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Faculty of Music


Arthur Honegger’s Mouvement Symphonique nr. 3, the third in a trio of symphonic movements that began with Pacific 231 and Rugby—and the only one without a juicy programmatic title—was a commission for the Berlin Philharmonic’s 50th anniversary celebrations. It premiered in Berlin in March 1933, just days after the Enabling Act was passed and Hitler’s political powers became total. So risky was a performance of the new symphony in this charged setting that conductor Furtwängler advised Honegger best not visit from Paris for the performance. For this was a symphony with inflammatory potential: after the midpoint introduction of a lyrical alto saxophone voice unfamiliar to the symphonic tonal palate, the work descended into the depths of the orchestra to simply tail away into nothing, the antithesis of symphonic apotheosis.

The intellectual history of the symphony has long been entangled with ideas of the self and value. Unsurprisingly, associated questions of national identity and style dominated Mouvement Symphonique’s Berlin reception. After all, the work of a Swiss-German composer based in Paris was unambiguously neither French nor German, and the work tested the boundaries of Germanic idealist aesthetic traditions at this transitional political moment. But perhaps even more interesting is what the reviewers did (could?) not acknowledge. Programmatic aspects were barely mentioned in the critical reception, but in spite of the work’s ‘sober and unprepossessing’ title, I suggest in this presentation that Mouvement Symphonique nr. 3 had a critical political programme. Manipulating the symphonic form, and referencing Beethovenian subjective narratives in particular, the work considers the changing relationship between the individual and the collective within a tumultuous era of political and industrial/technological upheaval, ultimately lamenting over the ruins of both the symphony and the utopian political project it represented.


Dr Emily MacGregor is a musicologist and cultural historian based at King’s College London, specializing in twentieth-century Germany and the United States. Her current work is funded by a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship. She completed a DPhil in music at Oxford University in 2016, and subsequently held a Marie Curie Global Fellowship at Royal Holloway and at Harvard University from 2016 to 2019. She is the author of Interwar Symphonies and the Imagination: Politics, Identity, and the Sound of 1933 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023), co-editor (with Emily Dolan and Arman Schwartz) of the volume-in-progress Sonic Circulations: Music and Disciplinary Knowledge 1900-196o, and she was awarded the 2019 Jerome Roche Prize of the Royal Musical Association for a distinguished article by a scholar at an early stage of their career. Dr MacGregor is also an engaged public musicologist, with a trade book under contract on music and grief—roughly half memoir, half subject-led non-fiction—and she appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4.

Wednesday, 29 November, 2023 - 17:00