Arthur Honegger’s “Symphonie Liturgique”
Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion,” Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”: These are considered some of the premier artistic anti-war statements of our time. Just as worthy to be a part of this company is French composer Arthur Honegger’s Third Symphony—a work that you may not have heard in quite a while.
But then, it’s perhaps been a long while since you’ve heard the music of Arthur Honegger at all. Though the Swiss composer’s work was frequently performed throughout the 1920s—when he was writing his first major works—to the ’70s, long after he had died in 1955, his music seems to have fallen into relative neglect in recent decades. Here and there, you’ll encounter a live performance of one of his oratorios—a staged production spearheaded by Seiji Ozawa of his 1938 “Joan of Arc at the Stake” played to great acclaim both in Japan in 2012 and in New York last year—but for the most part, it has become rare to encounter his work either in the concert hall or on record.
This is a shame, because though it would be inaccurate to call his music tonal in the conventional (read: classical) sense, Honegger remained committed to writing music in the German Romantic tradition even as he embraced chromaticism, polytonality, and even straight-up atonality. He had no interest in adopting Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, though, and his music, as harmonically complex as it could be, bears out his rejection of serialism: it’s often warmer and less outwardly forbidding than the atonal/twelve-tone works of Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and other Second Viennese School followers.
Even more than oratorios like “King David” and the aforementioned “Joan of Arc at the Stake,” it’s his 1946 Third Symphony, subtitled “Symphonie Liturgique,” that deserves to be rediscovered and reclaimed as the masterpiece it is. Though Honegger was usually loath to offer programs for his music, he made an exception in this case, extensively explaining his intentions with each movement—perhaps a sign of how close the work was to his heart. According to an interview he did with music critic Bernard Gavoty in 1951, his disgusted feelings about the destruction wrought by World War II are key to the work. He summed it up this way: “My intention…was to symbolize the creation of modern man against the morass of barbarism, stupidity, suffering, machine-minded-ness, and bureaucracy that has been besieging us for some years now.”
The “Liturgique” isn’t merely a cry of worldly despair, however, but also a work of religious faith. This is evident not just in the Symphony’s subtitle, but in the headings he gave all three movements: “Dies irae” (“Day of wrath”), “De profundis clamavi” (“From the depths I have cried”), and “Dona nobis pacem” (“Grant us peace”), all of which correspond to parts of the Roman Catholic Mass. To Gavoty, he offered fairly lengthy explanations for what he tried to express in each movement: the first movement a depiction of “human terror in the face of divine anger”; the second a “sorrowful meditation of mankind abandoned by the divinity”; the third an expression of “barbarism unleashed in a civilization” and of a desire for rebellion and, finally, peace. Ultimately, though, it’s Honegger’s music itself that tells the story: the ferocious, hard-driving Allegro marcato apocalypse depicted in the first movement; the creeping terror that destroys the heretofore pastoral mood of the second movement; and the remorseless march that rises to a cacophonous climax in the third movement while giving way to a quiet epilogue that, in its soaring flute lines, looks heavenward for some kind of peace.
Another musician who generally tended to let music do the talking for him was Herbert von Karajan, the world-famous Austrian conductor who, in 1973, released a recording of the “Liturgique” that is generally considered not only one of the work’s finest interpretations, but one of the legendary maestro’s greatest all-time recordings. But wait…Herbert von Karajan? The conductor most known for his interpretations of the Austro-German repertoire—Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, and the like? And not only that, a man who was infamously a member of the Nazi Party during World War II—the kind of action that Honegger, a member of the French Resistance during the war, might have decried?
Even now, the motives behind Karajan’s Nazi Party membership in the 1930s and ’40s remain shrouded in ambiguity. As music critic Richard Osborne notes his preface to Conversations with von Karajan, “though von Karajan was nominated for membership in the as yet unbanned [Nazi] Party in Salzburg in April 1933, he did not collect his card, sign it, or pay his dues, though the registration itself…got on to the files and crops up in many memoranda and enquiries thereafter.” Despite the membership, there’s little evidence that Karajan sympathized with the Party’s ideals; instead, as Osborne says, “von Karajan had always maintained that he joined the Nazi Party in 1935 as a bureaucratic condition of his being able to hold the position Generalmusikdirektor in Aachen.” The implication is that he joined the party more for the sake of his career than anything else. Osborne also cites evidence that Karajan in fact applied to leave the Nazi Party 10 days after marrying the (part-Jewish) Anita Gütermann in 1942. Still, it’s difficult to make definitive claims either way, especially because Karajan himself never opened up too extensively about that aspect of his personal life.
If you look closely at his vast discography, though, you’ll note his devotion to works like Honegger’s “Liturgique,” Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, and Alban Berg’s “Three Orchestral Pieces”—all pieces that were written in response to war and human oppression. Even more than the Austro-German Romantic repertoire for which he’s best known, Karajan’s finest hours as an interpreter lay in such works: their adventurous idiom and agonized intensity seemingly spurring him to go beyond his much-celebrated attention to beauty of sound and control of the long line, and tap into something terrifyingly irrational and elemental.
“Irrational and elemental” is the only accurate way to describe the way the Berlin Philharmonic tears into the mounting chromatic frenzy of the first movement of the “Liturgique,” or the way the weighty strings sing and cry out in the second movement. But the real glory of Karajan’s interpretation of Honegger’s Third Symphony comes in the finale. In the score, Honegger indicates a metronome marking of quarter note=88; according to Honegger’s biographer, Harry Halbreich, though, the composer himself later suggested the quicker tempo of quarter note=112, and most conductors—like Charles Munch (who premiered the work in 1946), George Tzipine and Serge Baudo—have followed suit, rendering Honegger’s “Dona nobis pacem” as something of a goose-stepping quick march. Karajan is unique, then, in taking Honegger at his word, and the effect is thunderous. No elaborate extra-musical explanations are needed to grasp the sense of a world on the verge of collapse with every footfall of this implacably steady march’s heavy tread, as the horns and trumpets blast into their lines with increasing savagery on the way toward the apocalyptic tone clusters of its majestic climax. Here, in vividly imposing splendor, is every inch the bitterness and cynicism Honegger himself expressed toward Gavoty in discussing the movement, that “increase in collective stupidity” he was railing against through music. It’s the kind of visionary sympathy between conductor and composer that could only have come from a man who felt similarly about the world amid the inhumanity of war. Maybe, through Honegger’s notes, Karajan was, in effect, doing something of an exorcism of his own. ¶