From my isolated perch, I can’t be sure how the composer of “Joan of Arc at the Stake” is regarded in the United States, let alone elsewhere. It wouldn’t surprise me if “Pacific 231” and “Rugby” were still mentioned in music history surveys, along with a brief discussion of “Les Six.” But it also wouldn’t surprise me if Honegger’s work is now considered only a footnote to Western culture.
This apparent neglect has everything to do with shifting musical trends. As a prominent voice in the 1930s and 40s, his music already had a liminal quality that defied genre labels. So by the time the great ideological hurricane of the 1950s and ’60s whipped across the musical plains, the culture that had lifted Honegger up began to disappear. I’m sure his lack of a self-promoting “Technique of My Musical Art” only made him easier to ignore.
In some ways, this attitude toward composers like Honegger is born of lazy, pragmatic niche-filling. If we have Poulenc, this line of thought goes, and Ravel, do we “need” another Frenchified neo-classicist? And of course, there’s Stravinsky’s Symphony in C. It’s the kind of musical culture you get when categorization and list-making takes the place of listening.
I’m the first to acknowledge that bucking that trend can be a challenge. The human mind seems to thrive on categorization and pattern recognition. They both may be fundamental to the way we process and store information. And yet in artistic matters, as in so much else, if we want to actually understand our cultural landscape we need to do much better than that.
Unfortunately, another matter colors our perception of Honegger’s music. His record during WW2 is mixed and displays ambivalence about his political environment. Was he a cold-blooded opportunist, or simply naïve enough to think he could reform the Nazis by “setting an example?” Or did his participation in a Vienna celebration of Mozart reflect a belief that Art transcends everyday life?
Regardless, it’s impossible to understand how Honegger failed to grasp the validation his presence lent to Goebbels et al. Yet evaluating artists on political grounds is always a dicey proposition. More than one person has told me that Mozart’s music itself should be banned ─ as the product of an imperialist society.
And yet, around the world, the music of Richard Wagner is still celebrated and performed as a pinnacle of German opera. By all accounts, Wagner’s anti-Semitism was second only to his adultery, boorishness, bullying, greed, perfectionism, monomania, etc. In that sense, to “excommunicate” Honegger for failing to see what we know now in hindsight is as unfair as his behavior is incomprehensible.
So with all of those caveats and considerations, it has to be acknowledged that Honegger’s symphonies are the product of an extremely gifted, disciplined, skilled and serious musical mind. Unlike many of his generation, he was able to hear the overview of a piece, apparently from the start. The First aside, one of his symphonies’ most distinguishing features is effortless unity, both within each movement and from one movement to the next.
True, there’s not much in the way of stylistic evolution between these five pieces. They seem rather to reflect the same musical frame of mind in different moods. Yet it would be inaccurate to characterize Honegger as “having a shtick.” His music is too well crafted for that.
But you’ll have a hard time appreciating Honegger if you expect each new piece to define a new era. In a funny way, by the 1960s, this expectation had even carried over to Pop music. How disappointed we oldsters might have been if “The White Album” or “Let it Bleed” had been a carbon copy of its immediate predecessor.
All the same, that habit of thought has no inherent validity, as anyone who enjoys JS Bach’s violin concertos should know. Which one is “different” and which one is, therefore, “better”?
Yet if I happen to think Honegger’s Third Symphony is his best, it maybe because I hear it as more focused, more consistently inspired and more thrilling within its own understated limits. And that calls to mind another feature of these works: their unpretentious flow of solid musical ideas.
Are there “outbursts,” “declamations,” “laments,” “climaxes?” Of course. But Honegger doesn’t play to the peanut gallery. The music flows on with purpose and logic, rather than showmanship. You can listen to the three movements on YouTube. (Not the imagery I would have chosen, but this is the best performance on the site, in my opinion.)
All the same, a lot of the charm of the Third Symphony is its Early Modernist fury. By the late 1940s, that was already giving way to a classicizing equipoise ─ that is ironically not found in symphonies by Mozart and Haydn. Of course, to write as Honegger did is to have the unerring facility of deep natural talent. He could whip up a storm one minute and return to calm on a clear trajectory, while never breaking the work’s logical thread. In that sense, his best “classical model,” if he needed one, would be CPE Bach.
Billed as a “Symphonie Liturgique,” the Third supposedly evokes the “Dies irae” chant in the first movement, the biblical psalm, “De profundis clamavi” in the second and, in the third movement, “Dona nobis pacem” from the Catholic mass. Most likely these three themes reflect Honegger’s emotional response to a horrific war, whose aftershocks we’re still feeling.
Yet the stormy first movement actually seems to need nothing but its own relentless, forward-rushing ideas to drive it on. Here Honegger’s enviable command of brass writing informs so much of the movement’s whirlwind of sound. Ultimately, the movement works best as an evocation of a very human kind of “Irae,” more authentic and direct than that offered by the vast majority of foot-stamping Modernist revolutionaries.
Helping matters along is the composer’s apt use of ostinatos, a device I have learned to my chagrin requires a certain innate knack. Whether it’s a personality trait or an ear for the infinitely repeatable, or an unerring sense of proportion and timing, we know a successful ostinato when we hear it ─ and die a thousand deaths when it continues even a beat too long.
Finally, there’s Honegger’s secret weapon: A characteristic rhythmic flexibility and drive unlike anyone else before or since. I hear it as a rare combination of control and liberation ─ analogous to the moves of a highly trained dancer who appears to improvise, despite the underlying precision of every step.
The second movement might strike some as too Romantic. Part of that feeling might stem from the “Honegger-light” style of music that was co-opted several years ago by film composers. The same might be said of the snippets of snare-drum and brass that have been bastardized in countless bad battle scenes on worse American television. Yet this slow movement reaches its emotional and musical climax through a slow build-up of motives and textures, rather than the mere repeat of a Romantic tune in different outfits.
Also on display in this movement is Honegger’s impressive command of long-range musical continuity and his infallible ear for contrast. The flute solo at the end, whatever its symbolic meaning, is one of the most apt artistic choices I know of.
In the last movement, a surreal march rhythm sets the stage for a stentorian trombone solo that dominates the texture for several measures. It’s followed soon after by discordant, swirling winds and the advent of what might be the best use of the orchestral piano I can think of. As in the second movement, and without a hint of “concertizing” the piano’s low, percussive notes ring out with an abstract authority that reminds me, strangely, of Miro’s starker canvases.
Then, as the unyielding strings push against the mounting texture, the music hurtles into a crushing chordal climax that demands attention. Not that is, simply because it’s loud, but because of how aptly it reflects the musical environment it grows out of. Towards the end of the piece, with a shift toward an elegiac tone I can only describe as Shakespearean, Honegger reveals unexpected musical and emotional depths as he brings the work in for a philosophical landing.
For me, occasional visits to the “Honegger Café,” tucked back a few streets from the Forward March of History, are a welcome reminder that the limitations we impose on musical expression are as arbitrary as the limitations a few ugly souls tried to impose on society all those years ago. If we see the same trends emerging again in our time, we must recognize then for what they are: a hollow, dehumanizing drain on everything that makes life in the universe worthwhile.
Mark Laporta is a musician, composer and novelist. His new novel, Probability Shadow, is published by Chickadee Prince Books, and is available in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you. Or listen to his musical compositions here.