Arthur Honegger: Pacific 231


Composed in 1923 under the original title Mouvement Symphonique, Arthur Honegger’s popular orchestral work is one his most performed works. Soon changed to the title Pacific 231, the piece highlighted Honegger’s love for locomotives. He once commented saying:


“I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living creatures and I love them as others love women or horses.”


The change of title refers to a class of steam locomotive that counts the number of axels, which was in the pattern 231 – hence the name. When the work was premiered it was generally received very well from critics and the public. Some critics commented that Pacific 231 was “a collage of train noises”, which does seem to miss the point of the piece.

Honegger stated that he wanted to create a visual and aural experience of a speeding train, along with its sounds, mixed with traditional orchestral textures and timbres. Unlike other French composers of the time who were composing music around themes of aristocratic life and other potentially challenging topics, Honegger expresses his music through a lifeless machine. This made Pacific 231 popular to Parisian audiences as it was a trivial topic that they didn’t have to think about. 

Honegger channels the various different sounds that locomotives make when they’re moving along the tracks. From hissing to wheel screeching, Pacific 231 channels the harmonies created from a moving locomotive. Through these progressive ideas Honegger also employs more traditional methods of composition, which adds to the appeal of the piece.


The Music

The music begins slowly and gradually picks up speed throughout the duration of the piece. The winds and strings blend together as muted brass interact with screeching strings. Fluttering upper brass add to the tension before some of the lowest instruments in the orchestra take over. The contrabassoon is a fairly underused instrument, but Honegger uses it in its full glory at the start of Pacific 231. 

The appeal of this mysterious opening partly comes from Honegger’s orchestration. Unlike many other modern composers who would use weird and wacky techniques to create a soundworld similar to this, Honegger uses a standard symphony orchestra. His use of textures to achieve his given vision is quite the feat. 

As the repetitive strings begin to pick up speed like a moving train it starts off the loose variation sections. As more and more variations are played by a wealth of different groups in the orchestra, the content becomes more melodic and based on the opening material. The structure of Pacific 231 plays towards Honegger’s love of J. S. Bach. Loosely based on Bach’s contrapuntal variations form, Honegger exploits this whilst also adding his own unique spin on the music.

Solos from a french horn, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and clarinet all sit above the machine-like chugging from the lower strings. The soloists add a real edge to the piece and keeps the content moving along swiftly. 

The main thrust of the piece aims to convey the incredible power of the locomotive’s engine. It’s not just about speeding up the music for Honegger, it’s how it speeds up that inspires the real magic of this piece. With acceleration comes lighter notes and shorter note-values. The dichotomy between the ever-diminishing length of the strings and winds and the longer and much heavier content from the brass creates a real impact in the piece.

The vast mass of gathering speed across the orchestra is impactful and dynamic in its portrayal. Honegger manages to not over-do the intense climax, but instead manages to create an image of this charging locomotive quickly putting the breaks on to rest, culminating in a series of huge chords, led, of course, by the brass. The ending has no motion, no drive, but instead is concentrated specifically on the mass and production of the sound. This makes the ending the ultimate climax in this epic journey.


Final Thoughts

Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 was also used in the 1949 French film with the same name. Honegger’s Pacific 231 was used as the soundtrack and as a tribute to the steam locomotive. From the screeching of the brakes, to the rumblings, whistles and vibrations from an actual locomotive, Honegger’s Pacific 231 is a truly provocative work.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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