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Honegger (1892-1955) - Pacific 231

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music lists Arthur Honegger as a Swiss composer. Although educated in Zurich (1909-11), he was born in Le Havre, died in Paris, and after studying at Paris Conservatoire under Widor and D'Indy (1911) he emerged (1920) as one of a group of young composers, dubbed Les Six by the French music critic Henri Collet. Flourishing briefly under the influence of Satie and Cocteau, Les Six gained notoriety for their outrageous ideas. Honegger's contributions included Le Roi David  (1921), and three years later, Pacific 231

He matured into a neo-Romantic with (being an admirer of Bach) a splash of Baroque. His five symphonies, written between 1929-50, are serious, cogently argued, tautly structured, modestly progressive, and both moving and deeply rewarding for anyone prepared to put in some effort. One of three Mouvements Symphoniques, Pacific 231 requires no effort! It was inspired by a locomotive (the “231”, as any train buff knows, describes the wheel arrangement). “Train” music is necessarily, to some degree, onomatopoeic. Arguably the best example is Villa-Lobos' celebrated Little Train of the Caipira (from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2). Pacific 231 doesn't aspire to that class, although at the outset Honegger orchestrates the potent hissing of steam, the piercing protestations of bearings, and the skidding of steel wheels as the power surges. 

The main thrust (forgive the pun!) is to convey the formidable power of an immense engine. Simply speeding up won't do: there is acceleration, but faster notes are inevitably lighter notes. By progressively reintroducing his themes in shorter note-values, overlaying what's already there, Honegger minimises this “weight loss”. His coup de grace is, at the limit, to recall one theme (on horms, then trumpets) in longer and therefore weightier note-values. 

Although the basic tempo is virtually constant, the impression of cumulative momentum - of vast mass gathering speed - is terrific. It's reminiscent of Sibelius' technique for “seamless” tempo changes, applied to a very different purpose. At around 7 minutes' running time, Honegger doesn't over-egg the pudding - once the juggernaut is charging headlong, on go the brakes, hauling the beast to reluctant rest in a series of huge chords, all mass and no motion, and even more awesome than the journey.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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