About this Recording
8.553649 - HONEGGER: Roi David (Le)

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955): Le Roi David (King David)
Born in 1892 at Le Havre to parents originating from Zurich, Arthur Honegger was deeply influenced by this double identity, his Protestant ancestry and the Catholic country in which he was born, the sea and the mountains, Honegger's life, dedicated to music, was relatively uneventful, apart from the difficult war years spent in Paris, after a short period of military service in Switzerland. It was in 1947 that the first signs of heart disease overtook him, during a visit to New York. He died several years later, in 1955, in Paris.

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

Jacques Martin
Jacques Martin was born in Lyons in 1933 and made his first appearance on the stage at the age of fifteen. He is well known as a director and, in addition to his work in drama, has also appeared at the Opera of the Rhine and the Lyons Opera. To the audiences of France 2 he is familiar from twenty years of Sunday afternoon transmissions in which he shares his love of classical music with millions of television viewers.

Christine Fersen
Christine Fersen has been a member of the Comedie Française since 1976. After winning a second prize in Tragedy and two first prizes in Comedy, she made her debut in the role of Chimène in Le Cid and has followed this with a variety of roles, ranging from Shakespeare to Schnitzler, working under directors of the greatest distinction.

Danielle Borst
Born in Geneva, Danielle Borst began her career in opera with the role of Oscar in Il ballo in maschera, going on to a distinguished series of performances and recordings, in collaboration with leading conductors. She has a wide operatic repertoire, ranging from Monteverdi and Purcell to Poulenc.

Marie-Ange Todorovitch
Marie-Ange Todorovitch made an early impression in the roles of Euridice in Orphée, Diana in Le roi Pansole and the title-role in Bizet's opera Djamileh. She sang her first Cherubino in 1991 and in July 1994 appeared at the re-opening of Glyndeboume. She has undertaken a series of major roles in a repertoire that has included Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, among many others.

Gilles Ragon
After ten years devoted principally to early music, with a number of important recordings, Gilles Ragon has turned, more recently, to traditional repertoire in operas by Mozart, Bellini and Donizetti and in concert performances of French and German song. He has appeared in a number of major operatic roles, ranging from Monteverdi to that of Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress and Peter Quint in Brit ten's The Turn of the Screw.

Chœur Régional Vittoria d'lle-de-France
Established in 1987 under the direction of Michel Piquemal, the Chœur Vittoria Regional d'Ile-de-France, with its ninety singers, has performed with the leading French orchestras, and has appeared at the Aix-en-Provence Festival with the English Chamber Orchestra. Its recordings include Saint-Saëns's Requiem and Déluge and Kamiló Lendvay's Stabat Mater, of which it gave the first performance in 1991.

Orchestre de la Cite
The Orchestre de la Cite is associated with the work of the Ensemble Vocal Michel Piquemal and of the Chœur Regional Vittoria de l'Ile-de-France. Its players consist principally of gifted young professionals trained at the national Conservatories in Paris and Lyons.

Michel Piquemal
Michel Piquemal started his musical studies in Paris, going on to profit from the advice of Denise Duval and Pierre Bemac in his study of French song and of Suzanne Anders and Paul Schilawski at the Salzburg Mozarteum in the interpretation of German Lieder. As a conductor he worked with Jacques Jouineau at the Maîtrise of Radio-France and has since divided his musical activities between his career as a baritone and as a conductor. Professor at the Maîtrise of Radio-France then of choral conducting at the Paris Conservatoire, he founded the Ensemble Vocal Michel Piquemal, with professional singers, and has been entrusted with the direction of the Chœur Regional Vittoria d'Ile de France and of the Chœur Regional Provence-Alpes-Côte d' Azur. He teaches French song interpretation at the Summer International Academy in Nice and has directed a large number of recordings in a wide choral repertoire. In January 1996, with his Ensemble Vocal, he won the third Victoires de la Musique Classique for his recording for Naxos/Marco Polo of the complete sacred music of Maurice Duruflé. Officier des Arts et des Lettres, Michel Piquemal has also been awarded the Hungarian Pro Artibus prize.

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