October 18, 2019


In Time of War: Arthur Honegger's Symphony No. 2 (Michael De Sapio|September 19th, 2019, Imaginative Conservative)

Honegger (1892-1955) wins my vote for the most unsung composer of the 20th century. Although often associated with Les Six, the insouciant group of French composers that included Francis Poulenc, Honegger pursued a quite different path--a style equally German and French, more open to Romantic feeling and informed by a social consciousness. Honegger insisted that he did not write "pure music"--i.e., music that is simply about music and nothing else (a view that set him apart somewhat from the objectivist Stravinsky). On the contrary, his works are often closely tied to extra-musical ideas, sensations, and events--whether it be Pacific 231, his depiction of a steam locomotive, or his great oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake. Yet whatever passions that may boil on its surface, a Honegger piece has clarity and logic at its core. Dissonance is used, not gratuitously, but with expressive purpose. Everything comes polished with an elegant sheen. As one critic wrote: "In Honegger's harmonic world the tragedy is never permanent. Sooner or later something bucolic and sweet pops up like a flower in a bombsite."

That's an apt description of Honegger's Symphony No. 2 for Strings, written in 1941-2 during the Nazi occupation of Paris and premiered in May, 1942, in Zurich, Switzerland. From the opening bars, the work evokes the soul-crushing deprivation and gloom that Honegger and his countrymen experienced. The pared-down orchestra (strings only) suggests the bleakness of black-and-white newsreels. The first movement alternates slow and fast music: a sobbing viola motif followed by a dynamic, bounding subject in the cellos that is treated to an intense and angry development. In the symphony's central, elegiac slow movement, the pain has subsided into a dull ache. Energy returns in the final movement, vivace, suggesting the defiance of battle.

And then something extraordinary happens. In the last minute of this bustling finale, Honegger brings in a solo trumpet, playing a chorale tune that blazes amid the busy and agitated counterpoint of the strings and ends the symphony on an unexpected note of triumph. If I'm not mistaken, this "chorale tune" is an invention of Honegger's, but it sounds like countless Lutheran hymns that Honegger's idol, Bach, might have used as a base. The effect is like a sudden shaft of light--a stark contrast to the dissonance and rhythmic turmoil that preceded it.

Posted by at October 18, 2019 12:00 AM