Arthur Honegger

By Harry Halbreich; Roger Nichols | Go to book overview

TWELVE

Theater and Musical Frescoes

From this point on, the divisions between musical genres become less and less watertight, and the classification of works becomes more and more a matter of personal choice. The title of the present chapter alludes to the fact that the oratorios that have established Honegger's greatest claim to fame were generally defined as "grand frescoes." But they often consist of a succession of short scenes that are as concise as they are suggestive, showing Honegger's genius as an "illustrator" in just as marked a manner as does his incidental music or his music for radio and films (to be examined in the following chapter).

In any case, Le Roi David and Judith were originally written as incidental music, while the largest of the radio scores, in particular Christopher Columbus and Saint François d'Assise, are true oratorios, intended for radio and not for the concert hall. Most of the works in Category 10 (Cantatas and Oratorios) have been staged, in general proving more effective in that guise and, in the case of Judith, reaching in it their ultimate form -- the exceptions (the Cantique de Pâques, Cris du monde, and Une Cantate de Noël) are also those works without spoken text. In this way, Le Roi David and Nicolas de Flue have passed from the stage to the concert hall, while, Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (although intended originally for the theater) and La Danse des morts have gone in the opposite direction. Only Judith has made the round trip, as it were, through its three successive versions.

But that is not all. In the case of the ballets, four of them demand vocal soloists and chorus, while Amphion, wrongly labeled a "melodrama," remains a fascinating hybrid of ballet and oratorio-cantata; and the same might almost be said of Le Cantique des cantiques. The key to this confused situation, to these fluid identities, is found in a brief sentence from the composer: "My dream would have been to compose nothing but operas." 1 That is why I have refused to separate these works from his oratorios and ballets, many of which are "opéras manqués."

Honegger was not alone in this. We know that Mozart too would have liked to write nothing but operas, and that Hector Berliozt lived his whole life in a similar state of frustration, as The Damnation of faust and Romeo and Juliet testify. It is significant that these works too, after his death, found their way on to the operatic or balletic stage, with greater or lesser success. We know that the monopoly exercised by Rossini, and then by Meyerbeer and Halévy, ruined

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