Arthur Honegger

By Harry Halbreich; Roger Nichols | Go to book overview

TWENTY-ONE

The Musical Language

The key to Honegger's musical language, and to his overall attitudes, both positive and negative, lies in a short phrase I heard from his own lips (although he said it to others too): "For me, an isolated sound is a dominant." This expresses Honegger's perception of an acoustical reality, as modified by the tempered scale. This acoustical reality is that of the "sphericity" of sound, to use the composer Giacinto Scelsi's term: that is to say, of sound endowed with volume and depth, of complex sound complete with its halo of harmonics. Since it is in absolute opposition to the concept of a combination of points, it is therefore incompatible with serial theory, a fact that explains Honegger's implacable rejection of the latter -- in which he is joined by composers as varied as Messiaen, Scelsi, Ohana, Xenakis, and all the young, so-called spectral school of Murail, Grisey, Radulescu, and others.

Honegger's antiserialism is therefore in no sense the manifestation of a reactionary outlook, as the serialists have tried to make us believe. As the evolution of musical language since his death has shown, this rejection is based on the very nature of music. But in his case it was emphasized by his refusal to consider any material other than the tempered scale of twelve semitones. It was this refusal (shared, I may say, by Messiaen) that engendered Honegger's pessimism as to the possibilities of musical language evolving or being enriched. He dwelt on the subject in Je suis compositeur:

It seems to me there are two categories of composer: those who have had the audacity to bring new stones to the edifice; and those who have shaped them, set them in place, and used them to build cottages or cathedrals. For the first, the task is finished until someone uses new intervals -- quarter-tones, thirds of tones, tenths of tones. For the others, research can go on for as long as anyone has anything to say. Because there is no longer the potential for new harmonics, nor are there any melodic lines that have not already been employed, but there is always an original use one can make of harmonies both old and recent. . . . The same is true of chords containing all twelve chromatic tones. They've been used regularly by composers for the last thirty years. But today it's impossible to add an extra thirteenth tone. The stock is complete. 1

It is, indeed, unless one crosses the border of the thirteenth tone, and Honegger did not envisage such a thing: "I have absolutely no faith in the suc-

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