Listening Log – [Pt. IV]- Arthur Honegger – ‘Pacific 231’-Movément Symphonique No. 1 (1923)


Arthur Honegger – ‘Pacific 231’-Movément Symphonique No. 1 (1923)

Listening Log – [Pt. IV]- Arthur Honegger – ‘Pacific 231’-Movément Symphonique No. 1 (1923). Throughout March- April 2020 Listened /watched (streaming) to youtube video: For copyright info and credits see information under video clip.

The movement opens with a very low and ‘farty’ tuba. Fluttering trumpets and horns join it as the note values progressively get shorter and shorter, creating a ‘chugging’ sort of sound. This gives the illusion of the piece speeding up, although the underlying tempo remains the same. Staccato strings are answered by staccato trumpets and horns in urgent sounding ostinato patterns until finally a scalic triplet melody in the horns is crystallized. The section builds again until a marcato trumpet takes over the melody. The string accompaniment is tremolo-ing at this point. Soon the melody is handed back to the horns with every melodic phrase bookended by bass clarinet notes. Percussion joins in with an ostinato pattern of its own. More and more of this large orchestra gradually join in with the jaunty staccato rhythm. The flute adds some very high notes, occasionally punctuating this rhythm, giving the impression of a whistle. Then suddenly, most of the instruments drop out with only horns and clarinets remaining, the clarinets playing the melody line. Soon, falling and rising figures in flutes and violins come back in playing swells. Fanfare like trumpet lines and ostinato percussion are added giving a sense of forward movement. The tuba re-joins the fray, playing long held notes, later echoed by the trombones. The piece gets louder and louder and more and more frantic. Cymbals crashing, culminating in a giant crescendo. The piece finally slows down and comes to a halt. I can’t say I like the piece as much as I admire its sheer tenacity and onslaught on the senses. It is relentless, with an overpowering sense of forward movement. I decided to look into what Honegger’s intentions were. Turns out he is depicting the workings of a train, the Pacific 231, to be precise. This explains the ‘whistling’ flutes- presumably the train whistle and the chugging sounds. I think he really succeeded in his depiction of the train, although I wasn’t quite able to to pinpoint it, my knowledge and interest in trains being limited.

Arthur Honegger – Pacific 231 Mouvement symphonique No. 1 (1923)
Artist: Neeme Jarvi
Album: Honegger: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5 / Pacific 231
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