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Arthur Honegger's oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake was presented under the auspices of the Swiss Embassy in Ukraine

Author: 16.03.2015 | art, personality, ambassador
The event at the National Opera was visited by the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassadors to Ukraine of such countries as Azerbaijan, Egypt, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Turkey and others.

The evening was opened by the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of Switzerland to Ukraine Christian Schoenenberger. In his opening speech, he said: "Within Francophonie Week, I am much delighted to present Arthur Honegger's masterpiece Joan of Arc at the Stake in the interpretation of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine conducted by Volodymyr Sirenko, with the participation of The National Academic Choral Capella "Dumka", Revutsky Academic Male Capella, and artists of the Ivan Franko National Academic Music and Drama Theatre. The oratorio was staged thanks to the support of the Swiss Confederation, as well as local sponsors whom we express our gratitude!"

The oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake was created by the Swiss native Arthur Honegger in 1938. It is based on the poetic works of prominent French author Paul Claudel who describes the last dramatic moments of the martyr’s life.

Honegger reveals fear and tension felt by Joan of Arc before her execution. This work is a kind of flashback, where Joan of Arc remembers her life before going to death.

You are welcome to look through event highlights in our new gallery. You are also invited to learn more about life and work of Arthur Honegger in article of our journalist Anastasia Shkuro.

Arthur Honegger: music beyond this world

"I am deeply convinced that after a few years the art of music, as we know it today, will completely cease to exist. It will disappear similar to other arts of the past, but, no doubts, it will happen faster". – it is a shocking message left by the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger.

...Theatre groups not often pay homage to the French town of Le Havre, but music was a large part of little Arthur’s family life. At the soirees and just for pleasure, his mother played loud sonatas by Beethoven, and his father – former Swiss merchant, a man of very sophisticated nature – tried to sing opera parts. Unlike other kids running the streets with self-made toy guns, Arthur arranged his leisure in company of cardboard orchestra. It was easy to manage cut paper pieces, so the boy had much fun trying on the role of conductor.

Once, a large theatre arrived at the province town and brought the famous Faust and Huguenots. Traditionally, the Honeggers attended the performance, when they came back a nine-year-old Arthur decided to write something alike and began to scratch the musical staff. His father praised the zeal of his child and directed him to a musical path. The years passed counting milestones of creative endeavours and raising a gifted musician up arpeggios. The music theory with church organist, playing at the local musician’s, the Zurich Conservatoire... The World War I hit the world with fire volleys, young people were taken to fight, and those who stayed in the rear, prayed: come back alive! Arthur was relatively lucky as he was called up to defend the Swiss borders, and continued his studies immediately afterwards.

After some time Honegger left for Paris where he was made understand that he was just a mediocre musician, who should put his musical instrument on the furthest of back burners. In the Paris Conservatory Arthur waved goodbye to his dream to play the violin, but intensively studied composition art. Impressed by the war, he wrote a lot. Seven short pieces, Swiss Book, Summer Pastorale, Horace Triumphant – music of that period was dominated by oppressive nervousness, and painful emptiness sounds with fatigue and shock.

While studying at the Paris Conservatoire Honegger met his love – the pianist Andrée Vaurabourg. Honegger made a strange condition for Andrée: he would marry the girl provided spouses stayed in different apartments. Marriage was concluded in 1926, and only in 1934 inflexible Arthur changed his mind for a year. He was influenced by the following: travelling in Spain, Honegger was driving and crashed into a tree. Arthur injured his ankle and recovered soon, but Andrée injured badly both knees and for the whole year she was not able to stand up. It was during that year when Honegger lived with his spouse. Nevertheless, the husband left as soon as Andrée had felt better. Subsequently, the couple swapped: Vaurabourg favourably agreed to live together with the aging composer in the last year of his life: suffering from despair, Arthur was terrified to be alone.

But let’s go back to creative search of the musician. Abandoned his violin, Arthur was experimenting with styles and, of course, composed a lot. He befriended a group of musicians who could not stand romantic impressionism, criticized then-trendy Debussy and Ravel. Sated with complex rhythms, Honegger and his companions preferred simple moves and unpretentious harmony. Then the idea of masculine music seeped in society, thus, experimental jazz was equated to a strong arts.

Soon Arthur discovered that he did not have much in common with other members of the group, and in response to a music review The Times admitted: "Our group is not an association of like-minded people, but just friends. We never shared common aesthetic." No wonder that at this point Honegger let himself float freely. And his powerful works would later be called by critics "music that is impossible to forget..."

In 1921 Arthur came to fame thanks to the oratorio King David. Epic music depicting mass riots and triumph of the leader, found its audience. The composer treated his success more than philosophically: "To get into the music encyclopaedia and to go down in history of music, are not the same things..."

Deep drama declared in his first serious work would culminate in the famous the Pacific 2.3.1, the real ode to urban movement. It is not difficult to guess the plot hidden from view, but infiltrated in music: a resting car breaths in relaxed way; then, a click and engine is started; wheels measure distance evenly, and invisible spirit of locomotive wildly grabs air, accelerating to a speed of 120 kilometres per hour...

In an interview with the Geneva magazine Dissonances Honegger notably said: "I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living creatures and I love them as others love women or horses... In the Pacific 2.3.1 I did not try to imitate the noise coming from the engine, but rather depicted the visual impression and physical pleasure through music design." However, the steam locomotive appeared in the title of the work, when it was finished. Originally, Honegger was creating music as a symbol of the growing movement, mathematical accuracy of rhythm, when the force of acceleration is so perfect that it defines its direction on its own. The first title Mouvement Symphonique seemed to Arthur not vivid enough, and then the image of the locomotive appeared in his mind. Melodies pick up each other bumping into a quiet space with hard chords, running keeps growing - to calm down when reaching its logical extreme.

In the 30s, Honegger suffers deep disappointment. All the glory of the mid-twenties vanished away. The audience was not enthusiastic about his new meaningful works. Not much popular was opera Antigone into which, according to the author, he put all his heart. The most painful was the fact that the musician referred to music as a means of communication. Honegger was actively engaged in musical criticism, wrote articles throwing into the society’s face his retrospective view and unwillingness to listen to new music: "For the time being, I am retiring from the debate. There is a whole new world that wants to understand itself, self-discover, define itself, glorify itself in new aesthetic forms. My passion from now on will be limited to this world. I prefer failure in this endeavour to the idleness satisfied with established form and acquired habits."

And Honegger’s music sounds more sad, he wrote the oratorio Cries of the World, The Dance of the Dead, Joan of Arc at the Stake – "the grand folk frescos". The latter work did sound symbolic on the eve of the war. When France was occupied by Germany, Honegger decided to stay in Paris and join the resistance movement.

During the two world wars the musician was at the epicentre of events, at the end of the crisis he experienced serious health problems. Due to heart attacks he had to cancel tours, to delay his work. Arthur Honegger died in 1955, at the 64th year of life. During the cremation French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau said these words: "Arthur, you managed to gain the respect of a disrespectful era. You combined the science of an architect of the Middle Ages with the simplicity of a humble cathedral stonemason. Your cinders are burning and will never cool down, even if our earth has stopped living. For music is not of this world, and its reign has no end."

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