Arthur Honegger

By Harry Halbreich; Roger Nichols | Go to book overview
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The Paris Conservatory and
Honegger's Earliest Works

For an adolescent from the provinces, thirsty for music and culture, Paris in 1911 was a veritable treasure house. The sun of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was approaching its zenith, and it was only by a few months that Arthur missed the premiere of Petrushka and also of a somewhat scandalous spectacle commissioned and performed by Ida Rubinstein, a dancer who had left Diaghilev's troupe and who was to play a crucial role in Honegger's career. The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian was a neo-medieval mystery play by Gabriele d'Annunzio, with wonderful music by Claude Debussy -- one of the Debussy scores that was always closest to Honegger's heart. At the time Honegger entered the Conservatory, Ravel was working on Daphnis and Chloë, Dukas was polishing and repolishing La Péri, Roussel, in his garden at Bois-le-Roi, was sketching from life the tiny horrors of Le Festin de l'araignée (The Spider's Banquet), while Fauré was slowly and patiently weaving the cloth of his opera Penelope. Less than two years later, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was to explode like a bomb, with a violence that would for years blind people to the more insidious but more profound violence of Debussy Jeux, a bomb with a delayed-action fuse.

Outside France, 1911 was the year of Der Rosenkavalier and also, further north, of the austere and enigmatic Fourth Symphony of Sibelius, which ran clean against all the tendencies of a time Jean Sibelius described as a "circus," and in particular against the luxuriance of Prometheus (The Poem of Fire), at that very moment being produced by that mystagogue and erotomaniac of genius, Alexander Scriabin. Another bomb was taking shape in the subconscious of Arnold Schoenberg, who had been in a musical limbo of atonality for three years: Pierrot lunaire was to emerge in 1912.

This undermining of traditional values went ahead on every front. Just as Honegger reached Paris, the famous Room 41 of the 27th Salon des Indépendants revealed analytical cubism to the general public: Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp, closely followed by Juan Gris. Presenting an object from the front and in profile simultaneously is, intellectually, a close parallel with the procedure, found in Petrushka, of simultaneously sounding the tonic, dominant, and subdominant of a key (even if that particular score went on to the next stage, of polytonality). In Germany, different techniques and attitudes came to the fore. Schoenberg had abandoned tonality in 1909 and Wassily Kandinsky's first abstract paintings renounced figurative representa


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