Arthur Honegger. Pacific 231

Arthur Honegger wrote Pacific 231 back in 1923. He has been lumped in with the “The Six,” the name applied to a group of composers active in Paris at that time, which included Milhaud, Poulenc, Tailleferre, Auric and Durey. Honegger is hard to classify as a composer and his music, except for this piece, has not reached a wide audience. He seemed constantly to try on new and traditional styles of music and some feel that he does not have an easily definable “voice.”

Pacific 231 paints a sound portrait of a steam locomotive engine. It is a masterpiece of the new dissonant style of music that Stravinsky had pioneered. Of this piece, Honegger writes: “I have always had a passionate love of locomotives. What I have sought to accomplish…is not to imitate the noise of a railway engine, but rather to translate into music a visual impression and a physical sensation.” The piece starts out slowly and you can hear the thrusting of the big pistons and see the steel wheels spin until they gain enough traction to get the train rolling. The 2-3-1 of the title refers to the placement of the axles on the engine.

When I hear this piece, I think of both Stravinsky and Bartok. Stravinsky said that music should not have as its goal the imitation of nature or technology. He felt that pandered to the masses. This piece, however, shows how the new dissonance could be well done and accessible at the same time. I have not read a critique of this work by a musicologist, but it seems full of quotes of Stravinsky’s Petroushka. In addition, whenever I listen to Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra I hear echoes of Pacific 231. I don’t know if Bartok was mocking it (as he did of a work by Shostakovich) or just playing homage to Honegger. All I know is that many French composers are considered “light” but this piece demonstrates that Honegger was capable of being a 20th century heavyweight as well.

Settling into Paris

Before I left to study in Paris in January of 1977, my aunt Marty, a librarian, gave me a little travel diary. I dug it out the other day to see what impressions the “city of lights” made on me during my first few days there. It embarrasses me now somewhat to read it, because I come off as a bit of a whiner. My mood would swing from one extreme to the next-one minute loving the place and the next, despising the city and all its inhabitants. Unfortunately, it took me 17 years to recognize the signs of clinical depression and actually do something about it. I wonder how my first visit to Paris would have gone had I sailed on more of an even keel back then. As it was, I decided to leave the place after a mere 13 days.

I can’t for the life of me now remember why. After meeting Catherine and her boyfriend, Jerry, I had a ready-made community, so it had nothing to do with isolation. Jerry let me stay at his dormitory in the suburbs of Paris. On my third day in Paris, Catherine took me to the Sweetbrier offices and introduced me to her friends and we met with the director to see if he could help me find a room. We then went sightseeing and ended up sitting in a café, near the Luxembourg Gardens, and she pointed out where Gertrude Stein had lived. Later, a schoolmate named Juan stopped by. He was American, but his father was Basque so he spoke French, Spanish, and Catalonian. Juan wore a little beret and with a goatee he seemed like the perfect little revolutionary. We all ended up that night back at Catherine’s apartment, where we cooked a French meal with another friend of hers named April.

On my fourth day in Paris , I set out for the American Express office. That is where I instructed people to send my mail. The office sat in the 9th Arrondissement on Rue Scribe, which runs along side of the Opera de Paris. The 9th was the most prosperous part of Paris back in the 18th and 19th centuries. You sometimes hear of the “Grands Boulevards” of Paris, and for the most part that refers to the 9th. The Boulevard Des Capucines leads from the huge, neo-classical church, La Madeleine, to the Place de l’Opéra. From there it turns into the Boulevard des Italiens before intersecting the Boulevard Montmartre. The Boulevard Haussman runs North and West before running into the Arc de Triomphe. In this area you will find the Paris Stock Exchange, the Place de Vendome, the site of jewelers and where the writers Victor Hugo and later Colette, lived.

It was a crisp sunny morning and I walked to La Madeleine and another impressive church, St Augustin. The Conservatory of Music was not too far off, and I walked there in the hope of bumping into my old dorm mate, Bennett Morrison. He had left for Paris the semester before with the goal of studying at the conservatory with Nadia Boulanger, who had been the teacher of Leonard Bernstein and other great musicians of the 20th century. No luck.

After my sightseeing, I went back to the café where I had arranged to meet Juan when he finished his classes. I sat at a table near the window and eyed the French high school girls who had come in for a coffee and smoke after school. I hadn’t eaten lunch, so I ordered a croque monsieur. That is a kind of grilled cheese sandwich made with Gruyère and ham. It was a sandwich, right? So I picked it up with my hands and started eating it. I looked up and the high school girls were staring at me in horror. I looked at a person at a nearby table who had ordered the same dish and realized you were supposed to eat it with a knife and for. I later learned the only food you eat with your hands are sandwiches made from baguettes. Juan laughed when he arrived and I told him about my gaffe.

Juan and I had a few beers and discussed politics, life in Paris, and literature. He then took me on a tour of the Latin Quarter. We crossed over the river onto the Île de la Cité and I must have looked quite the country bumpkin when we walked out onto the plaza in front of Notre Dame cathedral and I looked up, mouth open, at the massive structure, illuminated by spotlights. We crossed back to the Left Bank over the Petit Pont, and Juan asked if I wanted to go to Shakespeare and Company. I had never heard of the place, and he told me it was an English bookstore run by an old American where I might find a place to stay.

I immediately fell in love with the place. It sits at 37 Rue de la Bûcherie in a 13th century building that had once been a monastery. The name of the street comes from the French word, bûche, which means logs because in the olden days this area had been the site where they unloaded logs that had been brought up the Seine. When you walk in the narrow, crooked shop, the first thing you note are the huge, solid chestnut beams set into the plaster of the ceiling. The walls are covered with shelves and the books go from the loose red tile floors all the way up to the 10 foot ceilings. In the middle of the front room, there is a till, at which sat a thin, older gentleman with whispy hair. This was George Whitman, an ex-pat from Boston. He welcomed us and invited us to look around. The place was full of people, some quite Bohemian-looking, and I thought I’d probably end up spending lots of time there. We had an invitation from Jerry to come by for dinner so we didn’t stay too long. On our way out, George told us to come back on Monday for the weekly poetry reading.

Juan told me that George sometimes invited people to stay and in turn for a bed they had to work a few hours a day. I filed that fact in my mind as we wove our way through the throng of people who had descended on the Latin Quarter at sundown. We walked down Rue de la Huchette. The street was lined on both sides with Greek, Algerian and Tunisian restaurants. Huge spits holding lamb meat turned by open windows where a man would slice off chunks into a piece of baguette and hand to a pedestrian. Another window in a Greek restaurant showed off an impressive display of fresh fish-red mullets, squid, octopus, and sole. At one point, Juan pointed out to me the Caveau de la Huchette, a jazz club dating back to the post-war period when this area became fashionable for intellectuals and existentialists. In its basement is the Petit Théâtre de la Huchette which has shown Ionesco’s absurdist plays, The Bald Soprano and The Lesson continuously since 1957. We passed a mammoth bookstore called Gibert Jeune, which occupied two buildings as large the department stores in my hometown in Indiana. “Yes,” I decided as we walked down into the subway, “I am definitely going to have to spend more time in this part of town.” It was the Bohemian life I was looking for.

We made our way to Catherine’s apartment where we ate dinner with Jerry and a few other friends from Sweetbrier. Jerry told me he had a friend named Richard whose roommate had moved out and was thinking about advertising the empty room. He suggested I room with Richard. That would solve all my problems. Juan and I rode the red-eye train back to Fontenay-aux-Roses. Perhaps things would work out well. Before the week was out, however, I was so disgusted with the place I was ready to leave. But I’ll leave that story for my next entry


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

5 Responses to Arthur Honegger. Pacific 231

  1. Gallivanta says:

    Interesting ….that someone could be passionate enough about locomotives to write a sound portrait. I don’t know much about music so I am wondering if there is similar music for aeroplanes; or the early motor cars? Youth and travel can be odd companions. I visited Paris in my younger days but ,for all I remember of it, I may as well say I have not visited at all.


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