Composer. Nationality: Swiss. Born: Le Havre, France, of Swiss parents, 10 March 1892. Education: Studied harmony with R. C. Martin and the violin with Capet, Paris; Zurich Conservatory, two
La Roue (Gance); Faits divers (Autant-Lara—short)
Maldone (Grémillon) (co)
La Fin du monde (Gance) (co)
L'Idée (Bartosch—short); Cessez le feu (de Baroncelli) (co); Les Misérables (Bernard—2 parts); Rapt (Kirsanoff) (co); Le Roi de Camargue (de Baroncelli) (co); Angèle (Pagnol)
Crime et châtiment (Chenal); L'Equipage (Litvak) (co); Der Dämon des Himalaya (Dyhrenfurth)
Anne-Marie (Bernard) (co); Mayerling (Litvak) (co); Les Mutinés de l'Elseneur (Chenal); Nitchevo (de Baroncelli)(co); Visages de France (Kirsanoff) (co)
La Citadelle du silence (L'Herbier) (co); Liberté (Kemm)(co); Mademoiselle Docteur ( Salonique, nid d'espions )(Pabst) (co); Marthe Richard au service de la France (Bernard); Miarka, la fille à l'ourse (Choux) (co); Passeurs d'hommes (Jayet) (co); Regain (Pagnol)
Les Bâtisseurs (Epstein) (co); Pygmalion (Asquith and Howard)
Cavalcade d'amour (Bernard); Le Déserteur ( Je t'attendrai )(Moguy) (co); Farinet, oder das falsche Geld ( L'Or dans la montagne ; Farinet, ou la fausse monnaie ; Faux monnayeurs )(Haufler); Les Musiciens du ciel (Lacombe) (co)
Le Capitaine Fracasse (Gance); Huit hommes dans un château (Pottier) (co); Le Journal tombe à cinq heures (Lacombe)
Mermoz (Cuny); Secrets (Blanchar); Un Seul Amour (Blanchar); La Boxe de la France (Ganier-Raymond); Les Antiquités de l'Asie occidentale (Membrin—short); Callisto (Marty—short) (co)
Les Démons de l'auge (Y. Allégret) (co); Un Ami viendra ce soir (Bernard)
Un Revenant ( A Lover's Return ) (Christian-Jaque) (+ ro)
Le Village perdu (Strengel)
Paul Claudel (Gillet—short); La Tour de Babel (Rony) (co)
Incantation aux fossiles , Lausanne, 1948.
Je suis compositeur , Paris, 1951, as I Am a Composer , New York, 1966.
Tappolet, W., Arthur Honegger , Zurich, 1933, rev. ed., 1954.
Claudel, Paul and others, Arthur Honegger , Paris, 1943.
Bruyr, J., Honegger , Paris, 1947.
Dellany, Marcel, Honegger , Paris, 1953.
Landowski, M., Honegger , Paris, 1957.
Gauthier, A., Arthur Honegger , London, 1957.
Guilbert, Y., Honegger , Paris, 1959.
Spratt, Geoffrey K., The Music of Arthur Honegger , Cork, 1987.
Halbreich, Harry, Arthur Honegger , Portland, 1999.
Cinema (Rome), 15 March 1951.
Cinéma (Paris), December 1955.
Colpi, Henri, in Défense et illustration de la musique dans le film , Lyon, 1964.
Porcile, François, in Présence de la musique à l'écran , Paris, 1969.
Lacombe, Alain, and Claude Rocle, in La Musique du film , Paris, 1979.
Film Dope (Nottingham), November 1982.
* * *
Arthur Honegger first achieved fame as a member of "Les Six," the group of composers impulsively yoked together in 1917 by Jean Cocteau to create anti-Romantic, "quintessentially French" music. But Honegger's pensive, serious-minded outlook found little in common with the nose-thumbing frivolities of Poulenc and Milhaud, and he soon seceded from the group. In his film music, too, he always responded most intensely to subjects of a tragic or exalted stamp. Faced with lighter material his work, though never less than craftsmanlike, could become what he once dismissively described all film scores as, "music that one forgets." At its best, though, Honegger's film music is powerful, imaginatively scored, and anything but forgettable.
Like so much of the music composed for the silent cinema, Honegger's earliest film scores have either been lost or survive only in fragmentary form. Of his first score, for Abel Gance's railway melodrama La Roue , only the overture still exists. As well as providing—with its motoric rhythms—an early example of Honegger's lifelong fascination with trains (his famous symphonic poem "Pacific 231" would follow a year later), it shows him responding to the pulsating intensity of Gance's conception. His score for Gance's grandiose epic, Napoléon , survives as no more than a few episodes in the composer's autograph; Honegger himself stormed out before the premiere, infuriated by the director's obsessive last-minute reediting. But one passage, depicting the swelling fervor of the revolution, anticipates a polyphonic device he favored in his symphonies: over a low, brooding theme on brass and low woodwind, two revolutionary songs ("Ça ira" and "La Carmagnole") are counterpointed, rising to a frenzied climax.
Unimpressed by the sound quality of early talkies, Honegger composed little film music in the early thirties. But by 1934, with recording and reproduction techniques rapidly improving, he had regained interest in the medium and that year alone composed five scores, remarkable in their diversity. For Berthold Bartosch's animated satire L'Idée , Honegger set the remote, ethereal tones of the ondes martenot (representing the eponymous Idea in all its purity) against a restless, urban-jazz tinged ensemble dominated by trombone, trumpet, and alto sax that hinted at the influence of Kurt Weill. Rapt , like Farinet, oder das falsche Geld five years later, was adapted from a novel by the Swiss writer Ramuz; both scores recall the composer's own Swiss background, evoking the mountain landscapes of the Valais with striding, folklike motifs of elemental dignity. Raymond Bernard's three-part version of Hugo's Les Misérables brought out the lyrical, romantic side of Honegger's nature with a score that rises to stirring pathos with the death of Jean Valjean and erupts in fury for the uprising of the urban poor.
Over the next ten years, until ill health curtailed his activities, Honegger composed virtually all his most original film scores. Regrettably, they were rarely destined for films of great distinction. Le Capitaine Fracasse reunited him with Abel Gance, but it was a minor work in Gance's declining career; even so, Honegger entered with gusto into the film's swaggering spirit. His score for Crime et châtiment did far more justice to Dostoyevsky than anything else in Pierre Chénal's stilted adaptation; somber and atmospheric, it set obsessive ostinato figures and canonlike themes roaming about each other to suggest Raskolnikov's tormented mind and the quiet doggedness of the implacable Inspector Porfiry.
Three of Honegger's most exceptional scores were composed for films now largely, or entirely, forgotten. His music for Der Dämon des Himalaya , highly chromatic and audaciously scored, underlines the way that mountains and high places always brought out his most personal responses. "Le Grand Barrage," a three-minute fragment from 1942 evidently intended to accompany newsreel footage of the building of a dam, conjures up in its brief span a vivid picture of enraged, rushing waters. Even more dramatic is the score for Louis Cuny's Mermoz , a biopic about a celebrated French aviator. Honegger's music, dissonant and tumultuous, allotting prominent roles to high woodwind, saxophone, and percussion, recreates the trepidation and hypnotic strangeness of the pioneer airman's world.
Had Honegger been able to work with major filmmakers at the height of their powers, his reputation as a film composer would almost certainly stand far higher. Until recently, most of his finest film scores have lain buried in obscure movies and primitive, crackly sound-tracks. Their emergence on compact disc offers the opportunity to reevaluate his contribution to the genre, and to do it belated justice.