HONEGGER: Symphony No. 1. Symphony No.
2 "pour cordes". Symphony No. 3
Liturgique. Symphony No. 4 Deliciae Basillenses.
Symphony No. 5
Di Tre Re. Pacific 231. Rugby. Pastorale
d'et». Mouvement symphonique No. 3.
Between the two
world wars, I think the smart money would have given the title of Next
Great French Composer after Debussy and Ravel to either Honegger or
Milhaud. It didn't work out that way. Somehow, Poulencviewed by many
of his contemporaries as frivolous and determinedly minorsnuck in
ahead. Since most people find extremely difficult holding in their
minds more than one artist in any category, many really fine interwar
French (or Francophone) composers, besides Honegger and Milhaud, have
fallen into neglect.
Of course, this really has little to do with music, and Honegger knew his stuff. I can't call readily to mind a bad piece, and at very little prompting, my head gets filled with terrific ones, not all of them his "hits," by any means. Someone once described his music as "Debussy Meets Bach," and one can see the point. However, Honegger gets his Bach through the lens of French proto-classicists like Dukas and Saint-SaŽns, and Honegger is much more ruthlessly concise in his approach to the orchestra than Debussy. His orchestra does push-ups to become as lean as he can get it. Furthermore, like many other French (all right, Swiss) composers of his generation, he comes under the heady spell of Stravinsky, particularly the Stravinsky of the "barbaric" period. In the Twenties, Honegger works very hard to discover his characteristic voice. Unlike many composers, he does so with a series of masterpieces, including probably his most popular work, Le Roi David. He wrote it under the gun of a quick deadline (revising it two years later). The story of its composition is too good not to tell.
Reporters learned that Honegger had produced more than an hour's worth of music in less than two months, and asked him how he did it. Honegger replied that he began to write the oratorio in a Bach-like style, but soon realized that the style was too complex for him to finish in time. He then tried Stravinsky, but again after a few numbers, he reached the same conclusion. "What did you do?" asked the reporter. "Oh," replied Honegger, "I just fell back on Massenet."
The story (and the oratorio) typifies for me Honegger's music of the Twenties: a jauntily eclectic, optimistic hodgepodge. Add to this a mix of cabaret-jazz, Debussian nostalgia, a bit of Schola Cantorum "modernism," and a drop of Satie, and you have most of his Twenties output. In the Thirties, he focuses his music more to a characteristic profile: very serious in tone and often monumental in aim. The Forties and Fifties see a darkening of his music. It's almost unrelentingly pessimistic, even in works and forms normally considered "abstract." Circumstances (the Occupation of France, the neglect of his postwar output) and very bad health contributed to his gloom. When you compare a joyfully bounding score like Pacific 231 or Rugby or the serenity of Pastorale d'et» (1920) to the last symphony, you may well wonder what happened to him. The optimism and vigor transformed to some extent into defiance, typified by the title of his autobiography, I Am a Composer. For me, his finest work is Jeanne d'Arc au bŲcher (1938) (Ormandy, of all people, led a terrific performance on Columbia), which culminates his Christian period. It is also, in many ways, a love song to France. The symphony has never fared particularly well in France, which does better in music for the theater, songs, and chamber work. Most French examples seem sports, as if you actually met a duck with Groucho glasses and a mustache. Honegger's great immediate predecessor was Saint-SaŽns -- hardly the foundation of a tradition. Indeed, one could reasonably argue that Honegger is the Great French Symphonist. However, right now his five symphonies seem to lie largely beneath critical (even popular critical) radar. The Penguin survey on the symphony, for example, doesn't discuss them; indeed, it mentions Honegger (his Horace Victorieux) only in the context of Prokofiev.
Honegger's symphonies get recorded every now and then. As far as I'm concerned, the best interpreters are Ansermet (Symphonies 2, 3, and 4), Karajan (Symphonies 2 and 3), and Baudo (Symphonies 1-5). Dutoit's readings on Erato strike me as seriously clueless. I recommend avoiding them, even though they somehow garner Jim Svejda's enthusiasm. Luisi's is a good set, and it does give you some reasonable, although hardly brilliant in terms of choice, extras. In all, it provides the novice with a decent introduction to Honegger's orchestral music. As for the fillers, you can hear them more excitingly done by Bernstein and Baudo, among others. The first symphony stands apart from the others -- not only in time (about 12 years separate it from the second), but in approach. It is far more abstract, more a working out of form than a conscious attempt to express one's life. Very little distinguishes its character from the three mouvements symphoniques. Indeed, none of the latter would find themselves out of place in a symphony. However, Honegger conceived them separately, and they don't really hang together as a group. Pacific 231 and Rugby constitute two of his biggest hits, and one hears the exhilarating influence of Stravinsky's Le Sacre in both, particularly in the big-muscle rhythms and the acrid harmonies. The first symphony is a lot leaner, but one hears those same Stravinskian echoes, as well as newer ones from Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex. Honegger's Symphony No. 1 may even predate (I'm not sure) Stravinsky's first mature instrumental symphony, and its neo-classicism, while present, is in any case not Stravinsky's neo-classicism. It had a fair success in its time. My mother's 1938 college textbook on the symphony deals with it -- one of the few modern symphonies included. Despite its status as a maiden voyage, as it were, this symphony shows Honegger's mastery of the form from the get-go. The first movement manages to weld together with stunning counterpoint a bonanza of ideas into a fiercely propulsive design. The slow movement comes off as a very dark Bachian aria, and it turns out that it foretells much of Honegger's late output. The scherzo finale ranks as my favorite of the symphony, with a bubbly, Gallic flavor to it -- a less naive Satie, if you will. The composer never again matches its cheer.
Honegger began the second symphony during the Nazi occupation. It's mainly a cold, almost-dead introduction interrupted by a savage allegro. Written almost entirely for strings (in the last movement, Honegger introduces a chorale tune on a solo trumpet), it really doesn't need other instruments. It's a "black-and-white" music; the contrasts of mood and idea are more marked. Unlike certain string-orchestra works, however, you're never invited to admire Honegger's string technique. It's there, of course, but as such it stays in the background. Although in retrospect you may admire Honegger's variety of texture, you remain aware mainly of the music, rather than of its craft. The second movement is again dark, but not as self-consciously contrapuntal as its counterpart in the first symphony. It reminds me a bit of Borodin on downers. The finale has been described as a "premonition of victory" (Honegger completed the symphony in 1942). It's certainly heroic, but hardly optimistic, even with the concluding chorale. It's an angry gigue, into which Honegger injects his considerable contrapuntal skill. Long stretches move in fugato, and the overall effect intensifies the rhythm.
For me, the third symphony (1945) is the most powerful of the five. The liner notes (by Harry Halbreich, the writer who introduced me to Honegger's music) assert that the subtitle, "liturgical," has little to do with religion. Actually, very few symphonies serve an overtly liturgical function. However, each movement subtitle -- "Dies irae," "De profundis clamavi," and "Dona nobis pacem," respectively -- does indicate the general character of its corresponding movement. It has as much to do with religion as T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Halbreich also calls the symphony "almost atonal," by which he really means "highly dissonant." I know of no atonal Honegger work, in the sense of Schoenbergian atonality, and the symphony is no more dissonant than Pacific 231, or any of the other four symphonies, for that matter. One can point to passages in each with this harmonic character. The first movement, a savage allegro, opens with a passage that sounds as if the world has become unstuck. As in its first-symphony equivalent, the movement bristles with themes, but the counterpoint is less conventional, the various ideas working out on their own planes of sound. The second movement, probably the single most affecting in the entire cycle, succeeds mainly because it takes its time. It doesn't give up everything all at once. Even though the subtitle implies great agony, the movement begins calmly, even serenely. It moves over a very long arch; indeed, it runs the longest by far of any Honegger symphonic movement. Its structure is, in fact, that of two arches: a long one and a mini. Gradually, elements of dissonance and distress get introduced, and the composer screws up the tension to a great climax, which breaks about half-way through into the consolation of the opening. The tension rises again, though not as high, and falls back to serenity. The movement cost Honegger much work, and it shows by implication. He seems to be "just singing," and since that almost never happens from anybody over a length of more than thirteen minutes, one can conclude that the art was spent hiding art. The finale begins as a brutal march. Again, Honegger turns up the tension gradually. The psychic suffering shows itself here more fully than in the previous movement. Lamentations continually break out over the march beat, and much of the drama of the music lies in wondering which element -- the brutality or the suffering -- will win out. The brutality builds to a climax, then dissipates in a puff of smoke to a prayer for peace, a grand, noble idea introduced by solo cello and commented on by solo violin and a hovering, bird-like flute (first heard at the end of the previous movement). It breaks your heart. One of the great musical documents of the war.
The Symphony No. 4 ("the delights of Basel") Honegger wrote for his friend and patron, the remarkable Swiss conductor Paul Sacher. The composer intended it as light and genial, a kind of "Pastorale" symphony, but despite its obvious craft, it's the least successful in delivering that kind of emotional payload. There's lots to admire about it, particularly the chamber-like scoring. However, a dark undercurrent is never far away and also never truly integrated into the work. For that reason, I consider it the weakest of the symphonies. I miss the strong forward impulse of the other symphonies. It wanders and natters far more than the composer can get away with. The best movement for me is the last, a mordant little scherzo-march, with a sad center and coda. The subtitle of the fifth symphony, "Di Tre Re," turns out to be a pun. It means either "the three kings" or "the three Ds," referring to the low note that concludes each of its three movements. Most commentators, including Halbreich, dismiss the first meaning, but I'm not so sure. I find it hard to believe that a composer so self-aware as Honegger and so driven to injecting his work with extra-musical ideas wanted us to attend to only the surface, implied by the second meaning. Some years ago, I came across a letter from the composer to a friend, in which he described the last movement as a "march of human folly," which counters much of the view of this symphony as pure abstraction. Halbreich sees it as touched by the malign influence of Honegger's fatal heart condition. Certainly, the music expresses great weariness, especially in its heavy opening bars -- a thickly-scored chorale. It never truly shakes off its funk. On the other hand, it is so masterfully written, so beautiful in its singing, and so mature in its affect, this provides an artistic consolation to its spiritual pessimism. The first movement moves to a dead-march gait over a huge span. The work progresses as much by musical iconography as normal formal signposts. The dead march climaxes with the simultaneous re-entrance of the chorale, and the movement winds down with woodwind solos capering to the soft background of the chorale ("ghostly," writes Halbreich). The second movement, a contrapuntal allegretto, juxtaposes great delicacy with an ironic bumptiousness. In many ways, it reminds me of a Mahler LĒndler. By the movement's center, however, the blues come again, almost out of nowhere, and this infects the opening music's return. It turns into something more uneasy and sinister. For some reason, perhaps polemical, Halbreich insists on calling these themes "dodecaphonic" and points out the occurrence of retrogrades and inversions. But it's not dodecaphonic in the currently-accepted sense, and, really, these contrapuntal maneuvers have been around since the Renaissance. The finale is another driving, angry allegro, into which variations on the opening chorale muscle in and which suddenly drops to nothing at the end. It's the world winking out with a whimper.
Luisi does very well indeed with the symphonies, most effective, I think, in the second, although all five compete with the best out there. The playing from the band is very fine. The adagio of the third never runs out of gas, and the texture -- which in Honegger can become quite busy -- never turns into mud. Luisi's fourth is the weakest account, but the fourth is also the weakest symphony, or at least the hardest to penetrate. Not even Ansermet got it, although I have no idea what "it" might be. The sound is bright and in-your-face, just the thing for Honegger.
S.G.S. (Sept. 2001)