Arthur Honegger

By Harry Halbreich; Roger Nichols | Go to book overview

TWENTY

Ethics, Aesthetics, and Craft:
The Mission of the Creative Artist and
the Mystery of Creativity

Max Reger, with his usual rough Bavarian humor, liked to ask the riddle "Question: Why is a composer like a pig? Answer: Both are appreciated only after they're dead." He also used to tell the story of what happened one evening when he went to visit some friends. The little country servant girl had asked her mistress what this guest did for a living. The lady of the house drew herself up proudly and said: "He's a composer!" "Wow!" said the girl in astonishment, "a living composer! Do they exist?" Honegger, like the dynamic ex-rugby player he was, did not beat around the bush in talking to Bernard Gavoty , but charged straight in with: "The most important thing about a composer is that he should be dead."

We know that things were not always so, and that under the ancien régime the composer had a very precise social role that ended with his death. After the French Revolution of 1789, however, the composer, freed from the constraints laid on him by an employer, began to write for a hypothetical posterity without worrying about being understood immediately. So it was that Beethoven, with an eye on the future, was the first "posthumous" composer.

Since for Honegger the need to communicate with people directly was always the absolute priority, he could not be happy with this state of affairs. Which is not to say that he too did not nourish the secret hope of the Roman poet Horace: "Non omnis moriar" (I shall not wholly die). To be and to have been -- an existential dilemma, and indeed a dilemma we cannot formulate as precisely as we might wish because of the significant lack of a future infinitive tense in our language. Although Honegger was acclaimed and understood in his lifetime, immediately after his death he seemed to be losing his bold wager. With the passage of time, we now know that he won it.

A sentence of his that perfectly defines his position, and the means employed to achieve it, has often been quoted: "My efforts have always been directed toward the ideal of writing music that is understandable by the great mass of listeners but sufficiently free of banality to interest music-lovers." 1 His interviewer Bernard Gavoty commented: "An art that is both popular and personal." But Honegger went on:

If your melodic and rhythmic shapes are precise and stick in the mind, the listener will never be frightened by the accompanying dissonances. What

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