Arthur Honegger

By Harry Halbreich; Roger Nichols | Go to book overview
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Orchestral Music

With the five symphonies forming a compact and imposing chain on the horizon, the central massif of Honegger's orchestral works consists of more than forty peaks of varying sizes. Together with the "grand frescoes" -- that is to say, the oratorios -- it is essentially on these orchestral works that Honegger's reputation rests, and rightly so. He made a prudent and sensible entry into this field with works of modest dimensions, such as Aglavaine et Sélysette and Le Chant de Nigamon, and gradually turned the orchestra into his favorite medium at the expense of chamber music, which had been predominant at the start of his career, but which retreated into the background after 1923.

Clearheaded realist that he was, Honegger made no early forays that were beyond his powers: there was no grandiose project for a symphony subsequently stillborn or abandoned. Horace victorieux, which was by far the largest of his early orchestral works, was originally conceived as a ballet and therefore is based on a detailed scenario. He waited, then, until he was thirty-eight years old before tackling the supreme challenge of a symphony, with a fully accomplished work that bears the opus number 75 in his chronological catalog. Before that, a number of his works, notably the Symphonic Movements Pacific 2.3.1 and Rugby, are at least as elaborately structured as this First Symphony, the first movement of which is the most complex he ever wrote.

But as the years pass, it is increasingly the orchestral music to which we should turn in order to grasp Honegger's true, essential message. What the String Quartet No. 1 expresses at twenty-five, the De profandis of the Symphonie liturgique expresses at fifty. The Concerto da camera and Deliciae basilienses are amplifications and sublimations of chamber music, while the Symphony for Strings is the culmination of the quartets. Certainly, we may regret that Honegger abandoned chamber music at the height of his artistic maturity, but this has been the case with other great symphonic writers of this century, such as Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, and Vaughan Williams. Perhaps one has to be a Beethoven to manage the two simultaneously.

Among the essential symphonic gifts that Honegger possessed, first and foremost was that of inventing thematic outlines that were striking and also capable of being elaborated and developed. His main themes are memorable not only just as tunes, beautiful though they may be, but also as living organisms containing possibilities of growth and regeneration. Of all the composers of


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