Arthur Honegger

By Harry Halbreich; Roger Nichols | Go to book overview
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Two Countries, Three Cultures

In 1911, when the nineteen-year-old Honegger had to make the choice, he opted for the Swiss nationality of his forebears. But he always lived in Paris, and the French cultural environment was absolutely vital for him. He may have been a Swiss plant, but he drew his sap from the nourishing compost of France. When I say "Swiss," I should specify "German-speaking Swiss," which makes his case rarer and more interesting.

Honegger's relationship with Switzerland was always both close and ambiguous. As he said to Bernard Gavoty:

Although I was born in Le Havre of Swiss parents, I've spent most of my life in France and learned my craft there, as though I were a Frenchman. But, deep inside, I have kept a kernel of something Swiss -- what Milhaud used to call my "Helvetic sensitivity."

What do I owe to Switzerland? No doubt, the Protestant tradition, a great difficulty in fooling myself over the value of what I do, a naive sense of honesty, and a familiarity with the Bible. That's a very disparate group of things. 1

Honegger always thought of Switzerland as a place for holidays, as the place where his family lived, and later, immediately after the Second World War when living conditions in France were very difficult, as a place of refuge. But he never envisaged settling there. He even held it against his parents that they went back there for their retirement. He found the Swiss cultural and intellectual climate too narrow and provincial in its outlook, and the oxygen of Paris was indispensable to him as a permanent stimulant. He knew that in Switzerland his creative genius would wither for lack of nourishment. Truth be told, one sometimes has the feeling that, possibly without realizing it, he was ungrateful to Switzerland. Certainly his hometown of Zurich took a long time to recognize his worth, and he never forgot the insult when they refused his String Quartet No. 1 on the grounds that it was immature and imperfectly crafted. Zurich also waited until the last moment ( 1951) before giving Honegget his last commission, for Monopartita. But of Honegger's two great patrons, one came from Winterthur and the other from Basel.

Honegger grumbled about his months of military service "without danger but without glory" during the First World War. One wonders what he would


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