French-born composer of Swiss parentage.
Born in Le Havre into a comfortable bourgeois environment, Honegger was not only musically talented but also a first-class athlete with a passion for engines and boats. He studied music for two years at the Zürich Conservatory, absorbing the German classics; when he entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1912 a new world opened to him in the music of Debussy on the one hand and that of the young composers who were to constitute the group Les Six (including Auric and Milhaud) on the other. During World War I he served in the Swiss army for a time, returning to Paris in 1916. Although he was a member of Les Six, it was an allegiance of friendship rather than ideology: ‘I do not follow the cult of the fair and the music-hall but, on the contrary, that of chamber music and symphony in their most serious and most austere aspect’. Honegger visited the USA in 1929 on a concert tour of his works, his wife, the pianist Andrée Vaurabourg, playing his Concertino for piano and orchestra (1925). During the last decade of his life he was professor of composition at the École Normale de Musique in Paris. His book of reminiscences I Am a Composer (1951) suggests personal disenchantment with his career.
Honegger's double nationality was a prime factor in his development, combining a Protestant seriousness with the flair, opportunism, and outrageous showmanship of Parisian life in the twenties. His style is basically polyphonic, often polytonal, and of great complexity. His avowed model was J. S. Bach. Honegger considered melody to be ‘the touchstone of all successful works’ and underlaid it with massive harmonic structures. Central to his work are the five symphonies dating from 1930 to 1951. His catalogue of works includes operas, oratorios, such as Le Roi David (1921; King David) and Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (1935; Joan of Arc at the Stake), ballet scores, including Skating Rink (1921), in line with the twenties vogue for sports ballets, incidental music for plays, radio and film music, choral and vocal works, orchestral works, of which Pacific 231 (1924) reflects both his passion for trains and his virtuosic use of motor rhythms, and much chamber, piano, and instrumental music.