Arthur Honegger

By Harry Halbreich; Roger Nichols | Go to book overview

FOURTEEN

Light Music

If we exclude noncommercial jazz, then so-called light music (popular song, dance music, operetta, musical comedy, and so on) is really a quite different domain from that of so-called serious music. It is exceptional for a composer to be active in both fields, at least in Europe where light music was, and still is, a closed shop, reserved for specialists, with quite separate economic rules and distribution networks, and a budget far higher than that for serious music. Honegger, with his solid successes in the differing fields of oratorio, symphony, and sonata, is a very remarkable exception.

No doubt his long, hard apprenticeship lay at the root of his ability to move with equal ease in every musical genre, even those that are not taught in conservatories. We may add to that his marvelous adaptability and his imitative skill -- "chameleonesque," in the best sense of the word. Honegger's own personality is always present, even when he seems to be performing with elegance and nonchalance (the public does not need to know that these characteristics are the result of hard work). A popular song or an operetta by him bear his hallmark as inescapably as any of his string quartets or symphonies. That immediately implies a complete lack of pretension and an acceptance that every form of expression is valid, both aesthetically and ethically, so long as the quality of inspiration does not suffer and it is approached with professional conscientiousness. We may, indeed, find it hard to imagine Messiaen or Boulez indulging in popular songwriting. They have never been moved by that sense of social solidarity, that love and respect for simple people that make Honegger worthy to be called "a composer in the city of mankind."

Other composers, some of note, have tried to cover as wide a range, but none has done so with such ease and naturalness. We only have to compare Les Aventures du roi Pausole and the only slightly later Le Testament de tante Caroline by Roussel. Roussel's piece has the air of an enjoyable holiday task, an ironic, refined divertimento by a great musical and philosophical master, but there is still a touch of stiffness about it, and its stylistic borrowings lack freshness. We find nothing of the sort with Honegger. He lowers his sights without resorting to affectation or vulgarity. And Les Aventures du roi Pausole was written around the same time as such serious and different works as Amphion, the First Symphony, and Cris du monde.

If we start looking for parallel cases, we come across the significant fact

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