Arthur Honegger’s war symphonies, a synthesis of tradition and modernity, are powerful mementos of a heroic period. There was a sense that, with a moral menace to be defeated in World War II, digging into the depths of tradition was essential.

As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of various milestones of World War II, it strikes me that artistic—and particularly musical—reactions to the war are seldom given their due. World War II concert music, for example, strikes me as a distinct genre. Throughout the war years a number of European and American composers produced works, particularly symphonies, that both reflected the struggles of the war and acted as a rallying cry for hope and humane values—this at a time when the Third Reich was using music shamelessly as propaganda for its cultural ideology. Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony is well known, but there are many other, finer specimens. To my taste, some of the most eloquent symphonic reactions to the war came from the French-Swiss composer Arthur Honegger.

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.

The composer was equivocal about the expressive meaning of his symphony, allowing listeners to decide for themselves. “I have sought no program, no literary or philosophical concept. If this work releases a certain emotion, the reason is that this forced itself upon me in a perfectly natural way.”

Rather than impose emotion on his music, Honegger preferred to let the experiences of his life release themselves in purely musical terms. Aesthetically he was a perfect balance of neoclassicist and post-Romantic.

Honegger’s Second is the centerpiece of a new recording entitled French Music for String Orchestra featuring a young Dutch group, the Ciconia Ensemble, and their conductor, Dick Van Gasteren. The disc is fortuitous coming in tandem with the D-Day and other war anniversaries. The Ciconia Ensemble plays frighteningly well, with razor-sharp responses and refined textures. The way Mr. van Gasteren is able to make his musicians “speak” through their instruments, both individually and collectively, is striking, especially in the dirge-like slow movement. Yet the ending of the symphony comes off more restrained and muted than usual, as Mr. Gasteren has the orchestra taper and round off the final note in a way that seems to negate any sense of easy victory. The triumph of the human spirit, heralded by the chorale, is not a “done deal” in this interpretation.

The recording also features works, predominantly somber in tone, by lesser-known French composers like Charles Koechlin and Jacques Castérède, and Honegger’s Hymne—an intense, seven-minute piece for ten strings whose anguish admits a crack of celestial sunlight at the end. The 1920 composition date of the work reminds us that its composer straddled both World Wars.

Honegger’s meditations on the war did not end with the Second Symphony. His Symphony No. 3, subtitled Liturgique and using phrases from the Latin Mass as descriptive headings, is perhaps his greatest. Employing a full-sized orchestra, it is like a technicolor war movie to the Second’s gray-scale newsreel. The opening movement (Dies irae) rushes at you with a cataclysmic force that is truly hellish. The slow movement (De profundis clamavi ad te) is among the most majestic pages written in the century, architecturally pristine and poetically refined. Honegger saw it as “the grieving meditation of man deserted by God—a meditation that is already a prayer.” The finale is a depiction of “the rise of collective stupidity.” It marches grimly in goosestep, escalates to a dissonant crisis, and disintegrates—then offers a final, hazy vision of peace. The last bars are crowned with a flute motif like a birdsong—in Honegger’s words, “the innocent bird warbling joyfully over the rubble.”

Peace is fully consummated in the Fourth Symphony, which Honegger subtitled Deliciae Basilienses (The Delights of Basel) and scored for a chamber orchestra of Mozartian proportions. Having taken us through hell and back, Honegger now whisks us away on a Swiss vacation, complete with quotations of folk tunes he learned as a child. Idyllic and nostalgic, the symphony depicts a hopeful postwar world—though not without the note of melancholy that is almost always present in this composer’s work. Honegger’s music, it’s worth noting, was banned in Nazi Germany but performed in his beloved Switzerland, which was a blessed release after the rigors of occupied Paris.

Honegger’s war symphonies are powerful mementos of a heroic period—clear examples of what one critic identified as “a synthesis of tradition and modernity that has withstood the ravages of time.” This dynamic conservatism was, in fact, typical of much concert music of the 1940s. There was a sense that, with a moral menace to be defeated, digging into the depths of the tradition was essential; modernism for its own sake faded into insignificance. Honegger was just one of many composers who continued that grand tradition, composing music that upheld expressive values while assimilating the best harmonic and rhythmic innovations of modernism.

If the 20th century was “the golden age of the symphony,” as one critic has claimed, then the symphonies of World War II constitute a rich sub-field. Honegger’s contributions stand shoulder to shoulder with the “war symphonies” of Copland, Piston, Vaughan Williams, and others. Although deeply rooted in their era, they are timeless because their expressive arc of suffering and victory is universal. He brought a Christian humanism—inspired by his Swiss Protestant background—to bear on the events of his day, and he did so with a sound and style that are instantly recognizable. As we memorialize World War II, let us not forget one of its classic musical expressions: the music of Arthur Honegger.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photograph of Arthur Honegger from 1928, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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