About this Recording
8.572192 - HONEGGER, A.: Violin Sonatas (Complete) (Kayaleh, P. Stewart)
English  French 

Arthur Honegger (1892–1955)
Complete Violin Sonatas


From his middle class beginnings in Le Havre to his explosion onto the Parisian scene as a member of Les Six and his final years as a cornerstone of French musical aristocracy, Swiss-French composer Arthur Honegger spent his life embracing disparate worlds, both musical and geographical. Born in 1892 to musically-minded Swiss parents, Honegger studied the violin and began harmony lessons at the age of thirteen. Among his earliest childhood compositions were two operas and a number of sonatas for violin and piano modeled after Beethoven. In 1907, influenced by Bach’s cantatas, Honegger began composing his first oratorio, the genre which would gain him lasting recognition with Le roi David in 1921.

From 1909 to 1911, Honegger enrolled in the Zurich Conservatory, where he discovered the music of Wagner, Strauss, and Reger. In 1912 he continued his studies at the Paris Conservatoire, submitting himself to seven years of training in harmony, counterpoint, conducting, and composition, eventually giving up serious violin study in favour of composing. During his Conservatoire years Honegger befriended the composers with whom he was soon grouped as Les Six: Milhaud, Poulenc, Tailleferre, Auric, and Durey. Another member of this musical circle was the composer and pianist Andrée Vaurabourg, whom Honegger married in 1926. She often gave premières of Honegger’s piano works, joining him on tours of Europe and America during the 1930s.

Although a Swiss citizen, Honegger remained in France during World War II, teaching at the École Normale de Musique and writing for radio. His music was banned in Nazi Germany and the annexed countries until 1945 but continued to be performed in Switzerland, where he travelled frequently. His output, substantial during the war years, yielded both serious concert music, including four symphonies, and radio and film scores. During a concert tour of America in 1947, he suffered a heart attack, and his declining health limited his musical activities until his death in Paris in 1955, one year after the French government awarded him the distinction of Grand Officier de la Légion d’honneur.

The four sonatas on this disc span nearly thirty years, illustrating the trajectory of Honegger’s career from its beginning in and return to classical structures. The 21-year divide between the Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano (1919) and the Sonata for solo violin (1940) reveals Honegger’s movement away from chamber music and toward large-scale works during the 1920s and 1930s. Despite the extra-musical nature of many pieces, including his most famous work, Pacific 231 (1923), a symphonic movement inspired by the momentum of a steam locomotive, Honegger insisted his works be understood from a purely musical rather than a programmatic standpoint. His oeuvre covers a vast array of genres, including religious oratorios, several operas, nine ballets, five symphonies, 43 film scores, numerous art songs, and a good deal of other incidental, orchestral, and chamber music.

Because of the two-decade gap between the first three violin sonatas and final, solo sonata, the anti- Romantic aesthetic of Les Six is noticeably absent, the avant-garde group’s formation and popularity occurring in the 1920s. Christened by critic Henri Collet, Les Six was spear-headed by Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau as a reaction against post-Wagnerian romanticism and French impressionism, celebrating instead simplicity and clarity. Although Honegger gained widespread recognition through his association with Les Six, he shared little of the group’s so-called aesthetic, maintaining that these six composers were drawn to each other by friendship rather than by shared stylistic principles. Indeed, although he occasionally composed in the carefree, neoclassical spirit of Les Six, his music owes much to both the chromaticism of Wagner, Berg, and Schoenberg and the modality of Fauré and Debussy. His complex contrapuntal sensibility, stemming from his lifelong admiration of Bach, showed Honegger to be the most rigorous composer of Les Six, combining both German and French schools with classical traditions and modern trends.

The Sonata for violin and piano in D minor (“No. 0”) was composed in 1912 during Honegger’s first year at the Paris Conservatoire but remained unpublished in his lifetime. The lengthy Largo–Agitato–Largo assai is steeped in deeply serious pathos and searching wistfulness. The violin frequently soars over agitated chordal passages in the piano, a texture Honegger returns to in subsequent sonatas. Alternating between a sustained, gentle theme and a heavier march, the chromatic Molto adagio is followed by a Sostenuto–Allegro–Maestoso finale, in which fleeting counterpoint is counterbalanced by slow, lyrical interludes. The theme of the first movement returns in the finale’s coda, punctuated by thunderous piano chords. Although Honegger’s harmonic language had not yet fully developed, this early sonata shows solid craftsmanship, a natural sense for structure, and a firm grasp of instrumental writing.

From 1916 to 1920 Honegger built his reputation in Parisian circles as a skilled composer of chamber music. Written between 1916 and 1918, the Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano includes a scherzo in place of a slow middle movement. The Andante sostenuto grows from an atmospheric melancholy to a chromatic, chordal climax, eventually evaporating into a mist of gently rocking broken octaves and high, open intervals. The spirited Presto is interrupted by a tender section with muted violin, but the calm is quickly disturbed by a panicky, fugal return to the main theme. The sombre Adagio-Allegro assai is built upon a dirge-like ostinato in the piano, the violin weaving a lament of countermelodies. After a rumbling transition boils over into a contrapuntal development, the heightened rhythmic drive settles back into the opening dirge.

In 1919 Honegger composed the Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, giving the première himself with Andrée Vaurabourg at the piano. Hovering ambiguously between two tonal centres, B and F, this short, structurally concise work shows Honegger’s increased interest in polytonality. The Allegro cantabile is dreamy and lyrical, arpeggiated piano figures rippling underneath the violin line. Opening with menacing piano chords over which the muted violin hovers like gauze, the chromatic Larghetto intensifies into a weighty climax, which disappears into the faint gleam of D major. A brief Vivace assai follows, clipped and boisterous and then blossoming into a shimmering melody. A frenetic coda ends the sonata abruptly.

During winter 1940 Honegger braced himself against the bleak reality of war by writing several works inspired by Bach, including the Sonata for solo violin in D minor. This sombre, taut four-movement work pays direct tribute to Bach, who himself wrote three sonatas for solo violin. A stern Allegro, dispelling all hope of romanticism, is followed by a classical, sarabande-styled Largo of deeply austere beauty. With violin muted, the Allegretto grazioso contains a mournful musette, its melody entwined around a throbbing drone. The dazzling, gigue-like Presto is etched firmly in D minor, its frantic arpeggios and double-stops indicative of Honegger’s own mastery of the violin.

Like his music, Honegger achieved a reputation for being graceful and dignified in a conflicted world; he was both Swiss and French, traditional and avant-garde, composer and violinist, melodist and contrapuntalist, enthusiast of railways and devotee of Bach. Upon Honegger’s death, Jean Cocteau said, “Arthur, you managed to gain the respect of a disrespectful era. You combined the science of an architect of the Middle Ages with the simplicity of a humble cathedral stonemason.”

Anyssa Neumann

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