Arthur Honegger: Pacific 231

performed by the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra under Michel Plasson

It’s about trains.

Or is it?

So Pacific 231 is a kind of train, and Arthur Honegger was, as Wikipedia says:

…widely known as a train enthusiast, and once notably said: “I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living creatures and I love them as others love women or horses.”

So then… with the title of the piece and his love for the thing, one would only assume it’s a piece meant to suggest a train leaving the station. Maybe.

First, people love trains. I like riding in them when necessary, whooshing through the countryside, as long as the ride is smooth, quick, and quiet; there’s the actual feeling of travel, effortless but efficient, of going places, unlike on an airplane where you feel more like a herd of cattle in a big white submarine, and the soundtrack of jet engines to muffle out any more delicate sound you might have on your headphones. Trains are cool.

But they’re not a hobby; in fact, I know very little about them. But listening to this piece, it’s almost just assumed that “oh yeah, it’s a train piece,” the very literal kind of representation of actual sounds, mimicry of the mechanical noises as it builds speed, rather in contrast with what Debussy said he did with La Mer.

But actually, the composer “insisted that he wrote it as an exercise in building momentum while the tempo of the piece slows,” and that is a more interesting concept, for sure. I checked out the pocket score from the library and read along, and while I don’t recall any tempo markings, there were in fact moments of clear eighth notes (or whatever), a slower pulse, that built to triplets, built to sixteenths, and on and on. You can hear the low instruments, like tuba and contrabassoon, sputtering out an almost irregular chug-a-chug before things kind of fall into place for the piece, and that pulse, somehow different-seeming from the tempo, as in… the rhythm of the train rather than the music, if that distinction can be made (what music?), does hurry, until the piece ends.

While I’ll say this piece is quite effective in calling to mind the imagery that the composer (ostensibly) wanted to create (or at least the piece must), I don’t quite find it terribly  enjoyable. Honegger’s mastery of the form, the style of the piece, its orchestration, all of that is apparent, and it’s fun-ish, but is not (and, no pun intended) very moving in the emotional sense. Perhaps it’s not meant to be, but the piece is so effective at mimicking the mechanical nature and sounds of the engine and all the rest that it doesn’t engage me in any other way. I might liken it, in that way, then, to Messiaen’s bird music. I’ve had discussions with friends before about his cataloguing of birdsong, and the rather futile “is it music?” debate. It’s an interesting thing, and would be more interesting if I knew what those birds sounded like, but on an emotional, musical, lyrical level, the only parts of those works, so far, that move me are the ‘background’ setting, the representation of the respective creatures’ landscapes. But that’s for a much later time.

I will say, though, that Pacific 231 isn’t cheesy. There aren’t whistleblowing screeches or clanks of brake drums, no intentional horrific squealings from clarinet, no hollers from the orchestra to mimic passengers, none of that corny stuff, which I am thankful for. The piece is actually the first of three in a series of symphonic movements, the other two entitled Rugby and (the creative) Mouvement Symphonique no. 3, about which “Honegger lamented that his “poor Symphonic Movement No. 3 paid dearly for its barren title,”” with the sad result that “critics generally ignored it.” I haven’t heard these other pieces. Pacific 231 is apparently one of the composer’s most-performed works.

This might come as a slightly disappointing end to our Symphonic Poem series, but I guess I didn’t actually say anywhere that this was the last of the works for that series, and in a way, it isn’t. There’s a little bit more to look forward to this week before we move on to things really, entirely different. Stay tuned.



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