Arthur Honegger

1892 1955

Arthur Honegger



Arthur Honegger was a Swiss-French composer in the 19th century and  member of Les six. He is known for his development of unique forms in large-scale works. His dedication to contrapuntal techniques and “often rugged and uncompromising” style give his works a distinctive sound.

Honegger was born to Swiss parents in the French port of Le Havre in 1892. While there, he studied violin and harmony with R.-C. Martin. He later studied for two years at the Zürich Conservatory with Friedrich Hegar, Willem de Boer and Lothar Kempter in composition, violin and theory, respectively. His discovery of the music of Wagner, Strauss and Reger during his studies greatly influenced his own works.

In 1911, Honegger enrolled in the Paris Conservatory, where he spent seven years studying. There he studied violin with Capet, counterpoint and fugue with Gédalge, composition and orchestration with Widor, conducting with d’Indy and history with Emmanuel. At the conservatory, he studied alongside Tailleferre, Auric, Ibert, and Milhaud.

In 1926, Honegger married Andrée ‘Vaura’ Vauraburg. Honegger required complete solitude in order to compose, leading the couple to reside separately though she almost always went on tour with him and played all the piano parts in his works.

Although he was a member of ‘Les nouveaux jeunes’ and later ‘Les Six’, Honegger felt that he shared little of their musical aesthetic, as he was more “serious-minded”.

His early works were greatly influenced by Debussy and Ravel. His first successful orchestral piece was his symphonic poemLe chant de Nigamon (1917), which is based on a scene in Gustave Aimardin’sLe souriquet, in which an Iroquois chief sings while being burned alive by the enemy. This is his first work that truly shows his passion for dramatic music. Other early works include his two violin sonatas (1918 and 1919), the Viola Sonata (1920) and a Cello Sonata (1920). He also composed the incidental music forLe dit des jeux du monde (1918) which shows many similarities, in regards to the degree of contrapuntal writing, to Schoenberg’s pre-World War I works, such asPierrot lunaire. In addition, he completed two orchestral works,Pastorale d'été (1920) and Horace victorieux (1921).

It was with the music for René Morax’s Le roi David (1921) that Honneger first experienced international fame. This work, in 27 movements, was composed for Morax’sdrame biblique in just two months. A concert version of the work was later arranged, which was performed widely. This work led to his nickname ‘Le roi Arthur’.

Honegger later composed music for yet another biblical drama from Morax, Judith (1925). He reworked this music to create anopera sérieux (1925) and an action musicale (1927) that could be performed in the concert hall. The work is very eclectic in style and features very tonal harmonies, complex polyphony and styles such as Gregorian chant, Protestant hymns, and jazz.

Though he expressed a desire to compose “nothing but operas,” he felt that the state of the lyric theatre was declining. His operas include works from his youth,Philippa (1903), Sigismond (c1904) and La Esmerelda (1907). Honegger experienced several failed attempts, such as his operaAntigone (1924-7) and the melodramaAmphion (1929), a collaboration with Paul Valéry.

His following works included the vastly successful operetta Les aventures du roi Pausole(1929-30), which combined the styles of Chabrier, Gounod, Lecocq, Messager and Offenbach, and ran for more than 500 performances at the Bouffes-Parisiens. He also collaborated with Ibert later on the operettaL’aiglon (1936-7).

Honegger’s successful dramatic oratorio Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (1935) features an interesting orchestration using saxophones, the ondes martenot, (an unusual instrument thatMessiaen also used) and much percussion. In 1944, in collaboration with Claudel, a prologue was added; their collaboration also extended toLa danse des morts (1938).

During the 1940s, Honegger’s main works consisted of four symphonies, Nos. 2-5, which feature much humanistic conflict. His second symphony,Symphony pour cordes (1940-1), portrays much violence and depression, representative of the spirit of Paris during the Occupation. The ending features a chorale, a technique frequently used by Bach, filled with hope.

While the second symphony represents the feelings of hopelessness of the time, the third,Symphonie liturgigue (1946) goes even further, with a specific programme, which, as outlined by Honegger, aims to “symbolize the reaction of modern man against the tide of barbarity, stupidity, suffering, mechanization and bureaucracy which have been with us for several years.” He further explains that his music represents “the inner conflict between a surrender to blind forces and the instinct of happiness, the love of peace and feelings of a divine refuge.” A drama between the three characters, misfortune, happiness and man, takes place in this symphony.

Honegger’s Symphony No. 4 Deliciae basilensis (1946) is much more optimistic in nature, while Symphony No. 5De tre re (1950) is incredibly dark and tragic, representing his illness and depression during his final eight years. This symphony, as with the second, ends with a chorale, but this time it is a “gesture of emptiness after so much tragedy.”

Honegger’s last major work was his Une cantata de Noël (1953).

In addition to the large-scale works, Honegger composed two very successful string quartets, many neglected yet worthymelodies, and numerous other chamber works.

His popularity during his lifetime can be summed up by Jean Cocteau, who wrote, “Arthur, you managed to obtain the respect of a disrespectful era. You linked to the skill of an architect of the Middle Ages the simplicity of a humble craftsman of cathedrals.” Further, nearly all of his music was recorded during his lifetime, some of it under his direction. Many of his works, especially the chamber works, are often performed today.

Honegger also contributed to the development of film music, for which he wrote 43 scores, and radio, for which he composed eight programmes. He worked as a teacher at the Ecole Normale de Musique after World War II. From the 1940s on, Honegger became closer to his home country and wrote many works for Swiss festivals and performers. In addition to his work as a composer, he wrote two books and provided criticism.

Honegger was elected to the Institut de France in 1938 and held a foreign membership in the Académie des Beaux-Arts. He was also elected president of the Confédération Internationale des SACEM and received an honorary doctorate in 1948 from the University of Zürich.

After a long battle with illness and depression, Honegger died in Paris in 1955.

Header image courtesy of public domain Other images courtesy of Satyr LP and Bach Cantatas