Arthur Honegger was born on March 10, 1892, in Le Havre, France, and died on November 27, 1955, in Paris. He composed Pacific 231 between March and December 1923. It was premiered May 8, 1924, at the Paris Opéra, with Serge Koussevitzky conducting.
Honegger was a rail enthusiast, who, in 1923, wrote a one movement orchestral piece inspired by the locomotive, Pacific 231. It is one of his most frequently performed works.
Honegger once said: “I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living beings whom I love as others love women or horses. What I sought to achieve in Pacific 231 was not the imitation of the noises of the locomotive but rather the translation of a visual impression and of the physical enjoyment through a musical construction. It opens with an objective observation, the calm respiration of the machine at rest, the effort of the start, a gradual increase in speed, ultimately attaining the lyrical stage, the pathos of a train 300 tons in weight launched in the dark of night at 120 kilometers an hour. For my subject I selected a locomotive of the Pacific type, bearing the number 231.”[i]
Honegger insisted that his purpose in writing Pacific 231 was not in fact to be descriptive. “To tell the truth, in Pacific 231 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. . . . I first called this piece Mouvement symphonique. On reflection I found that a bit colorless. Suddenly, a rather romantic image crossed my mind, and when the work was finished, I wrote the title Pacific 231, which indicates a locomotive for heavy loads and high speeds.”
A 1949 French award-winning film, Pacific 231, directed by Jean Mitry, used the orchestral work as the sound track for a tribute to the steam locomotive, and included close-up footage of driving wheels, running gear and railroad operations, mostly taken at high speed, and cut/choreographed to the music.
The Pacific is a class of steam locomotive designated as a 4-6-2, with four pilot wheels, six driving wheels, and two trailing wheels. The French, who count axles rather than wheels when describing locomotives, call this arrangement 2-3-1.
Pacific 231 is the first in Honegger’s series of three symphonic movements. The other two are Rugby and Mouvement Symphonique No. 3. Honegger lamented that his “poor Symphonic Movement No. 3 paid dearly for its barren title.” Critics generally ignored it, while Pacific 231 and Rugby, with more evocative titles, have been written about in depth.
The orchestration consists of the following: 2 flutes piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon – 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 4 percussionists .