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A Trilogy With No Prequels by Arthur Honegger

Film Score Alternative

by Andy Goldsbrough

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) spent most of his life residing in Paris, a city which was the focus of so much musical and artistic activity in the first half of the last century. He would meet and befriend Darius Milhaud (Film Score Daily: 27 Jan) and these two would share many of the same acquaintances and collaborators. Unlike numerous other artists, including Milhaud, Honegger did not leave Paris during the Second World War. Although he was born in La Harve, France, Honegger's parents were Swiss and the composer made the decision to remain a Swiss citizen. This nationality and his Protestant heritage granted Honegger a degree of safety during the Nazi occupation.

During his time in Paris Honegger met a certain Miklos Rozsa and the two musicians arranged a joint concert. Afterwards, when the concert, although successful, did not provide Rozsa with much income, Honegger suggested that motion pictures presented a potential source of funds from which one could make a living. Without this advice Rozsa may not have found his way into films, as the Hungarian himself later admitted.

Which is not to suggest that Honegger, who penned 43 film scores, more than Shostakovich and Milhaud, (some of them with collaborators) and also wrote an extensive amount of incidental music for the radio and theater, did so only for financial reasons. Honegger (unlike Rozsa) was quite fond of film and curious about the possible interaction of music and image. In fact he made frequent visits to the cinema, in addition to maintaining his interests in theater, literature and world affairs. He would also write several important articles on film music topics for art journals.

Honegger was a composer who tried to stay connected with the public. If a work of his was not enjoyed by audiences it troubled him. In his own words: "My efforts have always been directed towards the ideal of writing music that is understandable by the great mass of listeners but sufficiently free of banality to interest music lovers." To be popular without sacrificing quality. It is perhaps this attitude, alongside his command of technique which allowed him to write quickly, that enabled Honegger to become a successful film composer.

Another unsurprising result of this viewpoint was Honegger's defense of tonality at a time when Schoenberg and his followers were promoting serialism. He theorised tonality to be an acoustic necessity, inherent in the ear's understanding of music. But Honegger's music is rarely blandly diatonic, in fact some of his works were considered at the forefront of the avant garde at the time. They are spiced up with free use of polytonality, chromaticism and even the occasional twelve tone row. In the parlance of the time he was considered an expressionist, utilising any device available to the twentieth century composer in order to relate his inspirations not his impressions or formalised theories. Honegger's writing process usually began with a melodic idea from which designs of harmony and counterpoint would then grow. His treatment of material, in terms of thematic emphasis, would often resemble Beethoven's. He resisted the temptation to write immediately in full score, a growing tendency for twentieth century composers who highly valued the nuances of the orchestral sound. Honegger would always compose the work first, then orchestrate it, adding color to the written notes as he saw fit.

As a composer, Honegger kept busy and produced works relatively quickly (well over two hundred, some of which are lost and/or unpublished). His film scoring activities suggest hectic working years of which Jerry Goldsmith might have been proud. For example, Honegger scored nine films in 1937 and six in 1942, although it should be noted that these scores are not often the fully symphonic, wall-to-wall 100+ minute efforts that modern Hollywood films require (or at least desire).

In his film score for 'Rapt' (directed by Dimitri Kirsanov, composed with Arthur Hoeree in February 1934) Honegger experimented with writing part of the music in retrograde, so it was, in essence, performed backwards, and then restoring the order of the notes by reversing the direction of the tape during playback. A similar technique would later be employed by Miklos Rozsa for director Fritz Lang in his 1948 film 'Secret Beyond the Door.' The result was as an "unearthly quality" (Rozsa) "with the resonance of each [note] preced[ing] the attack" (Honegger). Music he wrote for a montage sequence in another film, Abel Gance's 'La Roue' in 1921, provided the composer with some material that he would later reuse in what is still probably his most famous work, 'Symphonic Movement No. 1: Pacific 231' (finished December 1923).

'Pacific 231' is the (in)famous musical interpretation of an old, pre-electric, locomotive. Or is it? Honegger himself attached the descriptive, romantic subtitle to the work but later claimed that the work germinated from a purely "abstract, ideal concept" in which he attempted to give the "impression of a mathematical acceleration of rhythm, while the movement itself slowed" (The metronome mark reduces from half note = 80 at the start of the work to quarter note = 126 by the end. Honegger, however, continues to increase the splitting of the rhythmic subdivisions as the movement progresses.) The composer said that the idea for the title suggested itself only after the work was written. Other information tends to contradict this, however: the composer's love of trains ("as others love women or horses"!) was well known; in a letter to Ernest Ansermet (conductor & friend) in August 1923 (before completion) Honegger quotes the name of the work; and the material he reuses from the film 'La Roue' was originally written to accompany a montage with trains. In any event, the subtitle initially generated a lot of attention for the piece and then later critical disregard, which may explain the shifting testimony of the composer. It seems that titling the work as he did was an attempt by the composer to indicate the origins of his inspiration not a suggestion that the work should be considered descriptive. ("There is no descriptive music, for music is not an art of description.")

Musically 'Pacific 231,' which runs for 6 and a half minutes, is an extended chorale utilising counterpoint in a style derived from JS Bach. The main melody of the piece (the cantus firmus) is only heard in its entirety twice (it is 41 whole notes long). The piece begins softly and then uses material taken from the cantus firmus to accelerate away and build up impetus. A bold statement of the main melody is the conclusion that is to be reached.

'Pacific 231' would become the first in a trilogy of symphonic movements. The middle piece is 'Rugby - Symphonic Movement No.2,' composed in the summer of 1928. Honegger enjoyed sports in his youth and, as 'Movement #1' was inspired by trains, 'Movement #2' originated from the composer's fondness for the game of rugby. Whereas 'Pacific 231' is rhythmically strict, 'Rugby' is rhythmically riotous, corresponding to the apparent disorder often seen on the sports field. The composer uses two main themes which, at a stretch, could represent the two teams in contest. The introductory music is appropriately light and spacious, the stadium before play has begun. This music returns after the first section of rhythmic onslaught - half time! It then later returns to break the tension once again before a bout of what must be overtime! This work is much more restrained in its uses of melody and harmony than most other Honegger works. The rhythmic violence and structural surprises make up for it.

The final part of the trilogy has no subtitle, being the plain and simple - 'Symphonic Movement No. 3' (1932-33). Honegger did not compose it with any particular inspiration in mind, he would only offer a Socratic sentiment - an individual taking a stand against a oppressive crowd, and as a result the work has been condemned to be less well known. If the adoption of romantic subtitles for the other two movements generated misunderstanding for the composer, the lack of one here created some trouble. It seems that without an explanatory title to guide them people began to see in this piece whatever they wanted. In the precarious climate of the time and place of its premiere (March 1933, Berlin) it was labelled communist and reactionary. The Nazis declared (falsely) that Honegger was Jewish and began a campaign against the composer.

'Movement #3' is a little longer than its brothers (just under ten minutes) yet tends toward greater simplicity. The presentation of its themes is much broader and easier to follow. The work appears to be divisible into three sections, beginning with an allegro of some energy and uncertainty. The middle section uses its material in defiant statements of increasing boldness before the work moves depressingly towards its end with an elegy.

Honegger on CD: Not as much as I would like there to be!

Some of Honegger's film music is available either as a full score or in suites in Marco Polo's series of rerecordings with the (also Swiss) conductor Adriano. Other labels occasionally carry a few selections from his film and theater scores.

The only current disc to contain all three symphonic movements is on Decca: 455 352-2, with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, David Zinman conducting. This CD also includes Honegger's 2nd Symphony and two other shorter works of his.

Due to their short duration, the symphonic movements often appear as fills-up with symphonies (Chandos CHAN 9176 has 'Pacific 231' with Symphonies 3 & 5, conductor: Neeme Jarvi) or on anthologies with other French music (Decca 448 576-2 has 'Pacific 231' with some Debussy, Dukas, Ravel & Chabrier. It is notable because the conductor, Ernest Ansermet, is also the works dedicatee.) An all Honegger anthology of short pieces that includes 'Pacific 231' & 'Rugby' is on DG (435 438-2, Michel Plasson conducting the Toulouse Captole Orchestra).


Primary References

'The Music of Arthur Honegger' (Geoffrey K Spratt, 1987, Cork University Press)

'Arthur Honegger: I Am a Composer' (Book of conversations with Bernard Gavaty, trans. Wilson O Clough with Allan Arthur Willman, 1966, Faber & Faber)

'Arthur Honegger' (Harry Halbreich, trans. Roger Nichols, 1999, Amadeus Press)


'Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music' (Royal S Brown, 1994, University of California Press)

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