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Arthur Honegger, a Swiss citizen despite his French birth, was the second eldest of Les Six, the “young Turks” of the musical scene in post-World War I Paris. Like the other five— Poulenc and Milhaud are today the best-known— he paid homage to the avant-garde dramatist Jean Cocteau, and in fact set a Cocteau libretto in one of his operas. Unlike the others, however, his roots were closer to Bach and Beethoven than Stravinsky and Satie. Honegger wrote a wide variety of music—chamber music, songs, symphonies, a staged oratorio, operas, ballets, many film scores and radio scores. He often crossed the lines among the genre, and experimented with unusual subjects: For example, the impressionistic orchestral work, Pacific 231, neither quite a tone poem nor an overture, depicts a steam locomotive. A Christmas Cantata, written in 1953, two years before his death, when he was 61, also crosses the lines of form; it is classified as an orchestral work with chorus, rather than a true cantata. It utilizes, as he said, ‘texts liturgical and popular’, and traditional melodies—among them the French carol, Il Est Ne, the German hymn Vom Himmel Hoch (the tune is ascribed to Martin Luther), the Austrian Silent Night, and O Sanctissima, a Latin hymn to the Virgin with a tune believed to be of Sicilian origin — along with Latin texts not usually associated with Christmas, e.g., “Out of the depths I cry to Thee...”. Characteristically, Cantate contains strong rhythms, albeit in unusual form; in several parts of the work the various voices simultaneously observe different time signatures. The overall effect, as Grove says, is that of Baroque formality approached with modern tools.
The Chorus previously performed Honegger’s King David in 1995.
J. R. Fancher