About this Recording
8.555974 - HONEGGER: Symphony No. 3, 'Liturgique' / Pacific 231 / Rugby
English  French  German 

Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Orchestral Works


Born in Le Havre on 10th March, 1892, Arthur Honegger was of Swiss-French parentage, an ancestry in many ways determining the nature of his music, far removed from the self-conscious gaiety and whimsicality frequently evoked by the other members of the Paris-based group Les Six. Studies at the Paris Conservatoire during 1911-18 instilled in him a love of counterpoint and fugal procedure, evident throughout his work, while a lifelong appreciation of the possibilities of technology is evinced in his extensive output for film and radio, not least Abel Gance’s 1927 epic film Napoléon (Marco Polo 8.223134).

Despite the fact that his international career was launched in 1921 by the dramatic psalm Le roi David (Naxos 8.553649), and that operas and ballets occupied the major part of his creative thinking between the wars, Honegger is now best remembered for a sequence of vivid and increasingly dramatic orchestral works. During the 1920s and 1930s, these took the form of short tone poems and mood pictures, often with a specific evocation in mind. Latterly, the composer preferred more abstract titles, composing his First Symphony in 1930 and three further symphonies during the 1940s. Dating from 1951, the Fifth Symphony is among his last major works, a defiant statement by a composer who, undermined by serious ill health from 1947, was increasingly uncertain about the artist’s rĂ´le in a world haunted by the threat of its own destruction. He died in the Paris district of Montmatre, where he had lived since 1913, on 27th November 1955.

A tone poem depicting summer in the Alps above Berne, Pastoral d’été, prefaced by a quotation from Rimbaud, J’ai embrassé l’aube d’été (I embraced the dawn of summer), was a notable success at its première in 1920, and has remained one of Honegger’s most performed pieces. Calmly undulating strings provide the backdrop for a ruminative horn melody, continued by oboe and complemented by graceful clarinet arabesques. Violins take up the theme, leading in a gradual crescendo to the central section of the piece, a livelier, folk-like theme shared between woodwind. Strings add their animated contribution, resulting in an overlay of ‘folk’ themes at the central climax. This quickly subsides, and the initial melody and rhythm return, albeit with reminiscences of the central section. A version of the ‘folk’ theme, sounding ethereal on flute, brings the piece to a gentle close.

Few pieces caught the mood of the time, and the imagination of musicians and public alike, as did Pacific 231 (1923), Honegger’s graphic musical depiction of a train in motion, in which he expresses acceleration by decreasing note values, while actually slowing the tempo. The trajectory of the work is very simple. After a ghostly initial inhaling and exhaling on upper strings and woodwind, the rhythmic momentum gets under way in earnest. As the pulse-rate gradually increases, so does the stridency of the orchestration, with numerous rhythmically-defined gestures coalescing in ever-new patterns and combinations. Particularly notable is a tarantella-like woodwind idea, and an angular trumpet motif which constantly returns in new guises. At length everything comes together in a hectic tutti, with the brakes applied as the music slows inexorably to its final chord.

Although Honegger might be thought to be repeating the trick again in Rugby (1928), this piece is less the graphic depiction of a game of rugby-football than an effervescent scherzo that can be heard and enjoyed purely as music. The opening chorale-like theme on brass acts as a framing device throughout, with a broad-spanned string melody the main source of contrast. In between, incisive exchanges between orchestral groups imply a sense of opposing forces trying to secure the upper hand, culminating in the affirmative return of the chorale-theme to impart a sense of victory, though who has triumphed over whom is left very much to the listener’s imagination.

Perhaps it was a sense that titles were becoming a hindrance that led Honegger to label a third potentially descriptive piece simply Mouvement Symphonique No. 3, commissioned in 1933 by Furtwängler for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, a work that aroused Nazi hostility, for whatever reason. The musical language here is emotionally more ambiguous. Strident opening gestures effect a sequence of hard-edged, tensile ideas, but only a lively theme on trumpet and strings manages to impose itself on the restless musical discourse. Midway through the piece, rhythmic activity comes to a head; after a sequence of grating chords, the very different sound of tenor saxophone, plaintive against halting lower strings, assumes the foreground. Other woodwind, then strings, take up its melody, leading to a pensive conclusion which confirms that the composer is intent on seeking a deeper vein of expression.

An expression that found fulfilment in numerous stage-works and concert pieces over the 1930s, before the onset of World War Two, brought about a further expressive intensification of Honegger’s musical language. His Second Symphony (1941), written in the darkest days of French subjugation, ends with a chorale which points to future victory. That victory over Nazism came about four years later, but its successor (1945) is far from a triumphal display: mankind had been drawn to new levels of destruction, such as presented grave questions as to its very survival. Questions such as those that Honegger’s Third Symphony, his Symphonie Liturgique, where each movement is headed by a title drawn from the liturgy, tackles in earnest.

The first movement, Dies irae, suggests hate that destroys everything. Scurrying strings quickly erupt in an impassioned theme for horns and strings, goaded on by shrieking trumpets and woodwind. The turmoil continues over a pounding string ostinato, with a listless melody on violins and upper woodwind emerging to provide necessary expressive contrast. The music quietens for a tense central interlude, in which an oriental-sounding theme, underpinned by unsnared side drum, briefly assumes prominence. Activity soon mounts, however, leading to a return of the ostinato rhythm and a free recapitulation of those ideas heard at the outset of the movement. A brief coda sees the music disappear back into the depths for which it had emerged, with the final return of a ray of hope in what the composer described as his ‘bird-theme’.

In the second movement, De profundis clamavi, a plea of supplication, the opening gestures are as balm after the preceding furore, preparing for a lyrical yet troubled theme which alternates between strings and woodwind, evolving new expressive gestures as it continues and with an especially touching episode for violins and muted trumpets. Ominous chords deep in the piano’s bass register presage the main climax, building steadily and deliberately before culminating in the impassioned return of the theme’s initial phrases. There is no formal recapitulation as such, and even the threat of a further climax is pointedly forestalled, enabling the movement to wind down to a calm but somehow questioning close, made more so by the solo flute return to the ‘bird-theme’, the dove of peace over the ruins.

The third movement, Dona nobis pacem, sets off with a heavy march rhythm, underlying much of what follows. A baleful theme for horns, underpinned by strings, heightens the ominous atmosphere, the march-rhythm continuing as brass point up its militaristic connotations, described by the composer as the march of robots against civilised man. The horn theme now returns with a striving counter-melody for strings, which duly brings about the second return of the march and the work’s climax: the march-rhythm hammered out between brass and percussion, exploding in a dissonant chord across the whole orchestra before vanishing into silence. Out of this conflagration emerges a warmly expressive melody for violas and cellos, expressing the wish of suffering humanity and drawing in those questioning elements from the end of the previous movement, even though the march-rhythm is still audible on timpani. The ‘bird-theme’ is heard on the piccolo and a solo violin offers the plea De profundis clamavi ad te. Honegger ends with a suggestion of a utopian world, governed by reciprocal brotherhood and love, if such a thing were possible.

Richard Whitehouse

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