Arthur Honegger

By Harry Halbreich; Roger Nichols | Go to book overview

TWENTY-TWO

Honegger's Place in the Twentieth Century

In 1971, in the liner notes for a recording of Le Roi David, 1 I wrote:

On 27 November 1955, after a long illness, Arthur Honegger died at the age of sixty-three, at the height of his fame. This fame was founded upon the enthusiasm of the general public as well as on the admiration of his colleagues, and it spread over the entire world. An abundant discography reflected this happy situation, which at that time seemed unassailable. . . . Honegger certainly had not been part of the avant-garde for many years, but the path chosen by the composers of the avant-garde was so far removed from his own that no conflict seemed possible. Pierre Boulez himself paid his respects to the older composer who had encouraged his early career, and numerous pupils seemed destined to capitalize on his legacy.

Then, almost immediately after his death, a thick veil of obscurity descended upon his music, and it gradually disappeared from concerts and record catalogues. Switzerland and the Eastern bloc, it is true, remained faithful to him ( Czechoslovakia especially), but in France his reputation underwent a brutal eclipse. . . . Since we are talking here of a creative artist of the first rank, it is relevant to look at the many and complex reasons for this lamentable situation, which I, for my part, am sure is no more than temporary.

Was the decline in Honegger's popularity a fierce reaction against his success, stirred up by less fortunate rivals? But those rivals did not profit by the change in the situation. Was it a result of the deaths of the great interpreters of his music? But the decline in popularity had begun before the deaths of the most eminent of these, Charles Ménch and Ernest Ansermet, and their followers are still alive today. Was it a change in public taste? That is easy to say, but those who organize musical life do not often consult with this public; they are, to a large extent, the opinion formers. But even so, the public shows an undimmed enthusiasm for Le Roi David and Jeanne d'Arc on the occasions, all too rare, when it is permitted to hear them. The younger generation of listeners is delighted to be discovering treasures that it has been deprived of by a very narrowly prescriptive musical establishment.

It has to be said that some tiresome acolytes have done Honegger's cause considerable harm by setting him up in opposition to the avantgarde, in the name of respect for tradition. His name therefore came to symbolize some dubious positions, even certain backward-looking, aca-

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