Honegger: Rugby and Musical Scrums

Contributed by Dr. Ken Metz (Professor of Music, University of the Incarnate Word)

51-5xVSwtbL._SY355_.jpgHonegger’s Rugby, a piece inspired by that sport, would seem to represent an unusual phenomenon in art music. My search to find similar pieces has revealed that there are not many that relate directly to a sport or a game. (I welcome readers to add to my initial list!) Stravinsky wrote Jeu de cartes, for example, which of course deals (no pun intended) with a card game. Honegger may have been inspired by Debussy, whose Jeux features an attempt to connect musical rhythm with a bouncing tennis ball. However, Jeux is not directly inspired by the game of tennis. That most eccentric French composer, Erik Satie, did write Sports et Divertissements for piano solo, but the only actual sports subjects in the work are tennis and golf (unless you think Satie thought of yachting and fishing as sports). Bohuslav Martinů composed Half-Time, inspired by football (soccer). (Bateman 2015) I am not sure whether Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1908) should be counted as another example, since it’s mostly about watching the game (and eating at it), but even if it is, there are not that many popular songs that turn sports into music.

One reason for the small number of sports-related pieces of art music is that team sports such as rugby and soccer were a development of the later nineteenth century, so composers before that time simply didn’t have them to write about. Before the nineteenth century, the hunt was a sort of sport, and there is much music inspired by its sounds and rhythms, but it would be a stretch to call it a team sport. Suffice it to say that there are not many pieces of concert music that aim to depict or are motivated by a team sport. But I would like to suggest another reason that composers have avoided writing pieces about team sports by discussing Honegger’s Rugby at more length.

Here, then, is Honegger’s statement about the piece:

“I very much like football (soccer), but I prefer rugby. I find it more spontaneous, more direct and closer to nature than football, which is a more scientific game. I am aware of a carefully controlled rhythm in football and for me the savage, brusque, untidy and desperate rhythm of rugby is more attractive. It would be wrong to consider my piece as program music. All it does is to try to express, in my own musician’s language, the attacks and ripostes of the game, and the rhythm and color of a match at the Colombes Stadium; I honestly feel it is only right to name my sources. That is the reason why this short composition bears the title of Rugby.” (Waters 1997)

Honegger distances himself from “program music,” focusing instead on the kinetics of rugby expressed through pitch and rhythm. One would assume that the words “brusque, untidy, and desperate” would connote dissonant pitch collections and rhythmic conflict. Here I’m particularly interested in how Honegger treats rhythm, because that is an important aspect of his most well known music.

In Pacific 231, for example, Honegger uses a rhythmic crescendo as a formal organizational principle. (Waters, 1997) It’s easy to hear this principle in the piece’s gradual change to faster rhythms on a hypermetrical level, because it evokes a train leaving the station, increasing its speed, and slowing down to arrive at its destination. The locomotive motive, if you will, integrates well with a plan in which rhythmic crescendo and decrescendo combine with rhythmic displacement and polyrhythm to create an arch form structure that parallels a familiar real-world event.

A similar use of rhythmic crescendo informs the structure of Rugby; however, the effect here is less successful. I think the problem lies in the game of rugby itself and the nature of team sports in general. I think that the way a rugby game unfolds in time does not create a fitting model for musical form, because the rhythmic ebb and flow of the many events in a game conflicts with the rhythmic crescendo employed in Honegger’s piece.

Perhaps the kinetic profile of a game such as rugby or basketball could be used as a model for musical form if the game could be temporally stretched, so that one event in the game could occupy a much larger time span in music, like a slow-motion replay in musical terms. Imagine that the speed of the players could be reduced to that of performers in Japanese noh theater. If this could be the speed of a game of rugby, then music might provide a more suitable architectural parallel. To look at the situation in reverse, I suppose a game like rugby is like a piece of music that has too many different and unrelated changes in rhythmic structure, too many climatic points. How many times can music effectively portray the same sets of recurring events such as scrums without losing its focus and overall momentum? Honegger must have struggled to fit his compositional process onto rugby, a struggle happily absent from Pacific 231.

Sources Cited

Bateman, Anthony. Sport, Music, Identities. Oxford: Routledge, 2015.

Waters, Keith John. “Rhythmic and Contrapuntal Structures in the Music of Arthur Honegger” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Rochester University, 1997).

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