Arthur Honegger

Swiss composer (born 1892 in Le Havre - died 1955 in Paris)

Arthur Honegger, who was a Swiss citizen but deeply attached to France, symbolises the meeting between French and Germanic cultures, between humanistic expressiveness and rigorous form and language.

Arthur Honegger began his musical studies by learning to play the violin. At the age of 17, he entered the Zurich conservatoire, then the Paris conservatoire in 1911. He studied violin with Lucien Capet, counterpoint with André Gédalge, composition with Charles-Marie Widor and conducting with Vincent d'Indy. While there, he met future personalities such as Darius Milhaud, Jacques Ibert, Germaine Tailleferre and Andrée Vaurabourg. In 1920, he joined The Six with Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Louis Durey and Germaine Tailleferre under the artistic direction of Jean Cocteau. In musical terms, the group was adamant about keeping its distance from Richard Wagner and Impressionism, but was happy to move closer to jazz and music-hall styles. In reality, Arthur Honegger was more of an individualist. His artistic ideals were firmly grounded in classical forms and harmony, but shunned Impressionist innovations. The 1920s were a very rich and productive time for him. In 1923, he composed what was to remain his most popular work: Pacific 231. The following year, the successful premiere of his oratorio Le Roi David confirmed his status as one of the leading composers of the time. In 1926, he married Andrée Vaurabourg, who had, in the meantime, become a renowned pianist.

The 1930s were a more difficult period because of the economic crisis. To earn a living, Arthur Honegger turned to composing film scores and music for radio. In 1934, however, he made an important acquaintance. Ida Rubenstein put him in contact with Paul Claudel for the development of an oratorio, Jeanne au bûcher. The success of the first performance in Basel in 1938 encouraged the pair to repeat the exercise, this time with La Danse des morts. Arthur Honegger decided to remain in Paris during the German occupation. At the time, he was teaching at the Ecole Normale de Musique conservatoire. But despite his involvement in the Resistance, after the liberation he was criticised for playing an "excessive" amount of his music during the occupation, and for taking part in a Mozart Festival in Vienna. His works were temporarily removed from concert programmes. Immediately after the war, he composed his third and fourth symphonies. In 1947, he left for the United States to do an extensive tour. However a very serious heart attack immobilised him for some time and obliged him to return to France. From 1951 onwards, his health declined rapidly. His works were once again performed very frequently and his Christmas Cantata was very popular. He died in 1955, only a few months after Paul Claudel.

Six key works by Arthur Honegger:
Le Roi David, oratorio (1921)
Pacific 231, symphonic movement for orchestra (1923)
Jeanne au bûcher, oratorio (1935)
Symphony No. 2, for string orchestra (1941)
Symphony No. 4, for large orchestra (1946)
Symphony No. 5, for large orchestra (1950)

Six landmark dates in the life of Arthur Honegger:
• 1920: inception of The Six
• 1926: married Andrée Vaurabourg
• 1938: successful first performance of Jeanne au bûcher
• 1940: decided to remain in Paris during the Occupation
• 1947: left for the United States for an extensive tour
• 1953: appointed foreign member of the Académy des Beaux Arts

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Biography compiled from Radio France documentation