Born: March 10, 1892; Le Havre, France
Died: November 27, 1955; Paris, France
Born in France to Swiss parents, Arthur Honegger was a major twentieth century composer whose musical style was more cosmopolitan than either French or Swiss. An almost exact contemporary of Prokofiev (1891-1953), he rivaled Poulenc as the most successful member of Les Six and was without doubt among the greatest French composers of his day. Stylistically, he was quite protean, eschewing the Impressionism of Debussy while absorbing certainRead more features of neo-Classicism and taking on a sometimes brash and usually rugged expressive manner, always within a tonal context.
Honegger became proficient on the violin as a child, but also developed an interest in composition early on. His first work, an unorchestrated opera, Philippa, dates to 1903. He enrolled at the Zurich Conservatory while in his teens, where he studied composition with Friedrich Hegar and violin with Willem de Boer. He left after two years for the more prestigious Paris Conservatory in 1911, where he studied composition with Widor and Gédalge. Although he continued to take instruction on the violin there, he was clearly more interested in a career as a composer. In 1913, his family relocated to Zurich, but Honegger remained in Le Havre and commuted daily to Paris by train, perhaps one of the reasons he developed a fascination with locomotives. His first works began gaining exposure by 1916 and four years later, he and his conservatory friends Milhaud, Auric, and Tailleferre, along with Poulenc and Durey, found themselves aligned in the famous musical group called Les Six, a name coined by critic Henri Collet. Les Six was formed in reaction to Impressionism and Wagnerian ideas, but Honegger did not recognize any musical creed in his association with the group.
In 1923, Honegger composed one of his most famous works, Pacific 231 (Mouvement symphonique No. 1), a work whose motoric qualities were inspired by the sounds and rhythms of a locomotive. The piece was a tremendous success and spawned many imitations. In 1926, Honegger married a young, highly gifted French pianist Andrée Vaurabourg. The two rarely lived together during their marriage, owing to the composer's need for solitude in his creative activities. On concert tours, however, they apparently shared quarters and throughout their marriage were otherwise a happy, loving couple. The 1928 Rugby (Mouvement symphonique No. 2) was also a success for Honegger and is another example of the composer being inspired by an extra-musical interest: he was a sports enthusiast, especially of rugby. Honegger made many concert tours in the 1930s with his wife, who would perform his piano and chamber works or serve as accompanist to his songs. His concert and compositional activity was curtailed for a year when he nursed his wife along to recovery following a serious injury in a 1935 automobile accident. During the war years, Honegger taught at the École Normale de Musique and made many trips to Zurich, where his Symphony No. 2 (1940-1941) was successfully premiered by Paul Sacher and the Collegium Musicum on May 18, 1942. Honegger remained quite prolific during these dark years, especially in the realm of film music. He wrote 11 film scores in the period of 1942-1943, though some were collaborations with other composers, such as Jolivet. In 1947, on a concert tour in the United States, Honegger suffered a heart attack and thereafter his health declined, severely limiting his musical activities, with his wife tending to him in his final year. Read less
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