In 1921, on the recommendation of the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, poet Rene Morax commissioned Honegger to compose incidental music to a stage piece on the Biblical king. Unfortunately, the deadline was next-to-impossible. Honegger nevertheless accepted and delivered the goods on time. Moreover, the music won such acclaim and popular acceptance that Honegger rescored the work from pit band to full orchestra. Asked how he managed, Honegger gave the following account. He started off with the idea of writing in the style of the Bach Passions but, after a number or two, realized that the style was too complex to allow him to meet the deadline. He then moved to a post-Rite of Spring "barbarism" but came up against the same problem. Asked by reporters "What did you do?" Honegger replied, "Oh, I just fell back on Massenet."
Honegger's joke at his own expense points out the extreme eclecticism of the work. All these composers – and Ravel besides – lurk in the pages of Le Roi David. Still, Honegger pulls off a success: lyrical, colorful, lovely, exciting, grotesque, and even grand when called for. When Honegger's music fell into neglect after World War II, this work kept his name before the public, enjoying performances both from professionals and from enthusiastic amateurs. The work divides into three parts: the first tells of David's choosing by Samuel and of his battles against the Philistines and ends with the lamentations over Gilboa; the second concerns the crowning of David; the third part deals with his kingship, the coveting of Bathsheba and his atonement, the death of Absalom, David's death, and Solomon's coronation.
Like Handel's Messiah, there is little musical deadwood. Almost every number tells. Musical highpoints include Honegger's psalm-settings, the ethereal alleluias ending parts two and three, the extended lament for Saul and Jonathan, and the dramatic scene of Saul and the witch at Endor. The last makes one regret that Honegger did not write a full-length opera. Tender or rousing, above all, the music blazes like sunlight on bronze. With all its debts and borrowings, this is still the work of a master.
Copyright © 1995 by Steve Schwartz.