Jealousy, lust, betrayal, war, and witchcraft. What more could you ask from a Bible story? Arthur Honegger’s King David has it all. On October 24, 2017, 7:30 p.m., Arts District Chorale will stage this powerful oratorio at Moody Performance Hall (formerly Dallas City Performance Hall). Under the direction of Constantina Tsolainou, the concert features narration by The Honorable Michael S. Rawlings, Mayor of Dallas, as well as Dallas Symphony Orchestra members, and soloists Anna Fredericka Popova, Natalie Arduino, and Damon K. Clark.
King David (Le Roi David) tells the evolution of David from shepherd boy to giant slayer, warrior king, adulterer, murderer, and iconic Biblical figure. René Morax (1873-1963) wrote the story as a play in 1921 and hired young Honegger to write the incidental music. The task called for 27 musical episodes and came with an outrageous two-month deadline. Eager to be a “Biblical” composer, Honegger accepted the challenge and delivered on time. King David was an immediate success and not only bolstered Honegger’s reputation but also inspired him to rescore the work in 1923 as a “symphonic psalm,” connecting the music with narration by Morax.
The story has three parts. In the first, the Lord tells Samuel to make Saul the ruler of Israel, but Saul bungles the job, so Samuel anoints David, the shepherd. David proves to be a top-notch soldier against the Philistines, taking out their best man Goliath. David’s popularity and Saul’s jealousy grow in tandem. Saul is eventually killed in battle.
Part two sees David crowned and uniting Israel. In part three, David’s power has gone to his head. After coveting and impregnating Bathsheba, the wife of his captain Uriah, he arranges for Uriah to fall in battle and marries Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan tells a repentant David to expect severe punishment. Pandemonium breaks loose in David’s household, and eventually his son Absalom raises an army to depose his dad, only to be killed in battle himself. Deeply saddened but back in power, David manages to offend the Lord yet again, who retaliates with pestilence. Finally, a weary, aging David has Nathan anoint his son Solomon as king and then dies, while an angel repeats Isaiah’s prophesy of a flower blooming from David’s stem.
This highly eclectic and passionate work is a mash-up of every style from Gregorian chant to Baroque to jazz. The music changes mood abruptly, moving from lyrical to grotesque to grand. Meant to be theatrical, it achieves that and more. Although mostly performed in French, it is also sung in English, translated by Edward Agate.
Born in 1892, Honegger was Swiss but spent much of his life in Paris. He idolized Bach and Beethoven and associated with notable contemporaries Louis Durey, Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, and Germaine Tailleferre, the group later dubbed “Les Six Français.” Gaining fame in the 1920s for La Pastorale d’été and Pacific 2.3.1. among other works, Honegger successfully continued in the 20s, briefly stopped composing in the early 30s, experimented with other musical forms (film soundtracks, ballet), collaborated with Milhaud et Claudel on the oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake), joined the resistance during the war, and died in 1955. The music he left behind, especially King David, is performed to enthusiastic audiences worldwide.