Arthur Honegger

Arthur Honegger is best known for his orchestral work Pacific 231 (1923), although his repertoire includes incidental music, film music, radio, ballet, five symphonies and a number of operatic works and oratorios. Although the Swiss composer chose to remain in Paris during the Occupation and joined a resistance group, he also wrote for German-owned newspapers and was free to showcase his compositions around Europe. Honegger was subsequently accused of collaborating with the German authorities, and his music was unofficially boycotted by French radio and music venues after the Occupation. His Symphony No. 2 was composed in Paris during the early years of the Occupation and is variously interpreted as a reflection of the sadness in Paris during this time, a signal of hope, and as a return to the composer’s Swiss-German roots. The symphony’s journey from composition in Paris to premiere in Switzerland may explain some of Honegger’s wartime activities.

Honegger was born in Le Havre, Switzerland in 1892. He displayed an aptitude for composing from a young age and joined the Zurich Conservatory in 1909, where he attended recitals of works by contemporary composers such as Richard Strauss and Max Reger. He moved to Paris to study at the Paris Conservatory under director Gabriel Fauré, where he met classmates Darius Milhaud, Jacques Ibert and Germaine Tailleferre. In 1915 he met Francis Poulenc, Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau. Honegger, Poulenc, Milhaud and Tailleferre – with Georges Auric and Louis Durey – would become known as Les Six from 1920.

Honegger’s music was considered “degenerate” by the Nazis, and was banned in Germany and the annexed countries. After the invasion of France in 1940, Honegger chose to remain in Paris during the Occupation and continued to compose, despite his Swiss passport offering the opportunity to escape. He continued to write for the then German-owned journal Comœdia, and his early wartime articles in defence of French music earned his membership to the Front National des Musiciens (FNM), a clandestine group of resistance composers and musicians. Despite this, a number of Honegger’s activities during the Occupation would later bring him into disrepute.

In November 1941 Honegger was invited to Vienna to attend a week-long festival organised by the Reich Ministry of Propaganda (RMVP), commemorating the 150th anniversary of Mozart’s death. The attendance by French musicians, composers and journalists was recognised by French journal L’Information musicale as a moral victory for the Germans. On his return, Honegger wrote about the festival in Comœdia, and reviewed music by German composers Hans PfitznerWerner Egk and Richard Strauss. He also attended a party thrown by the RMVP at the German Embassy in Paris, which was attended by known collaborators such as Florent Schmitt and Marcel Delannoy. In July 1942 a week-long festival took place in Paris to celebrate Honegger’s fiftieth birthday, the only such celebration of this kind sanctioned by the Germans in France during the Occupation. The composer was subsequently asked to leave the FNM in 1943 as his activities were perceived as collaborating with the Germans forces.

It is unclear whether Honegger was sympathetic to the Nazis on a political or personal level, although it is true that his career did not suffer during the Occupation to the same extent as that of other composers – on the contrary, his career as a film composer flourished. It has been argued that the composer’s perceived collaboration with the German forces was a necessary compromise that enabled Honegger to continue composing and to have his work performed. For example, Honegger’s attendance at the Mozart Festival in Vienna may in fact have been undertaken to smuggle the manuscript of his Second Symphony, Symphonie pour cordes, to Switzerland, where it was received by the conductor Paul Sacher. Honegger was also granted exit visas to conduct his music in the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Switzerland; accepting these exit visas would have been seen as compromising behaviour from a French composer, but was more acceptable from a Swiss.

Honegger’s Symphony No. 2 was a commission from Paul Sacher, conductor of the Basler Kammerorchester. Sacher approached Honegger in 1936 asking for a piece for strings to mark the tenth anniversary of his orchestra, although Honegger was busy at that time and was unable to complete the commission for another five years. By this time the war had begun and Paris was under Occupation. His Symphony No. 1 had been completed in 1930 but – perhaps because he found symphonic writing rather difficult – his output during the 1930s mainly includes large-scale choral works such as the oratorios Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (1935) and La Danse des morts (1938). The outbreak of war decreased the demand for large-scale choral commissions because many large choirs were disbanded, their members involved in wartime activities, or were unable to raise the funds for new commissions. The lack of demand for choral works may have inspired his decision to return to symphonic writing; he also admitted that at the beginning of the Occupation he “threw [him]self” into Beethoven’s string quartets, possibly providing the impetus for the second symphony.

Honegger’s score was completed in October 1941 and it was agreed that Sacher would conduct the premiere in Basel the following January. At the Mozart festival in Vienna, Honegger was able to give one copy of the score to the conductor Franz von Hoesslin, who took it to Sacher in Switzerland; and a copy to Alfred Schlee, director of Universal Editions, who had agreed to publish the parts. Unfortunately the parts did not arrive in time for the premiere to take place in January, so the work was performed for the first time on 18 May 1942 at the Collegium Musicuum in Zurich (the composer was unable to attend). The work was performed in Paris on 25 June of the same year as part of the aforementioned celebrations for Honegger’s fiftieth birthday. Conductor Charles Münch began recording the symphony in October 1942, although the recording was not completed until March 1944. The symphony was performed in London in April 1944 by the Boyd Neel Orchestra. Neel received a microfilm of the score, which had been sent from France by Honegger and was dropped in England by parachute. Honegger was able to listen to the performance, which took place at the Wigmore Hall, over the radio and commented that he hoped it had given courage to those that needed it.

Symphonie pour cordes is written for string orchestra with solo trumpet, although the trumpet is not introduced until the very end of the Finale. Although it is written in the key of D and at many points – particularly in the Finale – is tonal in character, the majority of the symphony is dissonant and uses chromatic language with much of the harmony in tritones and minor seconds. The first movement, Molto moderato – Allegro, is in sonata form with a reversed recapitulation. This form was described by the composer as “sufficiently concentrated and vigorous without destroying the inner violence,” and the programme notes at the Paris performance describe “a rigorous form, a suppression of the recapitulation such as is found in Classical works were it always has the feeling of tedium.” The movement begins with a repeated rising D-Db motif played by solo viola; Honegger also introduces four phrases at the beginning of the Allegro, which are developed and juxtaposed. The second movement, Adagio mesto, is a melancholy passacaglia in 3/2, and uses ascending minor seconds which relate to the motif employed in the first movement. The ifinal movement, Vivace non troppo – Presto, contrasts in mood with the rest of the symphony, with a playful, high-pitched, tonal melody juxtaposed with forceful low strings. The solo trumpet enters at the coda with a chorale in D major ad libitum, while the strings play counterpoint underneath using the themes from the first movement. The whole piece ends with a triumphant D major chord, contrasting dramatically with the melancholy, chromatic language of the rest of the symphony.

At the July premiere critics described Symphony No. 2 as an allusion to Honegger’s Swiss German roots, specifically in relation to the use of the chorale at the end of the third movement, interpreted as an homage to Bach. However, post-war critics have understood the symphony as a portrayal of the misery, violence and depression in Paris during the early years of the Occupation, despite the composer’s insistence that it was not inspired in any way by the political climate; a review in 1947 described the work as “born in the apocalyptic hour at the burning edge of death.” The trumpet chorale in the final movement – and the emphatic D major chord at the end of the piece –  is often taken as representative of hope and faith. Honegger was adamant that these interpretations are incorrect; the only external influences he admitted was that he had been very cold whilst composing the work.

After the Liberation in 1944, the FNM prepared material for the purification committees which held trials against musicians or composers accused of collaborating with the Nazis. Honegger was not mentioned on the FNM’s preliminary list of “compromised” composers, although punishable offences included travelling to Germany and the annexed nations, and contributing articles to collaborationist newspapers – both activities that Honegger had engaged in. It is most likely that the composer was not listed by the FNM because he carried a Swiss passport. However, Honegger’s music was not heard on the radio in France until July 1945, where he was described specifically as a Swiss composer. Similarly, his music was not widely performed in France until the end of 1945, with the exception of a May 1945 performance of Symphonie pour cordes in an all-Swiss programme, and the premiere of his wartime ballet L’Appel de la Montagne in July of the same year. Honegger later wrote a defence of his wartime actions, insisting that as a Swiss citizen he easily could have escaped the Occupation had he been so inclined, and that his writing for Comœdia was propaganda for French music.

By Abaigh McKee


Halbreich, H. (1999) Arthur Honegger, trans. Roger Nichols (Hong Kong: Amadeus Press)

Honegger, A. (1951) I am a Composer, trans. W O. Clough (London: Faber and Faber)

Neel, B. (1985) My Orchestra and Other Adventures: the Memoirs of Boyd Neel (Canada: University of Toronto Press)

Riding, A. (2010) And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Occupied Paris (USA: Alfred A. Knopf)

Spratt, G. K. (1987) The Music of Arthur Honegger (Dublin: Cork University Press)

Sprout, L. (2013) The Musical Legacy of Wartime France (USA: University of California Press