Arthur Honegger was born of Swiss parents. He initially studied harmony and violin in Paris, and after a brief period in Zürich, returned there to study with Charles Widor and Vincent d'Indy. He continued to study through the 1910's, before writing the ballet Le dit des jeux du monde in 1918, generally considered to be his first characteristic work. In 1926 he married Andrée Vaurabourg, a pianist and fellow student at the Paris Conservatoire. They had one daughter, Pascale, born in 1932. Honegger also had a son, Jean-Claude (1926-2003), with the singer Claire Croiza.
In the early 1920's Arthur Honegger shot to fame with his "dramatic psalm" Le Roi David ("King David"), which is still in the choral repertoire. Between World War I and World War II, he was very prolific. He composed the music for Abel Gance's epic 1927 film, Napoléon. He composed nine ballets and three vocal stage works, amongst other works. One of those stage works, Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (1935), a "dramatic oratorio", is thought of as one of his finest works. In addition to his works written alone, he collaborated with Jacques Ibert on both an opera, L'Aiglon (1937), and an operetta. During this time period he also wrote Danse de la Chèvre (1921), an essential piece of flute repertoire. Dedicated to René Le Roy and written for flute alone, this piece is lively and young, but with the same directness of all Honegger's work.
Arthur Honegger had always remained in touch with Switzerland, his parents' country of origin, but with the outbreak of the war and the invasion of the Nazis, he found himself trapped in Paris. He joined the French Resistance and was generally unaffected by the Nazis themselves, who allowed him to continue his work without too much interference. However, he was greatly depressed by the war. Between its outbreak and his death, he wrote his last four symphonies (numbers two to five) which are among the most powerful symphonic works of the 20th century. Of these, the third, subtitled Symphonie liturgique and with its three movements evoking the Latin Mass (Dies Irae, De profundis clamavi and Dona nobis pacem), is probably the best known. Written in 1946 just after the end of the war, it has parallels with Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem of 1940. In complete contrast with this work is the lyrical, nostalgic Symphony No. 4, subtitled Deliciae Basilienses ("The Delights of Basel") and written as a tribute to days of relaxation spent in that Swiss city during the war.
Arthur Honegger was widely known as a train enthusiast, and once notably said: "I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living creatures and I love them as others love women or horses." His "mouvement symphonique" Pacific 231 (a depiction of a steam locomotive) gained him early notoriety in 1923. In 1953 he wrote his last composition, A Christmas Cantata. Arthur Honegger died at home of a heart attack on November 27, 1955 and was interred in the Cimetière Saint-Vincent in the Montmartre Quarter of Paris.
The elements of Arthur Honegger's style are: Bachian counterpoint, driving rhythms, highly coloristic harmonies, melodic amplitude, an impressionistic use of orchestral sonorities, and a concern for formal architecture. His style is weightier and more solemn than that of his collegues in Les Six. Far from reacting against German romanticism as the other members of Les Six did, Honegger's mature works show evidence of a distinct influence by it. Despite the differences in their styles, he and fellow Les Six member Darius Milhaud were close friends, having studied together at the Paris Conservatoire. Milhaud dedicated his fourth string quintet to Honegger's memory, while Francis Poulenc similarly dedicated his Clarinet Sonata.
Opus numbers originate from the complete catalogue by Harry Halbreich.
H 75 First Symphony in C (1930)
H 153 Second Symphony for strings and trompet in D (Symphony for Strings) (1941)
H 186 Third Symphony (Symphonie liturgique) (1946)
H 191 Fourth Symphony in A (Deliciae basiliensis) (1946)
H 202 Fifth Symphony in D (Di tre re) (1950)
H 53 Pacific 2.3.1 (Symphonic Movement No. 1) (1923)
H 67 Rugby (Symphonic Movement No. 2) (1928)
H 83 Symphonic Movement No. 3 (1933)
H 196 Concerto da camera, for flute, English horn and strings (1948)
H 16 Le Chant de Nigamon (1917)
H 31 Pastorale d'été (1920)
H 47 Chant de joie (Song of Joy) (1923)
H 204 Monopartita (1951)
H 37 Le Roi David (King David) libretto by René Morax (1921; version for orchestra in 1923)
H 99 Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher, libretto by Paul Claudel (1935; version with prologue in 1941)
H 131 La Danse des morts, (The Dance of the Dead) libretto by Paul Claudel (1938)
H 212 Une Cantate de Noël (A Christmas Cantata) (1953)
H 65 Antigone, libretto by Jean Cocteau based on Sophocles (1926)
H 19 Le Dit des jeux du monde (1918)
H 38 Horace victorieux, symphonie mimée (1921)
H 15 String Quartet No. 1 in C minor (1917)
H 103 String Quartet No. 2 in D (1935)
H 114 String Quartet No. 3 in E (1937)