Arthur Honegger (March 10, 1892-November 27, 1955), Swiss composer

Honegger was a Swiss composer who was a member of Les Six and an important figure in modern French music.

Honegger (aw-nay-GARE) was born to Swiss parents in the French port city of Le Harve. Though he remained a citizen of Switzerland, he lived in France most of his life. He studied at the Zürich Conservatory and then at the Paris Conservatory from 1912 onward. After World War I, he was associated with the French movement Les Six, a group of six modern composers reacting against romanticism and impressionism. The group was not a close knit one, and perhaps it was really more of an arbitrary grouping than a true movement. Honegger was a bit distant from the group because his serious music was at odds with the playful, humorous approach taken by the others. Also, he disliked Eric Satie, the group’s idol, and preferred the work of Claude Debussy, which they thought was old hat.

His first success was a Biblical oratorio, Le Roi David (King David, 1921). Other works include (in no particular order of importance) the operas Judith (1926) and Antigone (1927), the latter with a libretto by Jean Cocteau. He based the oratorios Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher ("Joan of Arc at the Stake", 1935) and Les Danse des morts ("The Dance of Death") on texts by Paul Claudel. The former work many consider to be his masterpiece. He wrote the score for the 1927 film Napoleon, directed by Abel Gance.

In his music, he drew on a wide variety of sources, chief among them the German Romantic composers of his Germanic heritage. Into the mix went jazz, twelve tone music, Igor Stravinsky, Sergey Prokofiev, Gregorian chant, Protestan hymns, and even Native American music.

The work he’s most known for is a kick ass tone poem called Pacific 231 (1924), which captures the cacophony of a locomotive. (The "231" apparently refers to the wheel grouping on the engine of the train.) It is one of three pieces of concrete music he called "Mouvement Symphonoique" ("symphonic movements"). The second was Rugby (1928) and the third Pastorale d’été ("Summer Pastoral").

During World War II, he was trapped in Paris. Perhaps because of his Germanic heritage, he was favored by the Nazis and invited to participate in their cultural propaganda mill. He essentially told the Nazis to fuck off and worked for the French Resistance as part of the "Front National des Musiciens".

After the war, he was gripped with an unshakable depression. He developed angina during a 1947 tour of the United States, and he never recovered. He died in Paris eight years later.

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