King David


Arthur Honegger’s symphonic psalm detailing the life of David.

Also available on iTunes.



Track List
Part I
1. Introduction
2. The Song of David, the Shepherd
3. Psalm: All praise to Him”
4. Song of Victory
5. March
6. Psalm: “In the Lord I put my faith
7. Psalm: “Oh had I wings like a dove.”
8. Song of the Prophets
9. Psalm: “Pity me, Lord!”
10. Saul’s Camp
11. Psalm: God, the Lord shall be my light”
12. Incantation of the Witch of Endor.
13. March of the Philistines
14. Lament of Gilboa
Part II
15. Song of the Daughters of Israel
16. The Dance Before the Ark
Part III
17. Song: Now my voice in song upsoaring”
18. Song of the Handmaid
19. Psalm of Penitence
20. Psalm: “Behold, in evil I was born”
21. Psalm: “O shall I raise mine eyes unto the mountains?”
22. The Song of Ephraim
23. March of the Hebrews
24. Psalm: “Thee will I love, O Lord”
25. Psalm: “In my distress”
26. The Crowning of Solomon
27. The Death of David

Program Notes
In 1921 the Swiss playwright Rene Morax asked Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) to compose music for a play based on the heroic figure of King David. The original version of King David took more than four hours to perform and was a spectacle with multiple spoken roles and only incidental music for chorus, soloists, and chamber orchestra. A subsequent version lasting little more than one hour was introduced in 1923. In this version the spoken parts were reduced to one narrator, which in effect caused the music to become central and created a need for a subtitle, “Symphonic Psalm,” to be added to the work. It is this latter version that will be used in today’s performance.

King David consists of three large sections which follow the major events in the biblical story of David – his youth as a shepherd, his battle with Goliath, the enmity of Saul, David’s being crowned king, his love for Bathsheba, the rebellion of his beloved Absalom, David’s death, and finally the crowning of his son Solomon as the new king.

Honegger successfully wedded a number of different stylistic influences to create the work’s powerful musical impact. From time to time (the overture is an example), the composer employed Hebraic melodic forms, or used choral writing that is polyphonic in texture, recalling Handel’s treatment of the choir. Many of Honegger’s melodies are clear, simple, and very appealing, much like popular folk tunes, and they show the human voice off to its very best advantage. Honegger employed many pictorial and programmatic effects that bring the text vividly to life, and even used some of the most advanced compositional techniques of the time – irregular rhythms, sharp dissonances, and polytonality (two keys at the same time).

Part I begins with a focus on the dichotomy between hope and despair. The prophet Samuel proclaims that out of God’s rejection of Saul would emerge a more powerful ruler whose name was David. The chorus, representing the nation of Israel, sings in praise of this ruler-to-be. Goliath’s entry is signaled by a short, instrumental fanfare, and the chorus announces victory over the accompaniment of timpani rolls. After a rousing march, the victory chorus is repeated. The conflict that ensued between David and Saul climaxes with the Witch of Endor scene, and David’s closeness with God is expressed in four psalms that precede this incantation. The final movement of this section, “Lament of Gilboa,” uses women’s voices in a vocalize style, twisting and turning around a central note, to symbolize the mid-eastern custom of wailing.

Part II consists of two numbers, a festive song for soprano solo over a women’s choral ostinato, and an extended choral setting that celebrates the crowning of David as king. This “Dance before the Ark” can best be described as a huge mural that depicts large unison gestures between the chorus and orchestra, simple and straight-forward rhythmic patterns, chromatic figures, responsorial singing between men and women, an angelic voice predicting the birth of Solomon and a joyful “Alleluia” that moves from key to key with as much grace as a Baroque melody by Bach.

The opening chorus of Part III suggests Honegger’s early exposure to Lutheran chorales. The orchestral accompaniment in “Psalm of Penitence” is strikingly similar to the repetitive rhythms of Eric Satie. The melodic outline of this number re-occurs in “Behold, in evil I was born,” but Honegger changed the meter from a complex, triple division to a simple, duple division. The martial quality of “March of the Hebrews” forms a stark contrast to the atonal opening of “In my distress.” In the final number Honegger proclaims David’s death by using the same “Alleluia” melody that closed Part II, in combination with a slower moving chorale-like melody. The piece ends on a tone of radiant joy and even caused the self-critical Honegger to state that the final result was “in some degree what I hoped for.”

Notes by Michael O’Neal and Hal Simmons

Technical Information:
Recorded March 2007. CD released January 1, 2008 by aca Digital.


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