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Harry Halbreich
'Arthur Honegger'
(translated by Roger Nichols)
Amadeus Press, price: œ32.50 (hardback) ISBN 1-57467-041-7
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Most music lovers will know Honegger as the composer of the 'railway engine music' (Pacific 2-3-1) and as a member of the group of composers called Les Six. But he is more than this, even though in Britain at least, his worth is scarcely recognised. For that reason alone, this major study can be warmly welcomed.

Honegger composed prolifically in all the important genres. Associating him with the lightweight style of Les Six gives a misleading impression, since he was more naturally drawn towards a serious expression: 'I have no taste for the fairground, nor for the music hall, but, on the contrary, a taste for chamber music in its most serious and austere form.'

The true nature of Honegger's achievement comes over loud and clear in Halbreich's book. Originally published by Fayard/Sacem in the centenary year of 1992, it has now been skilfully translated by Roger Nichols. This substantial study of both life and music is very clearly organised. The life is discussed in nine chapters, and by page 30 Halbreich decided that 'thanks principally to the large number of letters that survive, the available information on the composer is sufficiently continuous for us to establish a chronicle year by year'. He takes a similar approach to the music, in the sense that each work is clearly labelled before it is discussed. Therefore the book serves as catalogue as well as analysis, making it doubly useful.

As biographer Halbreich concentrates on narrative rather than exploring characterisation and hypothesis. His text is seldom indulgent, but occasionally, as in the discussion of the attacks on Honegger for staying in Paris during the wartime occupation, he misses the opportunity to explore ideas. On the other hand, the frustrations the composer experienced through ill health during the last years of his life are most sensitively handled. A remarkable collection of photographs is included, illuminating many of the issues raised in the text.

The discussion of the music is both skilful and authoritative, with substantial works such as the oratorios and symphonies given a detailed treatment which communicates directly. Those like me who believe that Honegger is a great composer will find that Halbreich offers substantial evidence in support of such an assessment. And those who want to enquire and discover more about a major figure who is new to them will be richly rewarded.

Terry Barfoot

See also review by Ian Lace

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