Arthur Honegger’s Rugby

Notes by TŌN bassist Kaden Henderson

The Composer
When thinking about the great orchestral tone poems in our repertoire, the mind immediately drifts to the likes of Richard Strauss and works like Don Juan, Also sprach Zarathustra, and Don Quixote. Often overlooked, however, is Arthur Honegger, a Swiss composer who largely composed in France during the early-to-mid 20th century. It was in France that Honegger wrote his three tone poems: Pacific 231, Rugby, and Symphonic Movement No. 3. Although not as well-known in America due to his untimely death in 1955 on the eve of a major American tour, he is widely known and appreciated in Europe, where his face adorned the 20-Franc banknote from 1996–2017. He was a member of Les Six, a group of French composers, including Poulenc and Milhaud, that paved the way for modern French classical music in the 20th century.

Full Contact Music
Honegger’s second tone poem, entitled Rugby, which we will be hearing today, was composed in 1928. Although it bears the name Rugby, the composer himself insisted that this work was not programmatic in a traditional sense. Despite what Honegger may have said, it takes little imagination to find oneself in the middle of the pitch dodging tackles left and right from the very first note. Immediately from the downbeat it is apparent that Honegger is not alluding to two-hand-touch rugby, but rather the sport in its full contact, “hold no prisoners” variety. The very first notes from the strings hit the audience like a ton of bricks as the cascading strings sweep us into a musical dogpile. Violent rhythms and loud brass proclamations provide an energetic backdrop for the strings to demonstrate their virtuosic feats of agility and precision. Honegger really shines in the way he is able to craft dissonant and often grotesque chords into something that is nothing short of brilliant and endlessly entertaining.

Lyrical Beauty
Unlike his more dreamy and impressionistic counterparts in Les Six, Honegger seems to thrive in a darker landscape. This work is loud, brash, and orchestrated very heavily. The pointillist bass line offers an almost conversational rebuttal against the cascading violins, much like playful banter on the field between friends. Although Honegger often employs striking dissonance, there are moments of exceptional lyrical beauty. My favorite moment comes about half way into the work, after a rather heated argument between the bass section and the bassoons. Just as it sounds there is about to be a physical altercation, listen for the violins to sweep in to calm the growing tension with a melody that sounds straight out of a Tchaikovsky ballet. Moments like these are sure to bring smiles to the faces of Schoenberg and Rossini lovers alike. Now put on your helmet, secure your elbow pads, and get ready for a musical sporting match like you’ve never heard before!