The early years of the twentieth century were a time of increasing grandiosity in music. Opera had always been an art of the spectacular, but now the scale of symphonic music began to expand to unprecedented dimensions with extravaganzas such as, in Germany, Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand and Schoenberg's Gurrelieder and, in France, Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps, as if to drown out with sheer volume pre-echoes of the approaching cataclysm that would soon overwhelm Europe. The actual outbreak of World War I put a stop to that. It was not so much physical destruction that reversed the tendency of musical works to grow, though the psychological effect of seemingly endless trench warfare certainly dampened the frenzied, forced optimism of the preceding years. Musical creation went on, its composers turning inward - Debussy into chamber music, Ravel into pianistic tombeaux to fallen friends and Schoenberg into epigrammatic abstraction. But the War destroyed the economic foundations of musical performance. Both government and private funding evaporated, not only in the principal battlegrounds but even in neutral countries such as Switzerland.
Yet it was in Switzerland that possible solutions to the problem began to emerge, in pocket-size traveling theatrical troupes presenting small-scale entertainments using just a few actors, singers, dancers and instrumentalists, with minimal sets and costumes. The prototype, as with so much of the century's music, came from Igor Stravinsky, whose Histoire du soldat (A Soldier's Tale) to a text by the French-speaking Swiss writer C. F. Ramuz appeared in September 1918, two months before the Armistice. The story, of an encounter between a weary infantryman trudging homeward and the Devil, with a violin as the agent of the soldier's ensnarement, was apposite to the times; the music, with its marches, tango, snatches of country fiddling and hints of Ragtime played by an ensemble of seven players, similarly fit the (necessarily reduced) bill.
The years immediately after the War's end may have brought a technical cessation of hostilities, but economic strictures continued with the need to rebuild a continent. Into these straitened circumstances came Swiss poet and playwright René Morax. Morax had founded a rural theater in 1903 in Mézières, a village near Lausanne, with regular performances beginning in 1907. The playhouse was a large barn-like structure, and its repertoire was inspired by the local popular culture, with incidental music provided by regional composers. The outbreak of war in 1914 halted its activities, but Morax planned a re-opening for the summer of 1921. To mark the occasion, he decided to create a drama on a biblical subject: the life of David, the shepherd boy who became King of Israel. This was a new departure for the Théâtre du Jorat, but in conceiving it Morax was building on the popular tradition of the Festspiel - the community-based festival play employing local talent, an example of which is the Lenten Passion Play dating back to medieval times.
The Swiss composers Morax first approached all declined because of the tight deadline. Conductor Ernest Ansermet (who had founded the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva in 1918) recommended the 28-year-old Arthur Honegger, who, though still unknown in Switzerland, had during the past couple of years attained notoriety in Paris as a member of Les Six, the group assiduously promoted by Jean Cocteau as an antidote to what he considered the excessive seriousness of Debussy and Ravel. In actuality, Les Six was never an artistic collective; though its members were all friends from their Paris Conservatory days their individual musical orientations differed greatly. Georges Auric and - in those early years - the young Francis Poulenc came closest to the "official" aesthetic of Les Six, whose stylistic godfather was Eric Satie. But Darius Milhaud never was completely comfortable with its nose-thumbing denigration of the past, and in any event the "group" (whose sixth member and only woman was Germaine Tailleferre) was soon reduced to five when Louis Durey refused to subscribe to Cocteau's anti-Ravel manifesto and retired to Saint-Tropez. From the beginning, though, Honegger had been regarded as "the least Six of the Six" and as more of an honorary than a real member, who never abandoned his allegiance to Beethoven and Wagner. He was a dual Swiss-French citizen, born in Le Havre to Swiss parents, and though as a child he spent summers in Zurich and two years at that city's conservatory, from 1911 and his entrance into the Paris Conservatory until his death in 1955 Paris remained both his physical and his artistic home. He served in the Swiss army during the First World War, but despite the availability of a secure refuge in neutral Switzerland during World War II chose to remain in Paris, refusing to abandon what had become "his" city - and its inhabitants - during its darkest period of suffering.
Honegger was, like his German near-contemporary Paul Hindemith, a thoroughgoing professional, and Morax's deadline held no great fears for him. He completed the music in little more than two months and, a conservatory-trained conductor, led the initial run of performances himself. Among the compositional challenges he had to confront was the limitation presented by the available forces: the local area possessed a few capable wind players and pianists, but no violinists of real ability, yet the choir - composed of enthusiastic local amateur singers - numbered about a hundred. The orchestra would only comprise seventeen musicians, with a single double-bass to represent the strings. Honegger consulted Stravinsky, who replied, "It's very simple... Go ahead as if you had chosen this ensemble, and write for a hundred singers and seventeen instrumentalists." Honegger always regarded this advice (to treat given conditions not as something imposed but as an inner necessity) as one of the most important composition lessons he ever received.
Le Roi David, with its hints of jazz as well as Bach and with earthy revelry as well as solemn pageantry, was an immediate hit in its first stage production. However, designed for a specific, uncommon setting, its potential for an extended life might have seemed limited. Two years later Honegger re-structured it as an oratorio, with full orchestra and with narration instead of staged action.
Oratorio, of course, was not a new idea in 1923, but its home was Anglo-German and not French. The model had been created by George Frideric Handel in the mid-eighteenth century out of necessity, when his Italian operas lost popularity to the new genre of vernacular ballad opera. While the typical opera scenarios drawn from Classical literature were favored by the aristocracy, which patronized opera and was familiar with the characters and situations, Bible stories have always been loved by the people; for many, these stories were their closest approach to literature, the Bible often being the only book in the home. While Handel and his successors such as Mendelssohn didn't draw on the traditions and motifs of the Passion Play, the stories themselves made their works approachable despite the often sophisticated music.
A few Francophone composers - Hector Berlioz and César Franck in particular - had been drawn to oratorio during the nineteenth century, producing works dripping with piety. But by the twentieth century oratorio was considered a dead format. The world was becoming secularized; progress would be made through technology. Morax and Honegger were in fact creating a daring new genre: a secular pageant based on Bible stories used for their dramatic rather than moralistic value. In Le Roi David there is no attempt to use the events portrayed to convey a didactic message; it's simply a good story about a complex character. Unlike previous oratorios, here there is no Christian, prophetic slant applied to the Old Testament tale. When at the end David dies and an Angel sings of future days when "a flower shall blossom from your stem, green again," we are not certain whether she is speaking of a Christian messianic redemption from sin or of a Jewish messianic resumption of national identity under a Davidic dynasty.
In its new form Le Roi David re-established oratorio as a viable medium of musical expression in the twentieth century, particularly in France and French-speaking lands. It quickly made its way throughout France and Europe, with performances numbering in the hundreds in just a few years. Honegger himself followed it with such works as Jeanne d'Arc au boucher (Joan of Arc at the Stake), and Le Roi David became the model for works by contemporaries such as Darius Milhaud, Frank Martin, Marcel Dupré and many others.
We preface Le Roi David this evening with four short choral works by twentieth-century French composers, showing varied approaches to the artificial division between sacred and secular that had been imposed by previous generations and which Honegger sought to bridge. Lili Boulanger in 1913 was the first woman to win the annual competition for the Prix de Rome, the summit of accomplishment for a young French composer. Afflicted with Crohn's disease, she died at 24, but not before having written a body of music, particularly choral works, remarkable in its maturity and innovative extension of the style of her teacher, Fauré. Honegger was only one of many composers influenced by her. Boulanger's Hymne au soleil is a pantheistic song of praise, a psalm that blesses not the creator but creation itself.
Francis Poulenc, like Honegger, became famous as a member of Les Six. He was the group's youngest participant, whose artistic maturity came long after its demise. Beginning in a typically adolescent mode of witty satire, by the mid-1930s he rediscovered the power of religious expression, without ever abandoning his always-slightly-ironic sense of artistic distancing: we're never quite sure if he really means it. The brief Salve Regina, composed in 1941, is perhaps his least ambiguous sacred work.
In contrast, Olivier Messiaen was never coy about displaying his Roman Catholic identity. His mature style is built primarily on several prominent elements: ecstatic Catholic mysticism, birdsong (Messiaen was an assiduous transcriber), modal harmony, and a rhythmic system that he devised and taught, built on the addition and subtraction of units of pulsation to or from longer regular pulses to create asymmetrical, non-repetitive and, as he put it, "non-retrogradable" metric patterns. One of France's great organists, he brought the organ's ability to sustain sound at the slowest possible tempo into the realm of the orchestra and chorus. O sacrum convivium! is a relatively early work, and among Messiaen's briefest utterances. Aside from its absence of birdsong, it provides a good example of the characteristics of his music.
Jean Langlais was another in France's great heritage of organ masters. Unlike Messiaen, though, his reputation rested on his playing more than his composing, though he wrote music - much of it for his own concert tours - throughout his life. The Festival Alleluia is a late work, written in 1971. It is structured around contrasts between passages of great rhythmic vigor and brilliance and moments of profound stillness as it displays, as if in a prism, the many facets of the single word "Alleluia" - the word, and the sentiment, that also concludes Honegger's Le Roi David .
- Jerome Hoberman -