Pacific 231 (1923)

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert Swiss Accounts, performed on May 21, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“So many, many critics have so minutely described the onrush of my locomotive across the great spaces that it would be inhuman to disabuse them! One of them, confusing Pacific with the Pacific Ocean, even evoked the smells of the open sea. To tell the truth, in Pacific I was on the trail of a very abstract and quite ideal concept, by giving the impression of a mathematical acceleration of rhythm, while the movement itself slowed…Moral: – but no, I have been a music critic myself, and I prefer not to speak ill of a profession which has fed me.”

From I Am A Composer, by Arthur Honegger

The reputation as a specialist in program music clung to Honegger primarily because of one famous work: Pacific 231, composed in 1923. It is the most exciting representative of European music’s brief fascination with the age of the machine. Actually, it is the first of three “mouvements symphoniques,” the second of which is “Rugby,” and depicts the excitement of a sporting event, and the third, which reflects Honegger’s conscious decision to redefine himself as an absolutist, having no soubriquet whatsoever.

Contrary to popular belief, the name does not refer to an individual locomotive, such as the Wabash Cannonball or City of New Orleans, but actually to the axle pattern of a particular type of engine of American manufacture. Although employing a standard orchestra, the work is similar to the Ballet mecanique of American in Paris George Antheil, which had its maiden voyage in 1924. Where Antheil uses three different types of actual airplane propellers, Honegger, who in works like Joan of Arc at the Stake was extremely adventurous—in the substitution of saxophones for standard brass instruments, for example—keeps the instrumentation standard, but deftly creates new, inhuman sounds of the relentless machine. To twenty-first century ears, these sounds may portend the evils of mechanized conformity, but to the avant-garde of the 1920s, these were the sounds of inexorable “progress,” a term whose connotations were suspect at best.

So much so, in fact, that the entire genre of Soviet futurism grew contemporaneously with the popularity of the Honegger piece. Alexander Mosolov was the darling of the Russian progressives in 1927 when he premiered his Zavod [the iron foundry], a ballet which depicts the glorious productivity of the Soviet factory, complete with shaken metal sheets for just the right industrial flair. Sergei Prokofiev followed soon thereafter with The Steel Step, a two-act dance extravaganza that glorified first the collective farm and then the factory, even approximating the sounds of a piston and a giant saw. Although the Parisian press hailed Prokofiev as the “apostle of Bolshevism,” comrade Stalin was displeased by this type of dissonance. Mosolov was shipped off to Turkestan to study folk songs, while Prokofiev wisely remained in Paris. Each acknowledged their debt to Honegger’s original inspiration, Prokofiev even paying Pacific 231 homage at the end of his Symphony No. 5.

The piece itself is remarkable for its humorlessness. Hardly a “little engine that could” or “The Little Train of the Caipira” from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2 by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Pacific 231 rather begins demonically and only reinforces its Tartarean image on its brief run. The opening atmosphere is mysterious, leading almost immediately to an insistent, accelerating rhythm. A cry from the netherworld on the bass clarinet leads to an almost out-of-control wandering in the horn, reprised maniacally by the trumpet. Back-and-forth figures in the wind section are punctuated by warlike snare drumming that becomes almost arhythmic as the strings contribute pizzicatos at the oddest of places. At the height of its journey, this locomotive is accompanied by the music of Hell itself. The trip does not last long as exhaustion quickly overtakes the machine. Like the robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the monster cannot survive what it has wrought.