(Fictional) Review of Honegger’s “Le Roi David”

Saturday, 15 March, 1924 

            There were numerous opportunities available to me and other concertgoers Friday night. Among the many concerts listed in yesterday’s Le Figaro were such favorites as Gounod’s Faust at l’Opéra, and Offenbach’s Les contes dHoffmann at l’Opéra-Comique.[1] Notably absent from the list, however, was my event of choice, the Parisian premiere of Honegger’s Le Roi David at the Salle Gaveau. I felt quite familiar with this work even before last night’s performance, having heard some excerpts last March as well as the choruses the following month. What can I say? I’m a bit of an Honegger enthusiast. Regardless, along with the entire assembly at the Salle Gaveau, I anxiously awaited witnessing the work in its entirety. No disrespect to Fauré, but it was no easy task to have to sit through his Requiem before my anticipation could be sated.[2] Finally the musicians took their places for the work for which I had come.

It seems like ages since I’d heard of the success of the Swiss premiere of Le Roi David on 11 June, 1921, and although initial plans to bring the work to Paris fell through,[3] I knew a Parisian adaptation was inevitable. Luckily, I did not have to wait long to experience a different Honegger composition, as I was able to attend the Parisian premiere of his ballet, Horace victorieux, on 1 December, 1921. This performance solidified my appreciation for Honegger’s work. An aggressive and complex piece, Horace stood in stark contrast to Pastorale d’été, Honegger’s more lyrical orchestral work of the previous year.[4] Horace was a demonstration of Honegger’s versatility, and I still consider it one of the most inventive and modern works of the day. With that in mind, I return to last night’s oratorio. Simply put, it lacked that same modern, inventive, and even strange quality that Honegger so expertly displayed with his previous major work. Le Roi David is by no means a failure; it would be hardly fair of anyone to make that assertion based on the audience’s response last night. However, the work does pander more to the public’s interest in a way that is uncharacteristic of Honegger. Perhaps he wished to be careful to avoid a repeat of the negative reception Horace received before coming to Paris.[5] Make no mistake, I enjoyed the oratorio, but the work offers nothing new; I expect more from a composer who has established himself as capable of innovation.[6]

In light of the overwhelmingly positive reception of Le Roi David, I anticipate that my opinion will not be well-received by any members of last night’s audience. However, I wish to give an honest, objective account of this performance and explain my perception of the work. One clear influence on this composition is the duality of the composer’s heritage. Equally present in Le Roi David were Honegger’s Swiss and French nationalities. Clearly more influential in terms of content was his religious upbringing. I understand that René Morax is responsible for the biblically-based libretto, but no doubt Honegger took it on forthwith because of his faith.[7]

It is true that the event was a huge public success, I do not intend to contradict that fact. Honegger truly affirmed his ability to please a crowd. Unfortunately, some of my suspicions were also confirmed last night. I have already mentioned my attendance at the few previews of Le Roi David available here in Paris just last year. I wrote then, that these extraits[8] were far too extracted to be considered cohesive parts of a larger, unified work. Having heard these pieces in context last night, I have a better sense of the work as a whole, but I stand by my statement. Thankfully, the work has since been re-orchestrated to accommodate a standard orchestra,[9] but the problem of banality has not been remedied. Each movement comes and goes with no opportunity for development.[10] For example, each of the first six movements with narration are no longer than a couple minutes in length, with the fourth movement lasting only seconds![11] I don’t doubt this was the composer’s intent; how else to portray a story as complex and multi-faceted as that of King David?[12] Unfortunately, he himself must know the boredom this method of composition can instill in the listener.[13]

I am unabashedly disappointed in this product of Honegger’s, despite my growing enthusiasm leading up to its premiere. However, I do know what Honegger is capable of, and given the unconventional compositional demands of this piece, I will certainly keep an eye out for further works of his, hoping he will make a return to the style we know and love him for.


[1] Le Figaro journal (Paris, France: 14 March, 1924)

[2] Harry Halbreich, Arthur Honegger (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1999), p. 95

Composer and critic Marcel Delannoy, describing the “expectant audience” which filled the Salle Gaveau, mentioned that “the performance of Fauré’s Requiem did nothing to soothe their impatience.”

[3] Ibid., p. 88

Plans for an earlier Parisian adaptation, in collaboration with the director Jacques Hébertot, fell through without much development. Halbreich credits this failure to the expense of transporting costumes and scenery.

[4] Geoffrey K. Spratt, “Honegger, Arthur.” (Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press)

[5] Halbreich, p. 83

Honegger himself concedes that his ballet is not as musically accessible to the public as Le Roi David, but insists that it is, in his opinion, “the most original and successful thing [he’s] ever written.”

[6] Arthur Honegger, I am a Composer (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1966), p. 21

[7] Honegger, p. 88

While not expressly stating his religious beliefs, Honegger credits his “Protestant tradition” to his Swiss roots.

[8] (English, “excerpts”)

[9] Halbreich, p. 76

Honegger shared his concerns about the original orchestration in a letter to René Morax on 29 April. For the Swiss premiere, Morax needed Honegger to write for a rather unconventional orchestra in accordance with the musicians available in Mézières, Switzerland, the location of his Théatre du Jorat. In his letter, Honegger simultaneously bemoans the lack of mixed timbres and colors available to him, and somewhat apologizes for not having considered the orchestration before accepting such a task.

[10] Ibid., p. 74

Halbreich voices Honegger’s likely concerns over how to create a work consisting of several short movements, that would not “sound bitty.”

[11] Arthur Honegger, Le Roi David (Naxos, 1997) compact disc

[12] Halbreich., p. 72

In a letter to Werner Reinhart, the financial supporter of the Théâtre du Jorat, Honegger mentions taking inspiration from Hindu theater in creating a work full of small scenes which form a larger picture.

[13] Honegger, p. 100

Honegger admits his own boredom when witnessing performances of his Le Roi David, going so far as to map out the progression of his loss of interest by movement number. On the whole, however, he is still proud of the work, stating, “candidly, proudly, I admit that the ending, the combination of the Chorus with the Alleluias, seems to me to accomplish in some degree what I had hoped for.”