts,however, leading to a return of the ostinato rhythm and a free recapitulationof those ideas heard at the outset of the movement. A brief coda sees the musicdisappear back into the depths for which it had emerged, with the final returnof a ray of hope in what the composer described as his 'bird-theme'.
In the second movement, De profundis clamavi, a plea ofsupplication, the opening gestures are as balm after the preceding furore,preparing for a lyrical yet troubled theme which alternates between strings andwoodwind, evolving new expressive gestures as it continues and with anespecially touching episode for violins and muted trumpets. Ominous chords deepin the piano's bass register presage the main climax, building steadily anddeliberately before culminating in the impassioned return of the theme'sinitial phrases. There is no formal recapitulation as such, and even the threatof a further climax is pointedly forestalled, enabling the movement to winddown to a calm but somehow questioning close, made more so by the solo flutereturn to the 'bird-theme', the dove of peace over the ruins.
The third movement, Dona nobis pacem, sets off with a heavymarch rhythm, underlying much of what follows. A baleful theme for horns,underpinned by strings, heightens the ominous atmosphere, the march-rhythmcontinuing as brass point up its militaristic connotations, described by thecomposer as the march of robots against civilised man. The horn theme nowreturns with a striving counter-melody for strings, which duly brings about thes