Composer. Nationality: Swiss. Born: Le Havre, France, of Swiss parents, 10 March 1892. Education: Studied harmony with R. C. Martin and the violin with Capet, Paris; Zurich Conservatory, two years; Paris Conservatory under Gédalge, Widor, and d'Indy. Military Service: Swiss military service, 1914–15. Family: Married the composer and pianist Andrée Vaurabourg. Career: Composer of works for the stage (ballets and operas, incidental music for stage plays), as well as orchestra and choral works; associated with the group Les Six; 1923—composed works to accompany silent film La Roue; 1930—score for first film, La Fin du monde. Died: In Paris, 27 November 1955.
Films as Composer of Accompaniment Music:
La Roue (Gance); Faits divers (Autant-Lara—short)
Maldone (Grémillon) (co)
Films as Composer:
La Fin du monde (Gance) (co)
L'Idée (Bartosch—short); Cessez le feu (de Baroncelli) (co);Les Misérables (Bernard—2 parts); Rapt (Kirsanoff) (co);Le Roi de Camargue (de Baroncelli) (co); Angèle (Pagnol)
Crime et châtiment (Chenal); L'Equipage (Litvak) (co); DerDämon des Himalaya (Dyhrenfurth)
Anne-Marie (Bernard) (co); Mayerling (Litvak) (co); LesMutinés de l'Elseneur (Chenal); Nitchevo (de Baroncelli)(co); Visages de France (Kirsanoff) (co)
La Citadelle du silence (L'Herbier) (co); Liberté (Kemm)(co); Mademoiselle Docteur (Salonique, nid d'espions)(Pabst) (co); Marthe Richard au service de la France(Bernard); Miarka, la fille à l'ourse (Choux) (co); Passeursd'hommes (Jayet) (co); Regain (Pagnol)
Les Bâtisseurs (Epstein) (co); Pygmalion (Asquith and Howard)
Cavalcade d'amour (Bernard); Le Déserteur (Je t'attendrai)(Moguy) (co); Farinet, oder das falsche Geld (L'Or dans lamontagne; Farinet, ou la fausse monnaie; Faux monnayeurs)(Haufler); Les Musiciens du ciel (Lacombe) (co)
Le Capitaine Fracasse (Gance); Huit hommes dans un château(Pottier) (co); Le Journal tombe à cinq heures (Lacombe)
Mermoz (Cuny); Secrets (Blanchar); Un Seul Amour (Blanchar);La Boxe de la France (Ganier-Raymond); Les Antiquités del'Asie occidentale (Membrin—short); Callisto (Marty—short) (co)
Les Démons de l'auge (Y. Allégret) (co); Un Ami viendra cesoir (Bernard)
Un Revenant (A Lover's Return) (Christian-Jaque) (+ ro)
Le Village perdu (Strengel)
Paul Claudel (Gillet—short); La Tour de Babel (Rony) (co)
By HONEGGER: books—
Incantation aux fossiles, Lausanne, 1948.
Je suis compositeur, Paris, 1951, as I Am a Composer, New York, 1966.
On HONEGGER: books—
Tappolet, W., Arthur Honegger, Zurich, 1933, rev. ed., 1954.
Claudel, Paul and others, Arthur Honegger, Paris, 1943.
Bruyr, J., Honegger, Paris, 1947.
Dellany, Marcel, Honegger, Paris, 1953.
Landowski, M., Honegger, Paris, 1957.
Gauthier, A., Arthur Honegger, London, 1957.
Guilbert, Y., Honegger, Paris, 1959.
Spratt, Geoffrey K., The Music of Arthur Honegger, Cork, 1987.
Halbreich, Harry, Arthur Honegger, Portland, 1999.
On HONEGGER: articles—
Cinema (Rome), 15 March 1951.
Cinéma (Paris), December 1955.
Colpi, Henri, in Défense et illustration de la musique dans le film, Lyon, 1964.
Porcile, François, in Présence de la musique à l'écran, Paris, 1969.
Lacombe, Alain, and Claude Rocle, in La Musique du film, Paris, 1979.
Film Dope (Nottingham), November 1982.
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Arthur Honegger first achieved fame as a member of "Les Six," the group of composers impulsively yoked together in 1917 by Jean Cocteau to create anti-Romantic, "quintessentially French" music. But Honegger's pensive, serious-minded outlook found little in common with the nose-thumbing frivolities of Poulenc and Milhaud, and he soon seceded from the group. In his film music, too, he always responded most intensely to subjects of a tragic or exalted stamp. Faced with lighter material his work, though never less than craftsmanlike, could become what he once dismissively described all film scores as, "music that one forgets." At its best, though, Honegger's film music is powerful, imaginatively scored, and anything but forgettable.
Like so much of the music composed for the silent cinema, Honegger's earliest film scores have either been lost or survive only in fragmentary form. Of his first score, for Abel Gance's railway melodrama La Roue, only the overture still exists. As well as providing—with its motoric rhythms—an early example of Honegger's lifelong fascination with trains (his famous symphonic poem "Pacific 231" would follow a year later), it shows him responding to the pulsating intensity of Gance's conception. His score for Gance's grandiose epic, Napoléon, survives as no more than a few episodes in the composer's autograph; Honegger himself stormed out before the premiere, infuriated by the director's obsessive last-minute reediting. But one passage, depicting the swelling fervor of the revolution, anticipates a polyphonic device he favored in his symphonies: over a low, brooding theme on brass and low woodwind, two revolutionary songs ("Ça ira" and "La Carmagnole") are counterpointed, rising to a frenzied climax.
Unimpressed by the sound quality of early talkies, Honegger composed little film music in the early thirties. But by 1934, with recording and reproduction techniques rapidly improving, he had regained interest in the medium and that year alone composed five scores, remarkable in their diversity. For Berthold Bartosch's animated satire L'Idée, Honegger set the remote, ethereal tones of the ondes martenot (representing the eponymous Idea in all its purity) against a restless, urban-jazz tinged ensemble dominated by trombone, trumpet, and alto sax that hinted at the influence of Kurt Weill. Rapt, like Farinet, oder das falsche Geld five years later, was adapted from a novel by the Swiss writer Ramuz; both scores recall the composer's own Swiss background, evoking the mountain landscapes of the Valais with striding, folklike motifs of elemental dignity. Raymond Bernard's three-part version of Hugo's Les Misérables brought out the lyrical, romantic side of Honegger's nature with a score that rises to stirring pathos with the death of Jean Valjean and erupts in fury for the uprising of the urban poor.
Over the next ten years, until ill health curtailed his activities, Honegger composed virtually all his most original film scores. Regrettably, they were rarely destined for films of great distinction. Le Capitaine Fracasse reunited him with Abel Gance, but it was a minor work in Gance's declining career; even so, Honegger entered with gusto into the film's swaggering spirit. His score for Crime et châtiment did far more justice to Dostoyevsky than anything else in Pierre Chénal's stilted adaptation; somber and atmospheric, it set obsessive ostinato figures and canonlike themes roaming about each other to suggest Raskolnikov's tormented mind and the quiet doggedness of the implacable Inspector Porfiry.
Three of Honegger's most exceptional scores were composed for films now largely, or entirely, forgotten. His music for Der Dämon des Himalaya, highly chromatic and audaciously scored, underlines the way that mountains and high places always brought out his most personal responses. "Le Grand Barrage," a three-minute fragment from 1942 evidently intended to accompany newsreel footage of the building of a dam, conjures up in its brief span a vivid picture of enraged, rushing waters. Even more dramatic is the score for Louis Cuny's Mermoz, a biopic about a celebrated French aviator. Honegger's music, dissonant and tumultuous, allotting prominent roles to high woodwind, saxophone, and percussion, recreates the trepidation and hypnotic strangeness of the pioneer airman's world.
Had Honegger been able to work with major filmmakers at the height of their powers, his reputation as a film composer would almost certainly stand far higher. Until recently, most of his finest film scores have lain buried in obscure movies and primitive, crackly sound-tracks. Their emergence on compact disc offers the opportunity to reevaluate his contribution to the genre, and to do it belated justice.
Although Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) was a Swiss composer, he was identified with France because of his long residence in Paris. He was a middle-of-the-road 20th-century composer; as a result, some of his compositions were immediately popular.
Arthur Honegger was born in Le Havre, France, where his Swiss father was a coffee importer. The family was cultured and encouraged their son's interest in music by giving him violin and harmony lessons, studies that were continued at the Zurich Conservatory (1909-1911). In 1911 he commuted once a week from Le Havre to Paris to study violin at the conservatory and in 1913 became a full-time student.
This was an exciting time for a young musician to be in Paris, and Honegger plunged into the musical stream, attending the ballet and opera and becoming acquainted with the new works of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky. Because of his study in Switzerland, his musical orientation had been German; Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Max Reger had been his models, and he never really abandoned them even when he became influenced by the newer French music. Darius Milhaud was his classmate at the conservatory and introduced him to a group of young composers; in 1920 they gave a joint concert of their works. The critic who reviewed the concert entitled his article "The Russian Five and the French Six, " referring to the great school of Russian nationalistic composers and to Honegger and his friends—Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Germaine Tailleferre, Louis Durey, and Georges Auric. The label stuck, and for the rest of their lives these composers never lived down the association, no matter how divergent their mature styles became. The term "Les Six" connoted an attitude that was antiromantic and which held that music should not take itself too seriously. "Down with Wagner. Down with Beethoven, " they said. "Let's have music that is clever and gay, as simple as the music of the street."
Honegger never shared these views. On the contrary, he said: "My great model is J. S. Bach. I do not seek, as do some anti-impressionist composers, a return to harmonic simplicity. I find, on the contrary, that we should use the harmonic materials created by the school that preceded us, but in a different way, as the base for lines and rhythms. Bach availed himself of the elements of tonal harmony, as I want to avail myself of modern harmony. I am not a party to the cult of the Music Hall and the Street Fair, but on the contrary I am dedicated to chamber music and symphonic music in their most serious and austere aspects."
Honegger was fascinated by sports and machinery. Two of his early compositions, Pacific 231 (1923), a vivid description of a powerful locomotive starting, accelerating, and stopping, and Rugby (1928), a description of a football game, were instantly popular. Another early work that brought him recognition was his oratorio King David (1923), a large-scale work for chorus, soloists, orchestra, and a narrator, who provides continuity between the musical numbers. Based on the biblical story of David, Honegger's score includes pseudo-Oriental orchestral pieces and Bach-style choruses, along with dissonant harmonies. The total effect is rich and brilliant. Other large-scale choral works include Jeanne d'Arc aux bûcher (1938; Joan of Arc at the Stake), which is sometimes staged in operatic manner, and The Dance of Death (1940). Antigone (1927) is an austere one-act opera. He also wrote chamber music and five symphonies, the fifth commissioned and first performed by the Boston Symphony in 1952.
Honegger stated his creed as a composer: "My desire and my endeavor have always been to write music which would be attractive to the large masses of listeners and which would, at the same time, be sufficiently devoid of banalities to interest music lovers." Certain of his compositions succeed in achieving this balance, and Honegger was one of the most successful composers of his generation.
There is no book-length study of Honegger in English, but a series of interviews with him has been translated as I Am a Composer (1966). Honegger is considered in these discussions of contemporary music: David Ewen, ed., The New Book of Modern Composers (1943; 3d rev. ed. 1964), and Ewen's own work, The World of Twentieth-Century Music (1968); Howard Hartog, ed., European Music in the Twentieth Century(1957); Peter S. Hansen, An Introduction to Twentieth Century Music (1961); Joseph Machils, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961); and A. L. Bacharach, ed., The Music Masters, vol. 4 (1970). □
Also incid. mus. for plays, mus. for films (incl. Les Misérables (1934), Mayerling (1935), and Pygmalion (1938)), radio mus., many songs, and pf. pieces.