Symphony no. 3 ‘Liturgique’, mvt. 3 by Arthur Honegger
Setting aside the fact that I’m borderline obsessed with anything even remotely “dona nobis pacem” related at this time, the concluding movement to Honegger’s greatest symphony makes this list with ease. Composed in the wake of World War II, it’s a work of absolute savagery and cold brutality, which of course makes the tender episode that concludes the piece that much starker in its beauty. This symphony is woefully underrated, and in spite of its unrelenting intensity and brazen dissonances, I would think audiences today would eat this shit up as the visceral sonic journey that it is.
Honegger is an interesting guy in just how generally uninteresting he was. Unlike so many composers of his time period, he didn’t really get fucked with by the Nazis too much, and he mostly just kicked it in Paris as a member of Les Six, taught some, and wrote great music. There’s no “he got shot on his porch smoking” or “he was imprisoned” or “he sold his soul to Adolf Hitler’s evil empire” stuff in Honegger’s story. He, uh, taught the guy who wrote the Lawrence of Arabia music, so yeah (attention Maurice Jarre fans: I know he wrote many other great scores…I’m just being dickish).
That said, for a normal dude, Honegger could bring the pain, and how; the finale to his Third Symphony is a hell of a ride. The movement opens with a quiet march rhythm that’s as ponderous as it is ominous. When the march theme finally emerges, it turns out to be less solemn and more flippant, almost laughable if it weren’t so damned heavy. As the march winds its way through the band with winds giving little snippets here and there and the low strings occasionally rumbling furiously, it builds in intensity. Not intensity like “oh shit, it’s getting louder and more aggressive” exactly, but a sort of “where we going with this?” vibe that finally resolves with a statement of the theme in the horns surrounded by frantically swirling strings. It keeps building and building until it finally comes to the climax of the entire work: a series of block chords that sound like they could tip the Earth off its axis and explode the sun, absolutely fucking crushing everything in their path. The last of these chords could literally eat a child or small adult in that it might have actual teeth if you dare look directly into the sound. And then……………….it’s all gone. The march rhythm gives way to a chorale in the strings that is answered by beautiful solos in the cello and bird calls in the flute/piccolo. As if that’s not enough, the final touch comes with the soaring violin joining the piccolo in granting us the peace that the movement titles says we’ve got coming. It is music of such extreme beauty on its face, made doubly so by the heavenly respite it provides on the heels of the hellbound train we just get off of.
Not all music is created equal. This is obvious. At its core, music (and art in general for that matter) is about feeling. If you listen to the Goldberg Variations and don’t dig it, that doesn’t by definition make you an asshole who doesn’t understand great music. We can derive feeling from unlikely sources, and even the most well vetted sources will sometimes let some people down. I bring this up only to say this: I cannot imagine a scenario in which a human being with the capacity for emotion and reason would listen to these 12 minutes with something resembling earnestness and feel nothing. It’s simply too overwhelming not to feel something. It may be anger, it may be terror, it may be sadness, it may be peace, it may be anything, but it’s just too evocative and powerful to just exist as sound. I normally implore anyone who’s going to listen to this music to crank the shit up out of sheer enjoyment, but this one should be cranked because you want to feel this in your bones. It will grab you by the throat and then it’ll show you why it did that for your own good.