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Honegger, Arthur (1892-1955)

Arthur Honegger

born: 10 March 1892
died: 27 November 1955
country: Switzerland

‘My preference, and my endeavour, has always been to write a music which would be understandable to the great majority of listeners and at the same time sufficiently free of banality to interest the connoisseurs.’

Arthur Honegger’s credo, in his 1951 monograph Je suis compositeur, seems modest enough. What he leaves out of account here are the sheer qualities of imagination and inspiration that so often transform his large output.

Honegger was born in Le Havre, but he was Swiss by parentage and nationality and began his studies at the Zurich Conservatoire. He undertook further study in Paris, however, and spent much of the rest of his life living in Montmartre, becoming closely identified with developments in French music between the Wars. He was one of the circle of young composers who clustered round the venerably eccentric figure of Erik Satie, and before long he was identified—along with his friend Milhaud and Poulenc, Auric, Tailleferre and Durey—as a member of ‘Les Six’, the notorious group of iconoclastic bright young things of 1920s musical Paris.

Under the guidance of Satie and Cocteau, Les Six are best remembered for an output of flippantly satirical ‘entertainment music’ and the cultivation of a ‘Franco-American’ jazz style; but the weightier creative personalities among them soon began to go their separate ways, and Honegger (arguably the least flippant of them all) did so earliest, with works of such clearly serious import as the ‘mimed symphony’ Horace victorieux and the dramatic oratorio King David, both premiered in 1921. Honegger was much concerned with the union of music with the other arts, and made significant contributions to stage, radio and cinema (including the original score to Abel Gance’s film Napoléon). He had a son by the singer Claire Croiza, but in 1927 married the pianist Andrée Vaurabourg, and they toured widely in Europe and the USA. During World War II he remained in Paris; in 1947 he taught in the USA at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, where he suffered a heart attack that left him an invalid for the remainder of his life.

Much of Honegger’s œuvre has retreated into obscurity since his death in 1955. However, even his most ‘notorious’ works, for instance the symphonic movements Pacific 231 (1923) and Rugby (1928), manifested a serious symphonic intent behind their surface effects of orchestral onomatopoeia, and it was in fact in the forms of symphony, oratorio and chamber music that he achieved his most lasting successes.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2008


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