Superb as the songs of Francis Poulenc are, it is unfortunate they have established such an exclusive dominance over the post-Debussy mélodie repertory, for they have quite overshadowed the remarkable songs of Arthur Honegger. The success of Honegger's oratorios only compound the problem, for King David and Joan of Arc at the Stake are towering works that loom high in the public mind and complete the undeserved eclipse of his songs. But Honegger wrote songs all through his career, over forty of them, and to poetry ranging from the profundity of Old Testament Psalms to the witty epigrams of Giraudoux.
The magnificent set, Six poèmes, composed in 1916/17, is an excellent example of his style. It is doubly interesting because it is at once the first indisputable masterpiece of Honegger's career and also the first songs, by any composer, on texts by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918).
The third song of the set, Automne, is superb Apollinaire. It is cast in mist-cloaked alexandrines with a form that turns back on itself to suggest an endless unbroken ring--the cycles of love and life. Experts agree the poem was inspired by an actual event--an experience the poet probably had during his youthful sojourn in Germany. The song he heard the peasant sing has even been identified as Das zerbrochene Ringlein, a poem by Eichendorff that has long been paired to a prosaic little melody by one Friedrich Glück. But I digress, as Honegger does not use Glück's melody in his setting.
Dans le brouillard s'en vont un paysan cagneux
Et son boeuf lentemant dans le brouillard d'automne
Qui cache les hameaux pauvres et vergogneux
Et* s'en allant là-bas le paysan chantonne
Une chanson d'amour et d'infidélité
Qui parle d'une bague et d'un coeur que l'on brise
Oh! l'automne l'automne a fait mourir l'été
Dans le brouillard s'en vont deux silhouettes grises
Making his way off there the peasant hums
A song of love and unfaithfulness
That tells of a ring and a heart that is broken
Oh! autumn autumn has made the summer die
In the mist there pass two gray silhouettes
Honegger's setting opens with an extended prelude, using a 12/8-4/4 polyrhythm to portray the hobbling gait of the knock-kneed peasant and the ponderous, steady progress of his ox. Both are ankle deep in a ground fog suggested by the faint presence of a pedal tone. The voice enters to describe the scene in flowing, speechlike rhythms. Soon a softly descending chord progression portrays the lowering mist that 'hides the poor hamlets.' Then the ostinato pattern is interrupted, and our attention is drawn to the melody being hummed by the old man. We recognize that we heard a bit of it as he approached us during the prelude. We have but a moment to savor this scene before it dissolves and all motion stops. Time now seems to hold its breath as, over sustained chords, the story-teller himself enters the scene: 'Oh! autumn autumn has made the summer die.' Then our attention is returned to the peasant and his ox and, as they amble off into the mist, and we hear the old man still faintly humming his tune--until he disappears from sight and sound.
How richly conceived the six songs of this set are, each with photographic focus and clarity, exquisite formal balance and a transcending communication of the poetic essence. Sung together, they offer great internal variety, but with the unifying theme of gentle, melancholy regret and an overwhelming sense of the passage of time. Yet each of the songs is a satisfying artistic entity, and I see no reason why they can't be programmed separately, if desired.
The vocal gamut of Automne is limited and low-- middle C to treble C, while to sing the entire set requires a range of middle C up to high A. The other titles include the languorous A la 'Santé' , the Fauréan Clotilde, the delightful Saltimbanques, the wistful L'Adieu and the spirited, resounding Les Cloches. All require an able and sensitive accompanist.
It is a slight exaggeration to call any of Honegger's songs unsung as they were all recorded in 1992, when Timpani records (France), commemorated the centennial of the composer's birth by issuing his complete works in CD format. And several of the Apollinaire songs were once recorded with the composer at the keyboard, albeit on now virtually unobtainable 78 rpm records. But it is certainly no exaggeration to say that all of Honegger's songs deserve far more frequent performance than they now receive.
Honegger's Six poémes, extraits de 'Alcools' de G. Apollinaire is published by Editions Salabert, Paris .
Return to the UNSUNG SONGS table of contents
Go to the WEBSITE index