In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Arthur Honegger

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Essay Collections
  • Contemporary Contextual Studies
  • Contextual Studies after Honegger’s Lifetime
  • Letters
  • Writings and Interviews
  • Manuscripts and Document Collections
  • Contemporary Biographies
  • Biographies after 1955
  • Birthday Tributes
  • Obituaries
  • Honegger and World War II
  • Aesthetics
  • Contemporary Studies of Honegger’s Work and Style
  • Studies of Honegger’s Work and Style After 1955
  • Review Compilations
  • Collaborations with Paul Claudel
  • Stage Works
  • Other Orchestral Works
  • Chamber Music and Mélodies

Music Arthur Honegger
Brian Hart
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0147


Arthur Honegger (b. 1892–d. 1955) became one of the most famous composers in France in the decades following World War I. Of Swiss ethnicity—his parents were from Zürich—he was born in Le Havre and made Paris his permanent home. He acknowledged his dual heritage as a descendant of La Suisse alémanique (German-speaking Switzerland) who chose to live and work in France; as he also had many connections with La Suisse romande (French Switzerland), he has been described by Harry Halbreich as belonging to “two countries [and] three cultures” (Halbreich 1999, p. 576; cited under Biographies After 1955). He was a member of Les Six, the group of young composers loosely dedicated to creating a non-Impressionist but recognizably French postwar language; his colleagues included Georges Auric (b. 1899–d. 1983), Louis Durey (b. 1888–d. 1979), Darius Milhaud (b. 1892–d. 1974), Francis Poulenc (b. 1899–d. 1963), and Germaine Tailleferre (b. 1892–d. 1983). Honegger achieved worldwide fame with the oratorio Le roi David (1921) and symphonic poem Pacific 231 (1924). To his chagrin, his more experimental works, especially the opera Antigone (1927), proved less successful, but the oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (1938) became a sensation, and his popularity continued through the years of the German Occupation. Disillusioned by life and culture after World War II, and in failing health following a major heart attack in 1947, Honegger was seized by an overwhelming pessimism that deeply colored the work of his final years. Honegger wrote more than two hundred compositions in virtually every genre; of these, Jeanne d’Arc and his five symphonies are widely considered the greatest. Honegger’s contemporaries commented on his ardent desire to speak to and move his listeners through his music—even, in his last works, to admonish them about the snares of modern life (“Arthur Honegger’s music is a warning, a wake-up call,” according to Max Favre in Favre 1952, p. 3; cited under Symphonies). Because Honegger sought communion by incorporating a modernist harmonic language within the Classic–Romantic tradition, more than one critic cited him as the only truly popular composer of his day. Commentators noted significant paradoxes in Honegger. Despite his intense need to communicate, he demanded absolute privacy in composing and for that reason lived separately from his wife. Raised as a Swiss Protestant who affirmed a great reverence for the Bible and the Protestant musical tradition—as exemplified by Johann Sebastian Bach (b. 1685–d. 1750)—he was a lifelong agnostic in perpetual search for faith; commentators have described many of his works, for example, the Symphonie liturgique, as “prayers.” Both during his lifetime and since, Honegger’s music has inspired a fairly sizeable body of research. Most scholarship is in French or German, but in recent decades important studies in English (or English translation) have appeared.

General Overviews

Despite his popularity during his lifetime, few modern sources outside of the standard reference dictionaries consider Honegger’s music at any length: no textbook devotes more than a paragraph or at most a page to him. Rosteck 2003 and Spratt 2012 present discussions of some depth, both written by experts on the composer. Rosteck’s bibliography is particularly helpful as a supplement to the comprehensive one in Spratt 1987 (see Studies of Honegger’s Work and Style after 1955). Spratt 2012 focuses on what he considers Honegger’s most “humanistic” works. Rae 1992 commemorates the composer’s centenary, evaluating his place both in Les Six and in the 20th-century French symphonic tradition. Pascal Lécroart, a specialist on the works of Honegger and Paul Claudel (b. 1868–d. 1955), has created Site Arthur Honegger as a bilingual French and English “knowledge base” maintained with the cooperation of the Association Arthur Honegger and the composer’s descendants. Although its principal goal is to turn the general music lover “into a serious honeggerian” (as stated on the content page), such information as the upcoming performances link will also serve the Honegger scholar.

  • Rae, Caroline. “Honegger: A Centenary Reappraisal.” Musical Times 133.1789 (March 1992): 118–121.

    DOI: 10.2307/966422

    A brief overview of Honegger’s career, emphasizing the choral works and symphonies, the latter providing a link between the music of Albert Roussel (b. 1869–d. 1937) and Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916–d. 2013). Also discusses ways in which Honegger’s style conforms to the practices of Les Six. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Rosteck, Jens. “Arthur Honegger.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. 2d ed. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 304–318. Personenteil 9. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter Verlag, 2003.

    Focuses on Honegger’s ability to work with a wide variety of collaborators, his combination of French and German stylistic traits (especially his mastery of counterpoint), and his later pessimism. Bibliography an important update to Spratt 1987 (see Studies of Honegger’s Work and Style after 1955).

  • Site Arthur Honegger.

    In French and English. Created by Pascal Lécroart, with contributions from Honegger’s daughter and granddaughter. Biography, bibliography, catalogue of works, discography, and current news. Some listening available of selections from Timpani Records, as well as the Naxos recording of the original scoring of Le roi David.

  • Spratt, Geoffrey K. “Arthur Honegger.” In Grove Music Online. 2012.

    Short biography; analysis focuses on Jeanne d’Arc, La danse des morts, and the Second through Fifth Symphonies, all works that reflect Honegger’s “drama of humanistic conflict.” Also praises his mélodies, a lesser-known part of his output. Largely repeats the 1980 Honegger entry. Available online by subscription.

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