Program Notes

King David – Honegger

King David

A Symphonic Psalm in three parts based on a drama by Rene Morax


Arthur Honegger was born in Le Havre, France in 1892 and died in 1955 at a time when he was one of the most famous composers in Europe. The son of Protestant Swiss merchants from Zurich, Honegger has been described as “French by culture and adoption”.

In addition to his passion for all things French, Honegger also was greatly influenced by his exposure to German culture. Before entering the Paris Conservatoir, he studied in Zurich with Friedrich Hegar who had been a friend and disciple of Johannes Brahms. Honegger always acknowledged his devotion to German music as found in the great works of Beethoven and Bach. He once said “I attach great importance to musical structure…….I have a perhaps exaggerated tendency to look for polyphonic complexity. My great model is Johann Sebastian Bach”.

In Paris Honegger became familiar with the music of Debussy and Faure who remained major influences throughout his life. Music critics have cited his earliest compositions for piano and his first orchestral work, a prelude to Maeterlinck’s Aglavaine et Selysette, as a reflection of his admiration for the music of Debussy.


Just weeks before it was to open, Honegger was approached by Rene Morax to compose the incidental music for his stage play based on the life of King David. Honegger had been recommended to Morax by Igor Stravinsky after several composers had turned Morax down due to the shortness of time. Honegger completed the work in two months.

The play opened in June of 1921 in the Theatre de Jorat at Mezieres, a small country village in Switzerland. Honegger himself conducted the orchestra. It was a crowning success. Honegger was 29 years old at the time. Following this success, Honegger was pressured to adapt the work for the concert stage. Because it was originally conceived as music to accompany the play, it had been originally scored for a small piano centered orchestra. Honegger actually completed two concert versions, the second of which re-scored the music for full orchestra. It is this version that is heard most often today.

Morax’ play is the story of King David, the greatest of the kings of Israel. The story traces David’s life from his humble beginnings to his death. The story is based principally on the books of the Old Testament, chiefly I Kings and I and II Samuel. It begins with the anointing of young David, son of Jesse, to replace Saul as Israel’s king. Saul had fallen from God’s favor. Samuel the prophet, who had previously anointed Saul as Israel’s first king, anointed David as Saul’s successor when David was still just a shepherd boy.

The drama of the story begins as Saul summons the armies of Israel to fight the Philistines and their giant Goliath who is quickly killed by a stone from David’s sling. Saul, jealous of David and tormented by his fears, attempts to kill David who is forced to flee for his life. David places his trust in God (“In the Lord I put my faith”) but his sadness at leaving his family is great (“O had I wings like a dove”).

Brooding on the nature of man (“Man that is born of woman lives but a little while”), David is pursued into the mountains by an enraged Saul. Saul’s fortunes grow worse. Finally, abandoned and rejected, he visits the Witch of Endor at night imploring her to call Samuel back from the dead to support him. At the battle on Mount Gilboa, however, Saul and his son Jonathan, David’s beloved friend, are slain. David’s sorrow is great.

Part two begins with a gathering of all the Hebrew people as King David triumphantly enters Jerusalem carrying the Ark of the Covenant which will be placed in the Temple that David hopes to build. As the Dance before the Ark concludes, the voice of an Angel proclaims that it will be Solomon, not David, who will raise the Temple to God.

In Part Three, David, now at the height of his kingly powers, yields to sin. He is overcome with desire for Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, a general in the Israeli army. He orders Uriah to the front of the battle line where he is killed and then takes Bathsheba for his wife. The child of this marriage dies and David is deeply shamed. His penitence (“Behold in evil I was born” ) is sincere. His soul is in anguish.

The rebellion of his son Absalom forces David to flee once again for safety. David is again bolstered by his trust in God (“O shall I raise mine eyes unto the mountains?”). Absalom’s army is routed, and Absalom killed, in the woods of Ephraim. The Hebrew army marches in triumph past the aging king.

However, one more time, David earns God’s wrath as he yields to the sin of pride by numbering the people of his kingdom (“In my distress”). David’s long and glorious reign comes to an end as he abdicates the throne to Solomon and visits the Temple one last time before he dies peacefully.