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Len Mullenger:

ARTHUR HONEGGER by Harry Halbreich (Translated by Roger Nichols) Amadeus Press 680 pp £32:50  [Amazon UK  £24.54] USA:$44.95 [Amazon US $31.47]

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This important study covers both life and works of Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) in considerable detail. Halbreich is to be congratulated for his meticulous researches and analytical acumen. The book was originally published in French in 1992.

Part One of the book, occupying just over 200 pages, covers Honegger's life.

Halbreich has gone to considerable trouble checking (and quoting from) diaries, letters, press notices, and a whole assortment of documents to chart all the many journeys, all the concerts and all the events that shaped the composer's life. In doing so he has corrected many inaccurate and misleading statements made by previous biographers.

Honegger was born on 11th March 1892 at Le Havre where his father imported coffee. (Le Havre, on the northern coast of France, was a prosperous seaport in those days.) Honegger's parents were Swiss. He was a tough lad, mad keen on sport, and fascinated by the sea. He was to live at Le Havre until his coming of age save for two years spent studying in Zurich where he found himself, for the first time, in a large city with a flourishing musical life. When the coffee merchants of Le Havre were ruined after the 1914-18 war, his parents returned to Switzerland and Honegger went on to Paris. As Halbreich says, "He was French and Parisian in culture, in intellectual affinities, and soon, in his career; but profoundly Swiss in his roots, his feeling for the past, and in his inner nature." He always kept his Swiss passport but never tried to benefit from his duel nationality.

Halbreich then goes on to cover Honegger's student days in Paris where he studied violin with Lucien Capet and counterpoint with André Gédalge. He met Charles Münch (who would become his most faithful interpreter), Ibert, Milhaud, Enesco, Taillefrerre, Auric, Poulenc, Satie and Jean Cocteau. In 1916 he entered the conducting class of Vincent D'Indy. Halbreich covers the formation of Les Six but also reminds us how far Honegger's ideas were removed from those of the rest of Les Six. "Honegger, despite being the Swiss Romantic, "the least Six of the Six," and their "honorary member", nonetheless subscribed to the group's aesthetic in some of his works and would continue to do so occasionally for many years."

In 1917 Honegger met his future wife Andrée Vaurabourg ("Vaura"). Vaura was an excellent pianist and she soon became Honegger's favourite interpreter. She had considerable gifts as a composer but sublimated these to further Arthur's career. Nevertheless she became one of the best counterpoint and harmony teachers of her time - she taught a young Pierre Boulez! Their romance was troubled for Honegger also fell under the spell of the singer Claire Croizer, nearly ten years older than himself. Paul Valéry called her voice "the most sensitive of our times." Both women were, at first, close friends, but after Vaura found Claire and Arthur under the same roof while rehearsing Judith, the fur flew and Honegger found himself being fought over by two women who both loved him passionately. Things came to a head when Claire became pregnant but Honegger chose to marry Vaura on condition that they live apart. (Honegger needed to be alone to compose.) They did so until the last year of his life when he was too ill to manage on his own (and in that year he produced not a single note of music.) Clearly both women were hurt. Halbreich writes with sensitivity on this situation. "…we are not talking here of those cheap "eternal triangle plots" …The three people concerned were all exceptional human beings, and the two women, who had once been so close to one another, would always retain a mutual respect and esteem."

Part One goes on to cover Honegger's rise to fame through Pacific 231 (and its prior influence, Honegger's score for Abel Gance's film La Roue (1922) [see my review of Arthur Honegger's film scores on Marco Polo 8.223134], through the huge successes of Le Roi David and Les Adventures du roi Pausole, through other major dramatic works like: Judith, King Arthur, Horace victorieux, Antigone, Cris du monde and Jeanne d'Arc au bücher, through the film scores like Napoléon, Les Misérables and Mayerling, and through the symphonies etc.

Cris du monde was composed in 1931 and after Antigone, the work closest to Honegger's heart. Halbreich explains that it "is a bitter testimony to a profound personal crisis and to a general crisis provoked by the deep economic depression that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929" and the resulting misery and unemployment experienced by millions. Cris du monde was also a warning of other matters: the dangers of totalitarianism, the decreasing quality of life, about the environment, pollution, mass culture, pressure of noise, the media etc. Honegger was nothing if not prescient.

Although the Great War never really touched Paris, the Second World War was a different matter. Honegger could have claimed immunity and settled in Switzerland for the duration; instead he chose loyalty to Paris and shared in the depravations of the Occupation earning the undying affection of its people. Always a trencherman, he more than made up by gorging himself when better times returned so much so that his indulgence precipitated the 1947 heart attack (while he was on tour in America) that signalled the beginning of his decline in health. Halbreich goes on to cover the fruits of Honegger's last years like the terribly pessimistic Fifth Symphony, Concerto de camera, and Monopartita. Halbreich's coverage of Honegger's sufferings over the last years of his life is harrowing but deeply-moving.

Part Two is an Inventory of Works.

The first chapter covers Chamber Music and Art Songs categorised by type (e.g. Music for Piano, Two Pianos, and Organ; and String Quartets). The second chapter is devoted to Orchestral Music: Symphonies, Concertos; Other Orchestral Works; and Orchestral Works from Stage and Film. A third chapter is entitled Theatre and Musical Frescoes, covering Cantatas and Oratorios, Operas, and Ballets. The fourth chapter is concerned with music for the stage, radio and films. Then in the final chapter of this Part, popular songs, operettas and various unclassified works are covered. Part Two occupies some 326 pages and Halbreich covers Honegger's works in meticulous detail, offering insightful analyses and fascinating background detail. I have quoted copiously from this section of the book in my reviews of Honegger's works.

In Part Three Halbreich sketches in more detail about the composer so that Honegger emerges as a very real character.

In the chapter "Honegger's Physique and Character" Halbreich takes us though the changing portraits that were the composer's life: "adolescent "skinny cat look", that "changes as the face became fuller and more pronounced, and his expression becomes dreamy and gentle…"; …1925 with Les Six, looking "rather cool, fixed frankness…" at the time of Rugby "wearing his driving outfit - we see all the virile yet gentle brilliance of his early maturity"…then in overalls on the footplate of a stationary Pacific locomotive. During the war - "we see an unmistakably democratic, even proletarian Honegger, with a beret and shopping basket, pushing a bike." All these portraits contrast heavily with the decline. His "sporty outline gradually spread with age to a certain portliness encouraged by a healthy appetite…" Once, caught munching chocolate cake, Honegger said, "Don't worry, with me it all gets turned into music!"

He had a real taste for conviviality and social life, and divided his time between his friends and family. Of his character, Fritz Münch (Charles's brother) said of him at his funeral: "We were all profoundly struck by the humanity emanating from this man, by the goodness that formed the ground of his being, and by the complete absence of ill-nature, jealousy or pettiness…he was never negative and never wounded anyone unnecessarily - he always brought a positive approach to everything he said and did, and he always loved the young, and not only the young…" Milhaud spoke of his relentless hard work and of his good nature and modesty. His popularity for a composer of "serious music" was very high because of his light music and his film music. Once, he was delighted to discover a picture of himself included in a tin of a popular brand of French cocoa as a promotional gift! The publication Point de vue carried a photograph of him with the caption: "Arthur Honegger, an eclectic composer, has two audiences: the music lovers of the Salle Pleyel, and the working girls who patronise cheap cinemas." That is really popular fame.

Halbreich goes on to discuss the tug between Honegger's Swiss and French backgrounds and in a revealing analytical table demonstrates that many commissions and the majority of Honegger's premieres came from, and were held in Switzerland. Halbreich goes on to discuss Honegger's social and political ideas (covered briefly in my remarks about Cris du monde above) and religious beliefs reminding us that "religious inspiration is certainly the longest and strongest string in Honegger's creative bow." In another chapter on Honegger's tastes and influences, we learn that Honegger was a voracious reader, and an avid newspaper reader amassing clippings carefully pasted into little notebooks and glossed with biting remarks. He was fond of novels, particularly detective stories and was a keen Maigret fan. He admired poetry, loved the cinema, adored trains and model trains. He counted many poets amongst his friends and collaborators - Jean Cocteau, Paul Valéry and René Morax - and, particularly, Paul Claudel. His tastes in music are also covered: his love of Bach and Wagner and Fauré, for instance, and his general lack of affinity for Schubert, Mozart, Schumann and Chopin. We are reminded that Honegger was also an influential critic whose music reviews showed great insight. Halbreich also reminds us of Honegger's writings in Je suis compositeur in which he scorned, and predicted the demise of the musical "ice-age" - the emptiness of the serial system and the absurdity of judging music on how it looked on paper rather than how it sounded when played. Another chapter takes us deeper into Honegger's musical language and the book ends with Halbreich final assessment of Honegger as belonging among the "greats" of the twentieth century. He concludes:-

"Sometimes, when you are at the foot of a mountain, you are overwhelmed by its vastness. As you leave the mountain, via the narrow valley that descends towards the plain, the great summit is hidden, because of the twists of the gorge, by smaller peaks that suddenly seem to be higher than the great summit. But as soon as you get down to the plain, the summit reappears and the farther away you go, the higher up the horizon it climbs, until finally it takes its rightful place among the family of great snow-capped peaks. That is how I see Honegger's posthumous reputation."

The book includes 16 pages of illustrations, a chronological list of works, a note on the reason why no discography was included (an unfortunate and unnecessary omission in this reviewer's opinion), notes on the text of all chapters, and separate indexes for names and works.

A big book that requires a big commitment from the reader nevertheless unhesitatingly recommended.


Ian Lace

Harry Halbreich is a prominent scholar and writer on musical subjects. He has previously written books on Olivier Messiaen and Claude Debussy. He lives in Brussels.


Ian Lace

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