Arthur Honegger was born in 1892 in France of Swiss parents and retained dual citizenship throughout his life. This allowed him to pursue his musical education on both sides of the border and, most significantly, spend his military service in the Great War on the Swiss side. Honegger was included in “Les Six,” a loosely connected group of composers who, in reality, had little in common. From this association, only Francis Poulenc remained his lifelong friend. In fact, except for Darius Milhaud and film composer Georges Auric, the remaining members (Germaine Tailleferre and Louis Durey) are but footnotes in modern French music.
Having developed a special relationship with conductor Serge Koussevitzky, Honegger came to America and taught at Tanglewood. His Symphony No. 1 premiered in Boston in 1931. Some years later, after suffering a heart attack subsequent to his Symphony No. 4, he was unable to attend when his Fifth Symphony, subtitled “Di tre re,” was also premiered on Massachusetts Avenue.
The appellation refers to the ending pianissimo note of D in basses and tympani that is the same for all three movements of this mysterious work. But the phrase could also be interpreted as “the three kings,” a possible religious reference, especially since Honegger had previously subtitled his Third Symphony “Liturgical.” The programmatic content, if one chooses to hear it, is akin to that other great twentieth-century symphony written after the diagnosis of a bad heart, namely the Symphony No. 9 of Gustav Mahler, or at least to its two middle movements.
While Mahler is saying goodbye to the rough and tumble of musical life and the politics of jockeying for conductorial positioning, Honegger is taking his leave of this mortal coil with the same sense of freneticism. All three movements are propelled by a driving force bordering on the neurasthenic. The first, described by its composer as a “march of human folly” is inexorable (compare to Mahler’s “To My Apollonian Brothers”). The second, a lively clash of cultures that pits the sophisticated with the ingenuous, the city with the country, the sacred with the profane, would be right at home in a Bruckner, and therefore a Mahler, symphony. The third movement is especially intense, ending with an unforgettable unraveling, a frightening sense of the ultimate quietude that envelopes us all.
Honegger’s death is not only foretold in this afternoon’s Symphony, but also inspired another powerful piece of music. Poulenc was so moved by his friend’s demise that he composed his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in his memory