Honegger: Pacific 231 (Mouvement symphonique No. 1)

Arthur Honegger was born on March 10, 1892, in Le Havre, France, and died on November 27, 1955, in Paris. He composed Pacific 231 between March and December 1923, and it was premiered May 8, 1924, at the Paris Opéra, with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the orchestra of the Concerts Koussevitzsky. Vladimir Shavitch conducted the first San Francisco Symphony performance at a summer concert in August 1927, and since then the work has been played here at youth and education concerts, but these are the first performances on our regular concert series. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, field drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, and strings. Performance time: about six minutes.

To quite a few music lovers, the name of Arthur Honegger may ring a bell only as the composer who wrote the piece about the train. That’s a pity: not because Pacific 231, the piece about the train, is in any way an inferior work, but rather because Honegger was a complex composer whose breadth of achievement—which extends far beyond this famous six-minute exercise in machine-age aesthetics—deserves to be far more frequently visited than it currently is.

Honegger was a hybrid sort of composer: half Gallic, half Germanic. He was born in France, but of Swiss parents, and his upbringing was divided between France and Switzerland—German-speaking Switzerland, in fact, since he spent two years at the Zurich Conservatory absorbing an up-to-date Germanic musical education that included heavy doses of Wagner, Reger, and Strauss. In 1911 he was off to Paris. He arrived just late enough to miss the Ballets Russes’s premiere of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, but plenty of other avant-garde surprises were waiting in a Paris whose cultural geography was re-mapped monthly under the assault of Stravinsky’s colorful music, Diaghilev’s exotic ballets, Apollinaire’s unpredictable poems, Picasso’s angular paintings, and Satie’s slyly subversive scores. At the Paris Conservatory he began what would be lifelong friendships with his fellow students Jacques Ibert and Darius Milhaud, who also went on to distinguished composing careers.

For his first two years at the conservatory, Honegger commuted back and forth from his family’s home in Le Havre, on the coast of Normandy—happily so, since the trips enabled him to indulge in his passion for riding trains. Locomotives, along with fast cars, would remain an enduring delight. In 1913 he finally got an apartment in Paris, and he and Milhaud struck up friendships with two other composition students at the conservatory: Germaine Tailleferre and Georges Auric. By the end of the decade a music critic would link the four of them plus two more recently accreted pals—Louis Durey and Francis Poulenc—into the Groupe des Six, upon which the six composers and their literary friend Jean Cocteau would proclaim was a bond of friendship rather than of aesthetics. In fact, Honegger was probably the least representative of Les Six. One finds little in his catalogue that suggests the madcap frivolity that often surfaces in Poulenc and Milhaud, and his reputation rests principally on his large-scale, overwhelmingly serious compositions, including his five symphonies and his oratorios King David and Joan of Arc at the Stake—and, of course, the piece about the train.

Honegger insisted that his purpose in writing Pacific 231 was not in fact to be descriptive. “To tell the truth,” he explained to an interviewer, “in Pacific 231 I was on the trail of a very abstract and quite ideal concept, by giving the impression of a mathematical acceleration of rhythm, while the movement itself slowed. . . .  I first called this piece Mouvement symphonique. On reflection I found that a bit colorless. Suddenly, a rather romantic image crossed my mind, and when the work was finished, I wrote the title Pacific 231, which indicates a locomotive for heavy loads and high speeds (a type unfortunately disappeared, alas, and sacrificed to electric traction).”

To an interviewer for the Geneva-based magazine Dissonances, Honegger provided a breathlessly run-on description. Its final paragraph would be included in the printed score of Pacific 231: “I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living beings whom I love as others love women or horses. What I sought to achieve in Pacific 231 was not the imitation of the noises of the locomotive but rather the translation of a visual impression and of the physical enjoyment through a musical construction. It opens with an objective observation, the calm respiration of the machine at rest, the effort of the start, a gradual increase in speed, ultimately attaining the lyrical stage, the pathos of a train 300 tons in weight launched in the dark of night at 120 kilometers an hour. For my subject I selected a locomotive of the Pacific type, bearing the number 231.”

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Neeme Järvi conducting the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Chandos)  |  Michel Plasson conducting the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Charles Dutoit conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Apex)

Reading: Arthur Honegger, by Harry Halbreich (Amadeus Press)  |  Honegger’s own I am a Composer, a nicely readable series of conversations with the critic Bernard Gavoty (St. Martin’s Press—out of print, but worth looking for)