Arthur Honegger

Arthur Honegger (French: [aʁtyʁ ɔnɛɡɛːʁ]; 10 March 1892 – 27 November 1955) was a Swiss composer, who was born in France and lived a large part of his life in Paris. He was a member of Les Six. His most frequently performed work is probably the orchestral work Pacific 231, which was inspired by the sound of a steam locomotive.

Arthur Honegger b Meurisse 1928
Arthur Honegger in 1928


Born Oscar-Arthur Honegger (the first name was never used) to Swiss parents in Le Havre, France, he initially studied harmony and violin in Le Havre. After studying for two years at the Zurich Conservatory he enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire from 1911 to 1918, studying with both Charles-Marie Widor and Vincent d'Indy. He made his Paris compositional debut in 1916 and in 1918 wrote the ballet Le dit des jeux du monde, generally considered to be his first characteristic work. In 1926 he married Andrée Vaurabourg, a pianist and fellow student at the Paris Conservatoire, on the condition that they live in separate apartments because he required solitude for composing. They lived apart for the duration of their marriage, with the exceptions of one year from 1935 to 1936 following Vaurabourg's injury in a car accident, and the last year of Honegger's life, when he was not well enough to live alone. They had one daughter, Pascale, born in 1932. Honegger also had a son, Jean-Claude (1926–2003), with the singer Claire Croiza.

In the early 1920s, Honegger shot to fame with his "dramatic psalm" Le Roi David (King David), which is still in the choral repertoire. Between World War I and World War II, Honegger was very prolific. He composed the music for Abel Gance's epic 1927 film, Napoléon. He composed nine ballets and three vocal stage works, amongst other works. One of those stage works, Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (1935), a "dramatic oratorio" (to words by Paul Claudel), is thought of as one of his finest works. In addition to his pieces written alone, he collaborated with Jacques Ibert on both an opera, L'Aiglon (1937), and an operetta. During this time period he also wrote Danse de la chèvre (1921), an essential piece of flute repertoire. Dedicated to René Le Roy and written for flute alone, this piece is lively and charming, but with the same directness of all Honegger's work.

Honegger always remained in touch with Switzerland, his parents' country of origin, until the outbreak of the war and the invasion of the Nazis made it impossible for him to leave Paris. He joined the French Resistance and was generally unaffected by the Nazis themselves, who allowed him to continue his work without too much interference. He also taught composition at the École Normale de Musique de Paris, where his students included Yves Ramette. However, he was greatly depressed by the war. Between its outbreak and his death, he wrote his last four symphonies (numbers two to five) which are among the most powerful symphonic works of the 20th century. Of these, the second, for strings, featuring a solo trumpet which plays a chorale tune in the style of Bach in the final movement, and the third, subtitled Symphonie Liturgique with three movements that evoke the Requiem Mass (Dies irae, De profundis clamavi and Dona nobis pacem), are probably the best known. Written in 1946 just after the end of the war, it has parallels with Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem of 1940. In contrast with this work is the lyrical, nostalgic Symphony No. 4, subtitled "Deliciae Basilienses" ("The Delights of Basel"), written as a tribute to days of relaxation spent in that Swiss city during the war.

Honegger was widely known as a train enthusiast, and once notably said: "I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living creatures and I love them as others love women or horses." His "mouvement symphonique" Pacific 231 (a depiction of a steam locomotive) gained him early notoriety in 1923.

Many of Honegger's works were championed by his longtime friend Georges Tzipine, who conducted the premiere recordings of some of them (Cris du Monde oratorio, Nicolas de Flüe).[1]

In 1953 he wrote his last composition, A Christmas Cantata. After a protracted illness, he died at home in Paris of a heart attack on 27 November 1955 and was interred in the Saint-Vincent Cemetery in the Montmartre Quarter.

The principal elements of Honegger's style are: Bachian counterpoint, driving rhythms, melodic amplitude, highly coloristic harmonies, an impressionistic use of orchestral sonorities, and a concern for formal architecture. His style is weightier and more solemn than that of his colleagues in Les Six. Far from reacting against German romanticism as the other members of Les Six did, Honegger's mature works show evidence of a distinct influence by it. Despite the differences in their styles, he and fellow Les Six member Darius Milhaud were close friends, having studied together at the Paris Conservatoire. Milhaud dedicated his fourth string quintet to Honegger's memory, while Francis Poulenc similarly dedicated his Clarinet Sonata.


Honegger was pictured on the Swiss twenty franc banknote (eighth series), issued October 1996 and replaced in 2017.

Honegger's symphonic movement Rugby was recorded with him conducting the Paris Symphony Orchestra in a 1929 electrical recording, which can be heard on YouTube.[2] Many of Honegger's recordings as conductor of his music have been reissued on CD by Pearl and Dutton.[3]

The ice hockey player Doug Honegger is his grandnephew.[4]

Notable compositions

Opus numbers originate from the complete catalogue by Harry Halbreich. For a longer list of compositions, see List of compositions by Arthur Honegger. For a list of select recordings, see Arthur Honegger discography.

  • Orchestral Music :
Symphonies :
1930 : H 75 First Symphony
1941 : H 153 Second Symphony for strings and trumpet in D
1946 : H 186 Third Symphony (Symphonie Liturgique)
1946 : H 191 Fourth Symphony in A (Deliciae basiliensis)
1950 : H 202 Fifth Symphony in D (Di tre re)
Symphonic Movements :
1923 : H 53 Pacific 231 (Symphonic Movement No. 1)
1928 : H 67 Rugby (Symphonic Movement No. 2)
1933 : H 83 Symphonic Movement No. 3
Concerti :
1924 : H 55 Concertino for piano and orchestra in E major
1929 : H 72 Concerto for cello and orchestra in C major
1948 : H 196 Concerto da camera, for flute, English horn and strings
Others :
1917 : H 16 Le chant de Nigamon
1920 : H 31 Pastorale d'été
1923 : H 47 Chant de joie (Song of Joy)
1951 : H 204 Monopartita
1921 : H 37 Le roi David (King David) libretto by René Morax, version for orchestra in 1923
1935 : H 99 Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher, libretto by Paul Claudel, version with prologue in 1941
1938 : H 131 La danse des morts, (The Dance of the Dead) libretto by Paul Claudel
1953 : H 212 Une cantate de Noël (A Christmas Cantata)
  • Operas :
1903 : Philippa, not orchestrated, performed, or published
1904 : Sigismond, lost
1907 : La Esmeralda, after Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris, unfinished and unpublished
1918 : La mort de sainte Alméenne, libretto by M. Jacob, unpublished and only Interlude orchestrated
1925 : Judith, libretto by René Morax, premiered at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo on 13 February 1925
1927 : H 65 Antigone, libretto by Jean Cocteau based on Sophocles, premiered at La Monnaie on 28 December 1927
1925 : H 108 L'Aiglon, co-written with Jacques Ibert; libretto for acts 2–4 by H. Cain, after E. Rostand, libretto for acts 1 and 5 by Ibert, Opéra de Monte-Carlo, 10 March 1937
1930 : Les aventures du roi Pausole, libretto by A. Willemetz, after P. Louÿs, premiered 12 December 1930, Paris, Bouffes-Parisiens
1931 : La belle de Moudon, libretto by René Morax, Mézières, Jorat, Switzerland, 30 May 1931, unpublished
1937 : Les petites cardinal, libretto by Willemetz and P. Brach, after L. Halévy, Paris, Bouffes-Parisiens, 13 February 1938
  • Ballets :
1918 : H 19 Le dit des jeux du monde
1921 : H 38 Horace victorieux, symphonie mimée
1917 : H 15 String Quartet No. 1 in C minor
1935 : H 103 String Quartet No. 2 in D
1937 : H 114 String Quartet No. 3 in E
1945 : H 181 Paduana for cello solo
1947 : H 193 Intrada for C trumpet and piano
  • Piano Solo Works 1910 : Three Pieces (Scherzo, Humoresque, Adagio)
1916 : Toccata and Variation
1915–9 : Three Pieces (Prelude, Homage to Ravel, Danse)
1919–20 : Seven Short Pieces
1920 : Sarabande (for Album de Six)
1923–4 : Le Cahier Romand
1928–9 Hommage to Albert Roussel
1932 : Prelude, Arioso and Fughetta on the name BACH
1941 : Petits Airs sue une basse celebre
1943–4 : Two Sketches


  1. ^ Archived 11 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ "Arthur Honegger, Rugby (Mouvement symphonique No 2) rec.1929". YouTube. Retrieved 2014-06-14.
  3. ^ "honegger conducts: CDs & Vinyl". 2009-09-09. Retrieved 2014-06-14.
  4. ^ Reto Kirchhofer (19 December 2010). "Das Debüt der Doppelbürger". Berner Zeitung (in German). Retrieved 10 December 2018.

Further reading

  • Honegger's biographer was Marcel Landowski, the French composer and arts administrator, who was greatly influenced by Honegger. His biography appeared in 1978 (ISBN 2-02000227-2) although it has yet to be translated into English.
  • Harry Halbreich. Arthur Honegger, translated into English by Roger Nichols. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1992. Considers both Honegger's life and works. With the cooperation of Honegger's daughter Pascale, Halbreich has fully documented Honegger's life since childhood. All works are treated, more significant ones analyzed in detail. ISBN 1-57467-041-7 (1999).
  • Geoffry Spratt. "Honegger, Arthur." Grove Music Online.
  • Willy Tappet. Arthur Honegger. Zurich: Atlantis Verlag, 1954.

External links

A Christmas Cantata (Honegger)

A Christmas Cantata (French: Une cantate de Noël; German: Eine Weihnachtskantate) is a Christmas cantata composed by Arthur Honegger in 1953; it is reportedly his last composition.

It requires a mixed choir, a baritone soloist, an organ, an orchestra and a children's choir, and it describes the Christmas story. The cantata is divided into three parts.

A Lover's Return

A Lover's Return (French: Un revenant, French: Le revenant) is a 1946 French drama film directed by Christian-Jaque. It was entered into the 1946 Cannes Film Festival.

Antigone (Honegger)

Antigone is an opera (tragédie musicale) in three acts by Arthur Honegger to a French libretto by Jean Cocteau based on the tragedy Antigone by Sophocles. Honegger composed the opera between 1924 and 1927. It premiered on 28 December 1927 at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie with sets designed by Pablo Picasso and costumes by Coco Chanel.

Arthur Honegger discography

Selected recordings of compositions by Arthur Honegger

Captain Fracasse (1943 film)

Captain Fracasse (French: Le Capitaine Fracasse) is a 1943 French-Italian historical adventure film directed by Abel Gance and starring Fernand Gravey, Assia Noris and Alice Tissot. It is an adaptation of the novel Captain Fracasse by Théophile Gautier. The scenario and dialogue is by Abel Gance and Claude Vermorel and the music composed by Arthur Honegger. Honegger's score for the film (H. 166 in his catalogue of works) consists of around 50 minutes of music for chorus and large orchestra.On the same subject, there were also a 1929 silent version directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, and a 1961 colour version directed by Pierre Gaspard-Huit both with the same title.

Danse de la chèvre

Danse de la chèvre (French for Dance of the Goat) is a piece for solo flute by Arthur Honegger, written in 1921 as incidental music for dancer Lysana of Sacha Derek's play La mauvaise pensée. At the start of the piece, there is a slow dreamlike introduction consisting of tritone phrases. This soon unwinds into the "goat-like" theme in a chromatically altered F major in 9/8 that skips along, providing the picture of a dancing goat. Following this theme is a more melodic theme or idea that gives off a more calming feeling. The goat theme and the calm theme both reoccur once again, and at the end of the piece the slow dreamlike idea returns and closes off the piece with a soft and quiet harmonic C for resolution. It is approximately three and a half minutes long. (The piece is approximately ABRSM grade eight standard and can also be found on the ABRSM flute diploma syllabus.)

The original manuscript of this piece has been lost. The editions that are out now were derived from a partial transcript found in Honegger's transcriptionist's works. The piece has been worked on by historians to be as accurate as possible.

Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher

Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) is an oratorio by Arthur Honegger, originally commissioned by Ida Rubinstein. It was set to a libretto by Paul Claudel, and the work runs about 70 minutes.

It premiered on 12 May 1938 in Basel, with Rubinstein as Jeanne, and Jean Périer in the speaking role of Brother Dominique, with the Basel Boys Choir singing the children's chorus part, and Paul Sacher conducting.The drama takes place during the heroine's last minutes on the stake, with flashbacks to her trial and her younger days. Honegger entitled his work a dramatic oratorio, adding speaking roles and actors. The work has an important part for the ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument (played at the premiere by its inventor Maurice Martenot).Claudel's dramatic frame provided Honegger with a space – between heaven and earth, past and present – where he could mix styles from the popular to the sublime. A hybrid work: partly oratorio and partly opera, Honegger uses all his musical means, monody, harmony and counterpoint to build towards sculpted blocks of sound.

L'Aiglon (opera)

L'Aiglon is an opera (drame musical) in five acts composed by Arthur Honegger and Jacques Ibert. Honegger composed Acts II, III, and IV, with Ibert composing Acts I and V. A 2016 reviewer described it as "a singular piece of work" with its "blend of operetta, divertissement, conversation piece, historical pageant and, in the disturbingly powerful fourth act set on the Napoleonic battlefield at Wagram, phantasmagoria peopled with living figures onstage and dead voices off".

L'Album des Six

L'Album des Six (original title: "Album des 6") is a suite of six piano pieces published in 1920 by Eugène Demets, and written by the members of the group of French composers known as Les Six.

This publication occurred in the same year as Les Six was first named as a recognisable group in French music. The journalist Henri Collet supplied that name in an article in the arts journal Comoedia published on 16 January 1920, which followed a joint concert by the six composers on 8 January.The group was only ever a very loose association, and did not exist in order to create compositions collaboratively. However, there were six occasions on which more than one member was involved in joint compositional projects (sometimes along with composers from outside the group of Les Six). L'Album des Six was the first of these occasions, and it was the only time that all six composers were involved in the same publication.However, most of the individual pieces had already been written prior to the group being identified by Collet in 1920 (most in 1919; Milhaud's piece as early as 1914), and they were simply collected and published under a joint title. Indeed, it has been suggested that the title of the album was a major factor in Collet's naming of the group.The pieces of L'Album des Six and their composers are:

Georges Auric: Prélude (22 December 1919; dedicated to General Clapier)

Louis Durey: Romance sans paroles, Op. 21 (August 1919; dedicated to Ricardo Viñes)

Arthur Honegger: Sarabande, H 26 (January 1920)

Darius Milhaud: Mazurka (1914)

Francis Poulenc: Valse in C, FP 17 (July 1919; dedicated to Micheline Soulé)

Germaine Tailleferre: Pastorale, Enjoué (4 September 1919; dedicated to Milhaud).The suite takes about 11 minutes to play. Five of the pieces take less than two minutes each. The longest, Durey's Romance sans paroles, requires a little over three minutes.Poulenc was the only one of the six composers to have left a major corpus of piano music; he also orchestrated his Valse in C in 1932.

La Roue

La Roue (pronounced [la ʁu], 'The Wheel') is a French silent film, directed by Abel Gance, who also directed Napoléon and J'accuse!. It was released in 1923. The film used then-revolutionary lighting techniques, and rapid scene changes and cuts.

La guirlande de Campra

La guirlande de Campra is collaborative orchestral work written by seven French composers in 1952. It is in the form of variations or meditations on a theme from André Campra's 1717 opera Camille, reine des Volsques.The numbers and their composers are:

Toccata (Arthur Honegger*)

Sarabande et farandole (Daniel-Lesur)

Canarie (Alexis Roland-Manuel)

Sarabande (Germaine Tailleferre*)

Matelote provençale (Francis Poulenc*)

Variation (Henri Sauguet)

Écossaise (Georges Auric*)*Member of the group Les SixThe work was first performed on 30 July 1952 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, by the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, under conductor Hans Rosbaud.Benjamin Britten attended the premiere, and it gave him the idea of commissioning several composers to contribute to a set of Variations on an Elizabethan Theme to celebrate the forthcoming coronation of Elizabeth II, for which he was also writing his opera Gloriana.

Le Roi David

Le Roi David was composed in Mézières, Switzerland, in 1921 by Arthur Honegger, as incidental music for a play in French by René Morax. It was called dramatic psalm, but has also been performed as oratorio, without staging. The plot, based on biblical narration, tells the story of King David, first a shepherd boy, his victories in battle, relationship to Saul, rise to power, adultery, mourning of his son's death, and finally his own death. The work has 27 musical movements, some instrumental, most for voices and orchestra. A narrator connects the scenes, soloists take different roles.

Arthur Honegger was commissioned to write incidental music to accompany René Morax’s play Le Roi David in 1921. Honegger was given the nearly impossible deadline of 2 months to complete the work and was rewarded with much acclaim at the premiere. In 1923 he combined Morax’s narrative with his music and created a "symphonic psalm," the form that is familiar today, and titled his work Le Roi David.

Les aventures du roi Pausole

Les aventures du roi Pausole (The adventures of King Pausole) is an opérette in three acts with music by Arthur Honegger and a French libretto by Albert Willemetz, based on the 1901 novel by Pierre Louÿs. It was Honegger’s third operatic work, but his first in lighter vein, composed between May and November 1930, and dedicated to Fernand Ochsé. Excluding dialogue, there is around 75 minutes of music, making it longer than many of his more serious works. While showing the influence of Mozart, Chabrier and Messager, it contains a wide range of orchestral colours with occasional glances at jazz of the 1930s.

Les mariés de la tour Eiffel

Les mariés de la tour Eiffel (The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower) is a ballet to a libretto by Jean Cocteau, choreography by Jean Börlin, set by Irène Lagut, costumes by Jean Hugo, and music by five members of Les Six: Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre. The score calls for two narrators. The ballet was first performed in Paris in 1921.

Love Cavalcade

Love Cavalcade (French: Cavalcade d'amour) is a 1940 French film directed by Raymond Bernard and written by Jean Anouilh.

Mayerling (1936 film)

Mayerling is a 1936 French historical drama film directed by Anatole Litvak and produced by Seymour Nebenzal from a screenplay by Marcel Achard, Joseph Kessel, and Irma von Cube, based on the 1930 novel Idyll's End by Claude Anet.

The film stars Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux with René Bergeron, Jean Davy, Jean Dax, Jean Debucourt and Gabrielle Dorziat, and Jean-Louis Barrault in a bit part. The film is based on the real-life story of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, his affair with the 17-year-old Baroness Maria Vetsera and their tragic end at Mayerling.

The film was remade in English and in color by MGM in 1968. The remake starred Omar Sharif, Catherine Deneuve, James Mason, and Ava Gardner.

Pacific 231

Pacific 231 is an orchestral work by Arthur Honegger, written in 1923. Honegger was widely known as a train enthusiast, and once notably said: "I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living creatures and I love them as others love women or horses." It is one of his most frequently performed works.

Symphony No. 2 (Honegger)

The Symphony No. 2 in D for strings and trumpet (Symphony for Strings) by Arthur Honegger was commissioned in 1937 by Paul Sacher to mark the tenth anniversary of the chamber orchestra Basler Kammerorchester. Progress was slow, however, in part due to the interruption of the Second World War. The music is primarily for strings alone and is very turbulent and troubled until the trumpet soloist enters near the end of the music, giving this mostly tragic work a hopeful ending.

The first performance was given by the Collegium Musicum of Zurich under Sacher on 18 May 1942.

The work is in three movements:

Molto moderato - Allegro

Adagio mesto

Vivace non troppoThe work is for string orchestra, except for the addition of a trumpet in the concluding chorale: "like pulling out an organ stop", according to the composer. The trumpet part is marked ad libitum, and although occasionally performed by strings alone, most performances include the trumpet. The finale inspired Robert Hall Lewis' concerto for four trumpets.Numerous recordings have been made of the work, including performances conducted by Charles Munch, Serge Baudo, Ernest Ansermet, Herbert von Karajan, Mariss Jansons and Charles Dutoit.

Symphony No. 3 "Symphonie Liturgique" (Honegger)

Symphonie Liturgique is the Third Symphony by the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger.

Composed in the aftermath of World War II, it is one of Honegger's best-known works. It is in three movements, each of which (following the symphony's subtitle) is named after a liturgical text. The first movement is named after the Dies irae from the Requiem Mass;, it is marked allegro marcato, and has an aggressive, storm-like quality. The slow movement, named De profundis clamavi after Psalm 130, is in contrast meditative and lyrical. The finale, named after the Dona nobis pacem from the Mass, is more episodic, with an insistent, brutal marching rhythm building to a dissonant climax, before a long, lyrical coda concludes the work. A melody resembling the robin song from Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher, can be heard towards the end of each movement.

Honegger himself wrote an extensive commentary on the work, making explicit the music's connection with the horrors of the War, and the desire for peace.Written in 1945-46 on a commission from the Foundation Pro Helvetia, Honegger's Third was first performed in Zürich on 17 August 1946 with Charles Munch conducting the Suisse Romande Orchestra. Munch made a live recording of the work in Prague with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1956, which has been released by the Multisonic label. The symphony has been performed and recorded many times and was a specialty of Herbert von Karajan, who made a recording of it (with Honegger's Second Symphony) in 1969, which is still widely regarded as one of its finest interpretations.The Symphonie Liturgique has strong thematic similarities with Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem written in 1940, although it is in no sense imitative or a reworking of the earlier piece.

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