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Arthur Honegger (Le Havre, March 10, 1892 – Paris, November 27, 1955) was a Swiss composer born in France and who lived most of his life in Paris. He was a member of Les Six. His most performed work is probably the orchestral piece Pacific 231, inspired by the sound of a steam locomotive.
Born as Oscar-Arthur Honegger (he never used his first name), of Swiss parents in Le Havre, France studied in principle harmony and violin in his hometown. After training for two years in Zurich, he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he was from 1911 to 1918 and studied with Charles-Marie Widor and Vincent d’Indy. His presentation as a composer in Paris dates from 1916 and in 1918 he wrote the ballet Le dit des jeux du monde, considered his first characteristic work. In 1926 he married Andrée Vaurabourg, pianist and fellow student at the Conservatoire de Paris, on the condition that they lived in different apartments. They lived apart throughout their marriage, with the exception of the years from 1935 to 1936, after suffering Varaubourg a traffic accident, and in the last year of Honegger’s life, when he could not stand. They had one daughter, Pascale, born in 1932. Honegger also had a son, Jean-Claude (1926-2003), with singer Claire Croiza.
In the early 1920s, Honegger rose to fame with his “dramatic psalm” Le Roi David, which is still in the choral repertoire. Between the two world wars Honegger was very prolific. He composed the music for the 1927 epic film Napoleon, by Abel Gance. He wrote nine ballets and three vocal stage works, among other works. One of those stage works, Jeanne d’Arc aur bûcher (1935), a “dramatic oratorio” (with a text by Paul Claudel), is considered one of his best works. In addition to his solo work, he collaborated with Jacques Ibert both in an opera (L’Aiglon, 1937) and in the operetta Les petites cardinal. At this time he also wrote the Danse de la chèvre (1921), an essential piece in the flute repertoire. Dedicated to René le Roy, this work is alive and charming, but with the same sincerity of the entire Honegger production.
Honegger always kept in touch with Switzerland, the country of origin of his parents, 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 in general the Nazis caused him no problems and allowed him to continue his work without too much interference. He gave composition classes at the École normale de musique in Paris and among his students was Yves Ramette. However, the war depressed him a lot. Between his outbreak and his death he wrote the last four symphonies (from the second to the fifth), which are among the most important symphonic works of the twentieth century. Among them, the second, for strings with a trumpet soloist who plays a choral melody by Johann Sebastian Bach in the last movement, and the third, sub-titled Symphonie Liturgique, with three movements that evoke the music for the Requiem Mass (Dies Irae, De profundis clamavi and Dona nobis pacem) are probably the best known. Written in 1946, right at the end of the war, it has its parallelism with the Sinfonia da Requiem by Benjamin Britten of 1940. In contrast to this work is the symphony No. 4, lyric, nostalgic, subtitled “Deliciae Basiliensis” (“The joys of Basel “), written as a tribute to the days of détente spent in that Swiss city during the war.
Honegger’s passion for trains is well known and he once said:
I have always loved locomotives in a passionate way. For me, they are living beings that I love, just as others love women or horses.
His “symphonic movement” Pacific 231 (a description of a steam locomotive) made him famous in 1923.
Many of Honegger’s works received the great support of his friend Georges Tzipine, who directed the first recordings of some of them (the oratorio Chris du Monde “, Nicolas de Flüe)
In 1953 he wrote his last composition, Una cantata de Navidad. After a long illness, he died in his home in Paris, victim of a heart attack, in November 1955 and is buried in the Saint-Vincent Cemetery in the Parisian district of Montmartre.
The main elements of Honegger’s style are the Bachian counterpoint, marked rhythms, melodic amplitude, very colorful harmonies, impressionistic use of orchestral sounds and concern for formal architecture. His style is more powerful and solemn than his colleagues at Les Six. Far from reacting against German romanticism as other members of the group did, Honegger’s mature works have a great influence on them. Despite the differences in their styles, he and his colleagues at Six Les Darius Milhaud were great friends; they had studied together at the Paris Conservatory. Milhaud dedicated his fourth string quintet to Honegger’s memory, while Francis Poulenc, in the same way, dedicated him to Sonata for clarinet.
Perhaps it is world famous for its epic phrase:
The first requirement for a composer is to be dead. Arthur Honegger, Je suis compositeur, 1951
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