Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hall of Under-Appreciated Music Exhibit 1: Arthur Honegger - The Symphonies

Here in America we're trained from birth to think that the worst potential fate to befall anyone is to be a fundamentally cheerful person perpetually stuck among very serious people. Since every American thinks of him or herself as cheerful (this American included), the idea of a place where seriousness of purpose is demanded before all else sounds vaguely like our collective nightmare of a totalitarian hell. Just thinking this feels as though it should go without saying, but it's possible that we are the most self-consciously frivolous society in the history of the world. Part of becoming that was to defeat the Nazis and the Soviets, perhaps the two most self-consciously serious societies the world has ever seen. After encounters with Stalin and Hitler, being silly sounds like a lot of fun.

But it can't be much more fun to be a fundamentally serious person among people whose only goal in life is frivolity. For those of us who derive pleasure out of sometimes being serious, it's very difficult to have fun when other people's idea of fun includes never giving fun a rest. Here in America, intellectual people seem to be considered 'very serious people' just by the very nature of being interested in ideas. It sadly never occurs to many Americans that reading a book is not mutually exclusive from NASCAR.

(Pacific 231, a literal imitation of a train. Honegger could do silly with the best of them. At the time of writing this was considered hilarious, twenty years ago it might sound a bit more like trains that pull into Treblinka.)

This is a very odd way to segue into the music of Arthur Honegger, but it will hopefully make sense in a moment. Has music history ever had a better example of a fundamentally serious musician trapped by an epoch which took nothing more seriously than its flippancy?

Honegger was not a completely serious man, far from it. Moreover, Honegger is not a great composer because he was serious, he is great because he dared to be serious in a time and place that craved whimsy to the exclusion of all else.

("Rugby," by Honegger.)

Perhaps it was also an issue of geography. Honneger was a Swiss composer caught between the German and French traditions. And while he absorbed the best of them both, it was difficult for him to gain the recognition above the fray. Making his home in Paris, he was able to make music with appropriately light subjects like Pacific 231 and Rugby. But try to listen to either and tell me that the jokes are anything but very crude indeed. This does not sound like light music, it sounds like a very dark composer going too over the top for us to take the violence of his music seriously.

Whereas contemporaries of Honegger's like Poulenc and Milhaud withdrew almost altogether from the Beethoven-style 'grand statement,' Honegger was unashamedly a metaphysical composer who aimed for music that challenged and disturbed the listener. And he did so at a time and place when such demands on audiences can be charitably described as unfashionable. His music didn't just aim to please or even to shock. Rather, Honegger inevitably went for the grand, occasionally grandiose, statement. His symphonies are like a magnificently perverse eugenics project in which Mahler and Stravinsky had a deformed lovechild.

(The Symphony no. 2. A work almost exclusively for strings except for the very last minute, when the trumpet enters to the tune of a Bach chorale. Bernard Hermann could not have written the music to Psycho without Honegger's example.)

As World War II approached, the always jovial Milhaud found himself increasingly out of favor and the ever polished Poulenc would never follow the darkest urges of his muse quite so far. But the war brought Honegger into his own in quite a few ways. The war not only spurred Honegger to the greatest music of his life, but also made him enlist in the French Resistance. With a family that was originally from Zurich, Honegger could have escaped to neutral Switzerland and abandoned the friends of his adoptive home. But Honegger chose to remain in his adopted country and wrote music that bore witness to his world. No other French composer wrote music that mirrored the peril of its audiences with nearly the same grit and darkness. As the mood in France darkened, it was the Swiss Honegger who articulated the fears of a nation under seige with the greatest eloquence. And he did so first with his second symphony.

(opening of the Symphony no 3, entitled Dies Irae.)

But it was with in third symphony, the Symphonie Liturgique, in which he summed up the experience of the war years. It was almost a given that every important composer had to write a work to honor the war dead, but Honegger got far closer to the reality of war than many more eminent ones - who shall remain nameless for the moment. But just as he understood the full scope of its horror, he also understood the full scope of the hope which the postwar era engendered. The first movement of the work, entitled Dies Irae, sounds like a chamber of horrors. But the finale resembles nothing so much as a prayer, and it's title leaves no doubt - Dona Nobis Pacem.

(ending of symphony no 3, entitled Dona Nobis Pacem)

In 1946 Honegger immediately followed the wild success of the third with a fourth symphony that is absolutely opposite in character. If the third is about the horrors of Paris, the fourth is about the pleasures of his German-speaking land of origin, with which Honegger kept in close contact his entire life. The subtitle for this symphony is 'Deliciae Brasiliensis.' which means 'The Delights of Basel." It's a highly personal symphony, and not nearly as burdened as the two which preceded it. This work, whose title announces that it is about a German-speaking land, is much lighter, airier, and more French than any of his other music of that period. It is not a towering masterpiece like the symphonies that surround it. Instead, it shows a great composer in a lighter mood.

(Excerpt from the Symphony no 4, The Delights of Basel.)

Things were looking up for Honegger and it looked as though his music would become far more relaxed in the years to come. But in 1947 Honegger had a serious heart attack and for the rest of his life was in miserable health. Even if he did not have the dread of a nation to express, he had his own personal angst.

(Final movement of the Symphony no 5 "di tre re")

The decidedly unmerry final symphony of Honegger shows that he is in some senses a French Shostakovich. So many of the most successful composers of his time: Shostakovich, Britten, Copland, Messiaen, Hartmann and even Boulez, were faced with the unenviable task of marrying two traditions that until then seemed completely irreconcilable. For so many, Stravinsky pointed the way forward not only in the way he put rhythm at the center of music, but also because he gave tonality new life with fresh ways of thinking about harmony. But as time went on, it became clear to many musicians that something got lost in the process. As Stravinsky's career advanced, many other musicians began to be disappointed with his output. The composer of the Rite of Spring was writing music that was less and less freighted with musical meaning and some of it resembled nothing so much as aural doodles. Many great composers found their voices by marrying Stravinsky's new techniques to more traditionally Austro-German concepts like symphonic development and Bachian counterpoint. Honegger was one of the most successful composers in that regard, and was every bit the equal of others who did the same. It is only a matter of time before audiences wake up to that realization.

(Pastoral d'ete. A particular favorite of mine.)

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