Arthur Honegger

By Harry Halbreich; Roger Nichols | Go to book overview

THIRTEEN
Incidental Music

One particular aspect of Honegger's genius has been highlighted several times during the preceding discussion of his music: namely, his illustrative gift, of describing a character, a situation, or a mood with great economy, but at the same time with an astonishing vigor and accuracy. And he does this with means that are purely musical, indeed abstract, owing nothing to facile, naturalist imitation or to the program music techniques typical of the romantic symphonic poem. Le Chant de Nigamon, which is practically the only Honegger work that belongs to the older genre, keeps its distance from the procedures of someone like Richard Strauss and is formally so rigorous that, were it not for the three American Indian melodies he quotes, one would have a job to know what the source of his inspiration had been. Indeed, its essentially symphonic construction precludes it from the present discussion, which concentrates on the art of the medieval illuminator and the miniaturist.

This gift of the concise, striking image predestined Honegger to a fruitful career as a cinema composer, but we can see that it was an innate element in his creative genius, manifesting itself in Le Rol David at the latest, and perhaps even as early as Le Dit des jeux du monde. Even so, his intense activity in films from 1933-1934 onward could only have sharpened this rare faculty, which shows itself even more clearly in his works for radio, where the music has to suggest the image, than in his stage or film music, where the image already exists. For the sake of convenience, I have grouped the works into three sections: incidental music for the stage, music for radio, and music for film. In fact, there are no firm barriers between this group of chapters and those that surround it. The titles quoted above prove it. Le Roi David may be a grand "fresco," but it is also a succession of short tableaux illustrating the painter's art, and one could say the same of Nicolas de Flue and even of the first version of Judith (although not of the following ones). In the same way, part of his film music -- the numerous popular songs, as well as the tangos, fox trots, and waltzes that accompany themdemonstrates an ability denied by and large to composers of so-called serious music and has undoubted links with the "light music" that will conclude our inventory of the composer's output.

A large part of the music under discussion is functional, written in general at high speed for contexts and circumstances that had no durable existence. In general, these pieces make no claim to an autonomous life outside the condi-

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