The life of Arthur Honegger, on the face of it, seems to have been fairly calm and straightforward: he lived in Paris, studied at the Conservatoire, travelled as his career required it, lived comfortably from his work, and had a private life free from scandal…

However, behind this innocuous facade hid a rich and complex personality, that needed independence and complete solitude to work, but loved the diversions of Parisian life; isolated, yet believing in his occupation of musician as an active member of society, and taking part in the life in the city; composing and making his fortune with an operetta, but loving music for its solemness and austerity; celebrated for having revived the oratorio, but regretting the fact that he could not only compose operas; expressing wonderfully the Hope in his work with Claudel and his second symphony, but tormented by doubt and finally surrendering to absolute pessimism faced with the ludicrousness of the world and man… Yes, Arthur Honegger is a complex individual, impossible to label, but whose music, nevertheless, is immediately recognisable: the work of a craftsman in his trade, who federates the diversity of his talents with an artistic personality that is both strong and powerful.

Childhood and education

Arthur Honegger was born on the 10th of March, 1892, in Le Havre; he maintained his Swiss nationality all his life, as his parents were Helvetian and protestants; his father settled in Le Havre where he traded in coffee. Young Arthur had nothing of a child prodigy about him, but music was a large part of family life. He learned the violin while his mother played the piano; the ensemble grew sometimes with the addition of a friend of Arthur’s who was also a violinist. Since music scores for two violins and a piano were few, the teenager started to compose some clumsy attempts for this group of musicians. He also started to write an opera and an oratorio. Bach and Beethoven were his two idols.

From 1909, his training became more professional and for two years, he was registered at the Zurich Conservatoire. There, he started to have more contact with contemporary music, discovering Richard Strauss and Max Reger. In 1911, as a young man of 19 he refuses to follow in the footsteps of his father and registers at the Paris Conservatoire. He arrives in a city that is in artistic turmoil. One that is marked by the performances of the Russian Ballet of Diaghilev, though french music is dominated by the personalities of Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Dukas and Roussel. At the Conservatoire, Honegger follows the classes given by Lucien Capet for the violin and André Gédalge for counterpoint. In this class, he meets and befriends Darius Milhaud and Jacques Ibert. Two young girls studied in the rival counterpoint class of Caussade: Germaine Tailleferre and some years later, Andrée Vaurabourg.

During a few months in 1915, Arthur Hongger was called up to defend the Swiss borders, but continued his studies immediately afterwards. He attended the composition class of Widor, then learnt to conduct an orchestra with Vincent d’Indy. In 1918, he ended his studies at the Conservatoire having gained a slim second certificate of merit in counterpoint. But this was of little importance, Arthur Honegger had already composed melodies and chamber music, as well as a First quartet that was particularly original and marked with Alemanic influences, and a symphonic poem, Le Chant de Nigamon, the first great orchestral work of the musician. In addition he met various key figures: Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Blaise Cendrars, Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie, Jane Bathori, etc., and his musical works are played, most notably during the concerts of the “Nouveaux jeunes”, a term which was invented by Satie, and that already applied to the future members of Six, except for Darius Milhaud, who went to Brazil as the personal assistant Paul Claudel.

Initial success

In 1918, Honegger was commissioned to write the score for a mimed ballet, Le Dit des Jeux du monde based on a poem by Paul Méral and with scenery and costumes by Guy Fauconnet. The first production took place on the 2nd of December 1918 at the Vieux-Colombier and caused a scandal that guaranteed Honegger’s rise to fame.

In January 1920 the famous birth of the Groupe des Six took place: In order to introduce the young composers, a musical evening was organized at the home of Darius Milhaud. It grouped together Louis Durey, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud, in the company of Jean Cocteau. The journalist Henri Collet, music critic and composer, published in Comœdia, and article entitled: “Un ouvrage de Rimsky et un ouvrage de.. Cocteau : les Cinq Russes, les Six Français”, followed by a second article a few days later: “Les Six Français”. Le Coq et l’Arlequin published by Cocteau in 1918, taking the place of a manifesto, but the group of personalities were far from reaching an agreement on a common aesthetic; works can be found by each of the composers that show evidence of the “Six” state of mind, based on a refined (purified) musical syntax, remote from Wagner and impressionism while keeping an eye on the classics –Bach first and foremost– as well as music-hall and jazz, but each composer develops his own aesthetic, and the group stays true to its original idea: a group of friends that enjoy performing their works in the same concerts, and who compose together Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel (though Durey has already distanced himself) and at least every ten years, meet again for the traditional anniversary which becomes a pretext for different musical events.

On the 20th September Honegger confides in art critic Paul Landormy sharing his musical aesthetic which he was loyal to all his life:

I do not worship the fair, or the music-hall, but chamber music and symphony music for its essence of solemness and austerity. I place such importance in the architecture of music that I would never want to see it sacrificed for reasons of literary or pictorial order. I have a tendency (maybe a little exaggerated) to look for the polyphonic complexity. I am not trying to return to a harmonious simplicity, like some anti-impressionist musicians. On the contrary, I think that we should use the harmonic material created by the school of thought that preceeded us, but in a different way, as a base for figure and rythym. Bach uses elements of tonal harmony in the same way that I want to use the superposing modern harmonies.

Two very different works from this period, show evidence of this aesthetic: Horace Victorieux, a mimed symphony that was originally written as a ballet, a symphonic piece that is one of the most original and austere written by the composer, and in a simpler and more traditional language, bearing the mark of the craftsman, Le Roi David: In January 1921, the composer was commisioned to write the music for a show by René Morax, the director of the Théâtre du Jorat in Mézières, Switzerland: it would become a huge fresco showing the life of David in more than twenty scenes. Composed in record time, for a mixed choir and a reduced orchestra, the music for Roi David was a great success. Honegger, in order to save his music score, re-orchestrated it for a full orchestra, joining the scattered pieces through a narrator. In this way he revived and modernised the oratorio, without having aimed to. Shown in this form in Paris in 1924, Le Roi David was a triumph and firmly established his reputation as a composer.

In terms of symphonies, two works composed at the beginning of the twenties would contribute to Honegger’s celebrity: La Pastorale d’été, written in 1920, which won the Prix Verley, and in particular Pacific 2.3.1, written in 1923, which was a genuine hit with symphony orchestras and on records.

Honegger in front of a locomotive but it isn't a Pacific 231!
Honegger in front of a locomotive but it isn’t a Pacific 231!

Ebb and flow

In the middle of the twenties, Honegger had reason to be proud of his situation as a composer. Whereas Darius Milhaud struggled to have his compositions appreciated by the public and recognized by the critics, and other collegues of the group are finding it difficult to put together real works of music — Poulenc completed Les Biches in 1923 and has not yet produced the works on which his celebrity will be based, Honegger appears to be a famous and celebrated composer through Pacific and Le Roi David. But as a result the peak seems to be difficult to reach: should he continue in the same vein and risk the trap of repetition, or alternatively move into new areas that are more challenging though with the risk of upsetting his followers?

In addition following this success Morax and Honegger renew their collaboration and produce Judith in 1925; more worked and difficult than Le Roi David, the score is less successful at its initial performance on 13th June with Claire Croiza in the title role. Also written for the stage, the work is subsequently transformed into an oratorio using the same technique as for Le Roi David, and the composer, further to a request from Raoul Gunsbourg, director of the Monte-Carlo Opera, also produced an opera-seria version, which in fact after many transformations, becomes his first opera. But none of these different drafts is as popular as Le Roi David.

Similarly in the orchestral area, Honegger composed a second symphonic movement, Rugby, the counterpart of Pacific 2.3.1. A Première symphonie written in 1929-1930 for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, struggled to be accepted in the symphonic repertoire of orchestras, despite its undeniable qualities.

Apart from this, from 1924 Honegger had completely written another operatic work that was significantly more radical and original than Judith: Antigone. This was initially the play of Sophocles by Cocteau that was written in 1922, with music by Honegger. He then used this piece to create his opera, a radical work which he works on for more than three years, producing just forty five minutes of music. The music is harsh, hard, and difficult, working mainly by patterns rather than themes. Dedicated to Andrée Vaurabourg, who he married in 1926, the opera is performed in 1928 at the Monnaie de Bruxelles with the Pauvre Matelot by Darius Milhaud. The performance is not a great success even if the critics are aware of the importance of the work. The 11th January, the opera is performed in Essen, translated into german, but this time the welcome is hostile. As for France, it will wait… 1943 for the performance at the Opéra Garnier!

Honegger is mainly occupied by the composition of commisioned work. Ida Rubinstein, ex-dancer in the Russian ballet turned mime artist, actress, and mainly patron, commisioned in this way various music for theatre, including L’Impératrice aux rochers for a play by Saint-Georges de Bouhélier in 1925, Phaedre for the piece by Gabriele d’Annunzio, and a ballet about the orchestrations of Bach, Les Noces d’Amour et de Psyché in 1928. In particular, in 1929 she introduces the poet Paul Valéry to Honegger to compose Amphion, “melodrama” that constitutes in reality, a kind of complete show of symbolic inspiration and neoclassic, resembling ballet. The collaboration continued in 1933 with Sémiramis.

A little time after Amphion, the composer started to work on a project that seems far from his temperament: an operatta Les Aventures du Roi Pausole, adapted by Albert Willemetz from a novel by Pierre Louÿs; it rapidly gained success and temporarily improves the financial situation of the composer, despite the fact that the economic situation is starting to worsen.

Honegger in Soleure in 1930
Honegger in Soleure in 1930

At the end of 1930, Honegger rediscovers a deeper inspiration through a secular oratorio Cris du monde, where he evokes from a text by René Bizet, the helplessness of the individual faced with a world in crisis, menaced by the nothingness, the war and mechanization. It is, despite the fact that the text is slightly dated, a key work that uncovers the profound sentiment of an artist who refuses to be shut in an ivory tower. For the first time this pessimism appears in the composer, and is to be frequently observed later, after the second world war.

In fact, at the beginning of the thirties, he had a few reasons to feel discouraged. In reality, after the glory of the mid-twenties, he finds it difficult to be unanimously accepted by the public. The works where he gives more of himself, Antigone, Amphion, don’t achieve their expected success, and the bad reception that the Parisien audience gave Cris du monde in 1931, hit him hard. Being so deeply dissappointed, he wrote an article that appeared in three different journals– illustrating the importance that he was attributed–that was entitled (symptomatically): “To take leave”. He started in this way: “That which is discouraging for the musician is the certainty that his work will not be heard and understood in the way that he created it and tried to express it.” This confirmed a turning point in his artistic personality; the musician, up until this point mainly concerned by formal problematics: for example Horace Victorieux, Antigone, the Première Symphonie, and even the Concertino pour piano of 1924 or the Concerto pour violoncelle of 1929, seem to be mainly concerned with utilizing music as a means of communication: “Artistic expression, is essentially the need to communicate emotions and ideas, and consequently it is better that, that which is heard is the same as that which is expressed.” Where, faced with a conclusion of certain failure–it may be associated with the fantastic interpretations of Pacific and Rugby, but we guess that it refers mainly to Cris du monde–Honegger concludes:

For the time being, I am retiring from the debate.
There is a whole new world that wants to understand itself, self-discover, define itself, glorify itself in new aesthetic forms. My passion from now on will be limited to this world. I prefer failure in this endeavour to the idleness satisfied with established form and acquired habits.

This leave is illustrated by an absence of creation for many months between March 1931 and January 1932. Honegger takes up his pen, notably to compose Prelude, arioso, fughette sur le nom BACH and the Mouvement symphonique N° 3 which, lacking another name, never obtains the success of Pacific or Rugby. But we have to wait until 1934 for compositions that succeed again like those in the past. In particular, the wish for “new aesthetic forms” reveals itself in the multiplication of music for films and radio; apart from being interesting financially, which was not insignificant in these years of economic crisis, Honegger discovered his desire to experiment with new artistic forms; the soundtrack of the film Rapt (February 1934) gave rise to an important article of the musician on the use of music in cinema and, a few months after, he composed the music for L’Idée, an animated film by Bertold Bartosch, before continuing with Les Misérables de Raymond Bernard. Twenty three cinema soundtracks were written between 1934 and 1939.

The collaboration with Claudel

It is truly the collaboration with Claudel that helps Honegger to come out of his crisis; he finds him a literary partner who shows a remarkable understanding of music; in this way he can redefine forms of innovative alliance between text and music, and achieve the wish expressed in “To take leave”:

I dream of a collaboration that will become so complete that, often, the poet will think as musician and the musician as poet, so that the work resulting from this union will not be the random conclusion of a series of approximations and concessions, but the harmonious synthesis of two aspects of the same thought.

Ida Rubinstein was again to become the good fairy who often introduced men of letters and composers; the project nevertheless would suffer some setbacks. At the beginning a certain Jeanne d’Orliac was to write the text for Jeanne d’Arc and Honegger the music. It was to be a sort of travelling show, following on from the marvel of the middle ages. But Honegger doesn’t get on with the poetess. At the same time Ida Rubinstein had just stimulated the rich collaboration between Milhaud et Claudel, author of La Sagesse, ou la Parabole du festin. Why didn’t the playwright write a libretto on Jeanne d’Arc, she confied in Honegger? The two works could be performed together at the Opera Garnier on the same evening.

But when at the end of November 1934, Honegger met Claudel, who is passing through Paris–he was then ambassador in Brussels–the meeting is brief; Claudel explains that the subject doesn’t inspire him at all, and accompanies a disconcerted Honegger to the door. Nevertheless, on returning to Brussels a image is drawn in the poet’s mind; a sign of the cross made by two linked hands. The viewpoint is then found: it is from the stake that the story of the life of Jeanne d’Arc must be told. In two weeks, the libretto is mapped out and on the 13th December Claudel reads, for Ida Rubinstein, Honegger and Milhaud, the two works that he has composed for each of the musicians.

The composition of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher takes up the most part of the 1935 ; moreover the work must be shown as soon as its composition is completed, and Ida Rubinstein starts rehearsals under the watchful eye of Claudel, who has taken responsibility for its staging. And yet the dates are to be constantly postponed and the original project finally abandoned…

The self-confidence, rediscovered in the composer, is evident in the quantity of works that he produces: film music, ballets, but in particular Deuxième Quatuor between 1934 and 1936, then Troisième Quatuor between 1936 and 1937. Moveover the National front provides the opportunity for the composer to show his political commitment to the left, even though he has always refused to join any particular party. In June 1936 he contributes to the events of the 14th July based on a text by Romain Rolland, in April 1937, in the show Liberté, and in October 1937 at Construction d’une cité de Jean-Richard Bloch. The same month, he writes the song Jeunesse based on a text by Paul-Vaillant Couturier.

In May 1938, after much procrastination, Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher is performed thanks to the tenacity of the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher. Originally Ida Rubintein authorized this performance–already planned and postponed a year earlier–on condition that the work will be performed at the Paris Opera. Having postponed the date again, Ida Rubinstein finally accepts that the work is performed in Basle. She obtains a triumphant success which encourages Claudel and Honegger to continue their collaboration; Just at that time the playwright had noticed the passage of the Danse des morts by Holbein that remained on the facade of the Hôtel des trois rois; why not compose a Danse des morts? As soon as he returned to Paris, Claudel started to work and proposes the idea of an oratorio consisting of citations from the bible skilfully intertwined. In November 1938, the work is completed and will be performed by Paul Sacher in Basle on the 2nd March 1940. In between time, Honegger composes the music for the oratorio Nicolas de Flue, written by Denis de Rougemont, while Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, is peformed in Orléans in May 1939, rerun in Paris, and is a triumph comparable to Le Roi David in its day.

Score of Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (by permission Salabert)
Score of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (by permission Salabert)

War and after

The declaration of war with Germany inevitably affected Honegger. But when the Germans invaded France, the Swiss composer refused to leave Paris, his adopted city, preferring to suffer alongside the French. These difficult times were reflected in his compositions Three Poems by Claudel and Three Psalms, but above all in his Second Symphony for strings and trumpet ad libitum. This work, commissioned some time previously by Paul Sacher, was to become a particularly strong witness to the human suffering experienced at the beginning of the German occupation, and its third movement, concluding with the choir accompanied by the trumpet, was an act of faith in the hope of liberation.

Honegger in 1940
Honegger in 1940

In spite of the Occupation, 1942 was a good year for Honegger and his music. His fiftieth birthday was celebrated with a festival at which Charles Münch conducted the first performance of the Second Symphony as well as Joan of Arc at the Stake. At this complicated and difficult period, his music attempted to convey a feeling of hope. He has been criticised for allowing his music to be played so often at this time, but Honegger carefully avoided the trap of collaboration. In 1941 he joined the National Front, a resistance movement close to the Communists. In Germany, his music had almost completely disappeared from concert programmes from 1933 onwards. Playing his music in France was thus a sign of resistance, at a time when the Germans were trying to impose their own music there. Honegger wrote articles for the journal Comoedia, without favouring in the slightest Germany or German music. He did not hesitate to criticise the place allotted to Beethoven and Wagner, and if he praised the music of Werner Egk, he condemned that of Pfitzner. For the most part his articles championed French music, particularly contemporary music. One act of compromise was especially held against him: his presence, as a journalist for Comoedia, at the Mozart festival in Vienna in 1941, a propaganda exercise organised by Goebbels. But it was also an opportunity for Honegger to pass on to Paul Sacher a photocopy of his Second Symphony.

At the Liberation, Honegger‘s music was withdrawn from concert programmes for several months, although there had been no judicial decision. The composer was bitterly resentful of this.

A condemned man

In July 1947, while his works are being performed around the world, Honegger flies to the United States; a grand tour of all America is planned. But several days later, a heart attack occurred, followed a month later by three coronaries with complications… The composer manages, nevertheless, to recover and, three months later takes his first steps. In November he returns to France and, for some time, seemed to have completely recovered. From April 1948, he took up the pen again, and practices by composing an orchestral suite from Amphion. Following on from this came the Concerto da camera for cor anglais and flute; but even though his agenda was full with the many concerts and voyages, he struggles to compose from now on. His last works are only more sriking and tragic, notably the Cinquième symphonie, di tre ré, in 1950, and the Monopartita composed at the beginning of 1951. A new project working with Claudel, the Cantate de Pâques will never see the light of day, his last work being Une Cantate de Noël,in 1953, mainly inspired by an old project of Passion abandoned since 1945.

From 1951, the health of the composer doesn’t cease to worsen. Despite the many honours that he receives–in January 1953 he is accepted as membre de l’Institut, in 1954, he is promoted to the dignity of Grand Officier de la Légion d’honneur–, Honegger does not abandon an absolute pessimism, certain that he will see civilisation and music fall apart before his eyes… And yet his work is performed more than ever: the first performance of Une Cantate de Noël was a triumphant success, and Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher is regularly performed from 1950 at the Paris Opera. In February 1955 Paul Claudel died; Honegger lived another few months before dying on the 27th November. During the cremation at Père Lachaise, Cocteau said these words:

Arthur, you managed to gain the respect of a disrespectful era. You combined the science of an architect of the Middle Ages with the simplicity of a humble cathedral stonemason. Your cinders are burning and will never cool down, even if our earth has stopped living. For music is not of this world, and its reign has no end.

Jean Cocteau

(Text written by Pascal Lécroart with the aid of the biography by Harry Halbreich)