Arthur Honegger was born in Le Havre, France of Swiss parents, and maintained a strong allegiance to (and the citizenship of) Switzerland throughout his life. He studied for two years at the Zurich Conservatory before transferring to the Paris Conservatoire, where his teachers included Gédalge, Widor and d’Indy. Honegger's first important work, a violin sonata, appeared in 1918, at about the time that he was arbitrarily inducted by a French journalist into the group of composers known as "The French Six," whose other members included Poulenc, Milhaud, Tailleferre, Auric and Durey. Though respectful of these musicians, and supportive of the vibrant musical activity they brought to Paris, Honegger's sympathies were as heavily weighted toward the traditions of Germany as those of France, and he drifted away from "Les Six" in the 1920s. Of his artistic philosophy, he wrote, "I attach great importance to musical architecture, which I should never want to see sacrificed for reasons of literary or pictorial order. My model is Bach.... I do not seek, as do certain anti-Impressionists, the return to harmonic simplicity. I find, on the contrary, that we should use the harmonic materials created by the school which preceded us, but in a different way–as the base of lines and rhythms." His oratorio King David (1921) and the "Symphonic Movement" Pacific 231 (1923) brought him international prominence, and he toured widely in Europe and the Americas for the last three decades of his life as lecturer, conductor and pianist. His large output comprises thirty stage works, including operas, oratorios, ballets and vaudevilles, a vast quantity of incidental music and film scores, five symphonies, many independent orchestral compositions, scores for chorus and orchestra, chamber music and songs. Of Honegger's musical style, the critic Henry Pruniëres wrote, "In him ... the best qualities of French and German schools meet and blend. Simple melodies, with natural inflections, develop one from another. Each instrument in his chamber music, and each group of instruments in his orchestral scores, seems to have its individual life, and speaks its own language."
Honegger lived much of his life in Paris, and he was there when the city was occupied by the Nazis in 1940. Though he was invited time and again to conduct his music in Germany and over the German-controlled radio in France, he adamantly refused. The Nazis did not interfere with him, however, and he withdrew into his studio for the duration of the War, largely keeping to himself and composing, though he did take part in some activities of the French Resistance. In 1941, he completed the intense Symphony No. 2 for Strings and Trumpet as a mirror of his moods and feelings during that difficult period. A year later he wrote a Chant de Libération in anticipation of the end of the War, but this music could not be heard until October 22, 1944, two months after the Allies and the Resistance freed the city.
The depth of Honegger's feelings incited by the War were inevitably given voice in an orchestral work that he began soon after the hostilities ended. "My Symphony is a drama," he said, "in which three characters–real or symbolic–play: misery, happiness and man. It is an eternal problem. I have tried to face it anew." He titled this new Symphony, his third, Liturgique, and headed each of its movements with a phrase from the Roman Catholic liturgy: "Dies irae" ("Day of Wrath," the terrifying depiction of the Judgment day in the Requiem Mass); "De profundis clamavi" ("Out of the depths Have I Cried," Psalm 130, used in the Office for the Dead); and "Dona nobis pacem" ("Grant us peace," the last section of the Mass Ordinary). Honegger did not quote the chant melodies associated with these words, but used the movement titles instead to indicate the general expressive progression of the Symphony as it reflected his experience of the War. The opening of "Dies irae" suggests chaos, barbarity and destruction, and "De profundis clamavi," anxiety and exhaustion made bearable only by hope; the two-part "Dona nobis pacem" begins with a stern march reflecting mankind's struggle against violence, and ends with a hymnal apotheosis of peace. Though Honegger never gave a more detailed program for the piece than that implied by its titles, Charles Munch, the conductor for whom it was written, thought that the Symphony "poses the problem of humanity vis-à-vis God" in broaching the subject of man's revolt against, and final submission to, a higher will. The Belgian critic Arthur Hoéreé found the Liturgique to be the expression of "a spirit in search of serenity amid all the unrest which is our present state," a comment as appropriate today as it was upon the Symphony's premiere in 1946. That Honegger could find a positive, life-giving and hopeful close to the War-impelled Symphonie Liturgique shows not only of his renewal of the expressive tradition of the Romantic symphonic apotheosis in distinctly modern terms, but also of his belief in the inextinguishable spirit of mankind.