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8.553649 - HONEGGER: Roi David (Le)
Arthur Honegger (1892-1955): Le Roi David
Honegger's musical training began at Le Havre under local teachers and continued in Zurich, where his vocation became clear. At the Paris Conservatoire he was a pupil of Widor for composition and orchestration and of Vincent d'Indy for orchestral conducting, but, more importantly, of André Gédalge for counterpoint. Gédalge, who taught Florent Schmitt, Koechlin, Enesco, Ravel, Milhaud and Ibert, handed down to him the love of a difficulty conquered, the custom of writing down sketches and a solid technical foundation.
The dual nature of Honegger, oscillating between symphony and opera, showed itself in childhood: his first compositions included sonatas for violin and piano in the style of Beethoven, but also fragments of operas and even an oratorio-cantata, Le Calvaire (Calvary). This same duality informed all his work: in accordance with the period and with commissions and helped by a prodigious musical imagination, Honegger wrote a great deal for the theatre, including eighteen ballets (with the Funeral March for the collaborative Les Maries de la tour Eiffel of Les Six), 26 varied stage pieces, including Saul for Andre aide, Antigone for Cocteau and Le Soulier de satin for Paul Claudel, two operas and four operettas, as well as some thirty film- scores. Honegger's taste for so-called pure music is seen in four concertos, chamber music and a large number of orchestral works, including five symphonies and the well-known Pacific 231. Finally, he also wrote a quantity of songs and established the revival of oratorio in the twentieth century.
Although a member of Les Six, with Milhaud, Durey, Auric, Germaine, Tailleferre and Poulenc, Honegger remained distant from the music-hall aesthetic advocated by Cocteau, their mentor, in his manifesto Le Coq et l'Arlequin (The Cock and the Harlequin). He said that he had no admiration for the fairground and the music-hall, but on the contrary for chamber music and symphonic music of greater seriousness and austerity. A balanced man, deeply anchored in musical tradition, Honegger stated his only creed when he said that Debussy and Fauro had provided a very useful counterweight in his aesthetic to the classics and to Wagner.
In 1908 the Vaudois poet Reno Morax established a theatre in the village of Mézières. The stage was deep enough to allow large-scale productions and Gluck's Orphée had been mounted there before 1914. The First World War brought a pause in the activity of the theatre until1921, when René Morax struck on the idea of the biblical subject of King David for the re-opening. It was in February, with the rehearsals about to start in the following month, that the poet became worried about the music. The Swiss composers he had approached having refused, he sought the advice of the conductor Ernest Ansermet, who proposed the name of Honegger, then little known in his own country. Morax hesitated but was encouraged in this choice by Stravinsky himself.
Honegger began by composing the choral parts, which made use of a number of amateurs. It was, however, only after an unexpected visit to the bedside of his mother, who was seriously ill, that he envisaged two important movements, the Dance before the Ark and the Death of David. Everything was completed on 28th April, in two months, apart from the orchestration for a small ensemble of six woodwind, four brass, a harmonium, a piano, two timpani, a double bass, a gong and a tam-tam.
The work was a success, both musically and with the public. Shortly afterwards an enthusiastic patron provided an opportunity for Honegger's work to be heard in Paris, strangely coupled with Fauro's Requiem. The orchestra was enlarged to include strings, without detracting in any way from the sound qualities of the original version. The transfer of a stage work to the concert hall, however, posed the problem of the action, met, on the advice of Morax, by the introduction of a narrator. This change had an unexpected effect. Honegger revived, almost by chance, the oratorio, giving it new vigour by the use of spoken narration. The form was a productive one and some years later gave rise to another masterpiece, Jeanne d 'Arc au Bucher (St Joan at the Stake), with the collaboration of Claudel.
Honegger's music is not afraid to suggest, to accompany action descriptively: the various fanfares, such as No.3bis, the entry of Goliath, the victorious military marches of the Cortege and March of the Hebrews or absurdity in the March of the Philistines. Sometimes the music paints the scene, as in the nocturnal atmosphere disturbed by trumpet-calls in Saul's Camp or the divine anger of the Psalm In this terror. Above all, though, the music underlines the various ideas in the text, like a mosaic. The Psalm Have pity on me, O God is the best example of this. the tortured chromatic language of the first part is followed by the shining brass chords that underline the idea of confidence recovered.
Often present in the French theatre but rare in oratorio, melodrama unites the music subtly to the text. The mournful atmosphere of the Incantation comes principally from this unusual combination of music and speech that reinforces the poignant sorrow of the Lament of Gilboa or gives solemnity to the Crowning of Solomon. Beyond that, however, Honegger, for whom the unity of a work came from the relationship between music and words, uses the spoken text and music to reinforce the structure of the whole work.
The oratorio benefits enormously from this search for unity, realised through various elements, chords of fourths superimposed, the use of the oriental augmented second and from the beginning the various sections built on repetitions, such as the Lament of Gilboa and the Servants' Song, but also from the desire for balance, from the dramatic order and structure, between the different characters present in the work. A synthesis of this art of combining, the contrapuntal mastery of Honegger is heard in all its power in the final movement, with the clever superimposition of Alleluia over the bass theme of God tells you.
Honegger's own view of Le Roi David developed with time, but he continued to value the two principal sections, the Dance before the Ark and the Finale, as well as the penitential chorus. No doubt the success of the work annoyed him, as did that of Pacific 231, for it worked to the detriment of compositions of similar quality. Yet the deeply dual nature of Honegger is expressed strongly at the heart of Le Roi David: a pervasive pessimism stemming from the impression of living at the end of a civilisation goes together with the delicate and confident lyricism of the final works, as the Death of David carries with it the seed of the future. "A day shall come when a flower shall blossom from your stem, green once more."
English version by Keith Anderson
Chœur Régional Vittoria d'lle-de-France
Orchestre de la Cite
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