Hyperion Records

Horace victorieux
winter 1920/1; 'Symphonie mimée d'après Tite-Live'; dedicated to Serge Koussevitsky; first performed in Geneva on 2 November 1921 under Ernest Ansermet

'Honegger: Une Cantate de Noël, Cello Concerto & other orchestral works' (CDA67688)
Honegger: Une Cantate de Noël, Cello Concerto & other orchestral works
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67688 
Movement 1: Animé
Movement 2: Camille et Curiace
Movement 3: Entrée des Horaces
Movement 4: Entrée de la foule précédant les héros
Movement 5: Annonce et préparatifs du combat
Movement 6: Le combat
Movement 7: Triomphe d'Horace
Movement 8: Lamentations et imprécations de Camille
Movement 9: Meurtre de Camille

Horace victorieux
Horace victorieux (‘Horatius victorious’), described as a Symphonie mimée d’après Tite-Live (‘mimed symphony after Livy’), which he composed in the winter of 1920–21, was really the first work in which Honegger showed his mettle as a composer of serious, large-scale orchestral works. Though dedicated to Serge Koussevitsky, it was premiered in Geneva on 2 November 1921 under the baton of Ernest Ansermet. Koussevitsky however gave the French premiere in Paris on 1 December; after which Ansermet introduced it to London a fortnight later, setting in motion Honegger’s international reputation.

The designation ‘mimed symphony’ refers to the fact that Horace victorieux was originally conceived as a ballet, and its music is therefore suited to and calculated for dance, motion and gesture. Nevertheless it functions equally well as a single-movement symphony or symphonic poem. The scenario, as reflected in the music, derives from the Roman legend of the combat of the Horatii and the Curiatii, narrated by Livy in Book I, chapters 24–6 of his Historia. In 668BC Tullus Hostilius, third king of Rome, went to war with the people of neighbouring Alba Longa. It was decided that the outcome should rest on a formal combat between two sets of male triplets, the three Horatius brothers on the Roman side and the three Curiatius brothers from Alba Longa, who were of the same age. Early in the contest, two of the Horatii were killed; and the three Curiatii, though wounded, came after the last Horatius, Publius, but he managed to split up his pursuers and kill them one by one. When he returned to Rome, victorious, his sister—who had been betrothed to one of the Curiatii—saw he was bearing her lover’s cloak: stricken with grief, she wept. Publius Horatius forthwith ran her through with his sword, exclaiming ‘So perish any Roman woman who mourns the enemy!’ Livy relates that he was condemned to death for this savage act, but was pardoned when his aged father appealed to the people.

The subject had already inspired two great works of French art, the tragedy Horace by Pierre Corneille (1640) and Jacques-Louis David’s dramatic painting The Oath of the Horatii (1784). Honegger’s scenario shows some signs of being derived from Livy via Corneille, and gives Horatius’s sister (here referred to as Camilla) prominence at the beginning of the musical drama rather than, as in Livy, only at the end.

His sole previous orchestral work of any consequence had been the exquisitely placid Pastorale d’été, modest in its dimensions and orchestral forces. To that restrained achievement Horace victorieux stands in the starkest possible contrast. Scored for a large orchestra, it is flamboyant, dissonant, even raucous, and highly coloured. It would seem that the tone poems of Richard Strauss, and perhaps his ballet Josephslegende, were among Honegger’s models; as probably were the exotic scores of the most Straussian of his French contemporaries, Florent Schmitt.

Horace victorieux can be divided into sections which correspond to the scenario but which also resemble to some extent the exposition, development, interpolated scherzo and recapitulation of a one-movement symphonic scheme. After a few bars of furious, brazen introduction we hear an extended episode depicting the love of Camilla for Curiatius. This languid yet sinister music has a hypnotic intensity: the highly chromatic writing with large, dissonant intervals in the strings borders on a kind of Bergian expressionism. The three Horatii enter to the strains of a martial, determined fugato, counterpointed against the gentler flute theme of Camilla. After the fugato is taken up by the brass the crowd of spectators gathers to witness the impending contest.

The following section depicts the announcement and preparation for the combat, corresponding to a symphonic development section. The music of Camilla and Curiatius is recalled in expressive instrumental solos contrasted with an angular, fragmented version of the Horatius brothers’ fugal theme and brassy fanfares. The combat itself, violent and dissonant, its abrupt rhythms reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, continues the development process in more scherzo-like style. In this brilliant and striking section Honegger’s future mastery of symphonic motion is revealed. The texture is once again essentially fugal, and highly polyphonic, with many competing lines. An agonized climax signals the triumph of Horatius, only to give way to the pathos of Camilla’s music as she mourns her Curiatius. Her death at the hands of her brother refers back to the opening bars of the entire work, now impaled on a repeated, unyielding dissonance.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2008

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