Cover image for Arthur Honegger
Arthur Honegger
Halbreich, Harry.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Arthur Honegger, un musicien dans la cité des hommes. English
Publication Information:
Portland, Or. : Amadeus Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
677 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
Translation of: Arthur Honegger, un musicien dans la cité des hommes.
Reading Level:
1330 Lexile.
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Material Type
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Central Library ML410.H79 H313 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Arthur Honegger (1892--1955), Swiss by nationality, French by education and residence, was a major composer of the 20th century. Although he earned popular acclaim early in his career, in his later years his consistently tonal musical language was considered outmoded. His most significant works include five symphonies, a large body of chamber music, and several large-scale oratorios that combine choral and instrumental writing with declaimed narrative in a uniquely effective way. HARDCOVER

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Halbreich, a Belgian musicologist who previously authored books on Debussy and Messiaen, offers a detailed study of Honegger (1892-1955), the Swiss-born member of the 1920s group of French composers Les Six, which also included his friends Poulenc and Milhaud. Halbreich chronicles the life of Honegger and ends with an annotated catalogue of works by the composer of the noted modern oratorios Jeanne d'Arc au b–cher and Le roi David, as well as popular symphonic pieces such as the railway-inspired Pacific 231. A musical traditionalist whose compositions possessed drama and sometimes righteous rage, Honegger also wrote a number of lesser-known works of high interest, from symphonies to chamber musicÄand Halbreich performs an invaluable service by drawing attention to these many hidden treasures. The British author and translator Nichols, well-known for his own studies of modern French music, provides a sterling translation of the French original. Halbreich's only flaw is that he's far too forgiving of Honegger's role in wartime Paris, where the composer wrote for Nazi-sponsored magazinesÄan action that even Honegger's friends and most later writers criticized. That aside, Halbreich offers an essential volume for understanding not only a major group of musical works but French musical life from the 1920s to the 1950s. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

This excellent, thoroughly researched book will do much to revive interest in the music of Arthur Honegger, one of the lesser-known members of the group of composers known as Les Six. Known today primarily for Pacific 231 and the oratorio Le Roi David, Honegger was a multifaceted composer whose works ranged through a wide variety of genres. Halbreich does a great service in providing detailed analyses of the entirety of Honegger's oeuvre. Of especial interest is the section devoted to Honegger's film music, which is largely unknown in the English-speaking world. The biographical portion of the book is very well documented and provides a year-by-year narrative of the composer's life. Contains complete chronological list of works, notes, select bibliography, musical examples, and illustrations. Recommended for all undergraduate, graduate, and public music collections. W. E. Grim Worcester State College



Chapter One Turly Wald is a large village in the mountainous region known as the Zurich Oberland , near the borders of the Swiss canton of St. Gallen, not far from Lake Zurich. The Zurich Oberland is fairly modest, not to be confused with the Bernese Oberland --no peak here reaches four thousand feet. At the beginning of the nineteenth century there lived in Wald a peasant family of the name of Honegger, a widespread patronymic in the canton of Zurich. It comes from the Swiss-German Hoben-Egg-Herr , meaning "the man from the place up there."     From Wald, the branch of the Honegger family that concerns us moved to Thalwil, on the shores of the lake, a few miles from the big city and today part of its residential suburbs. It was there that Arthur, the composer's father, was born on 9 October 1851, the son of Caspar Honegger and Rosalie, née Hasler, also a native of the canton of Zurich. Arthur senior left Zurich for Le Havre to join a large Swiss colony, composed mostly of tradesmen and wholesalers, but came back to Zurich to marry, on 11 May 1891, Julie Ulrich, the daughter of Johann Caspar Ulrich and Margaretha Hausheer. She was born in Zurich on 22 June 1859, and so was nearly eight years younger than he. The Ulrichs were one of the oldest Zurich families and when, in 1935, Arthur Honegger had to establish proof of his "Aryanism" to be allowed to collaborate on a film in Germany, he was able to follow the Ulrich family tree back as far as 1535. The wedding on 11 May 1891 was no more than a consolidation of links already uniting the two families, since on 26 April 1888, Arthur's elder brother, Oskar (born 22 February 1850), had married Julie's elder sister Louise (born 2 September 1857). Unlike his brother, Oskar Honegger stayed in Zurich, where he became an important figure, both as a judge and as an amateur musician. One of Arthur Honegger's first published works, the Toccata and Variations for piano (1916), was dedicated to the memory of his uncle Oskar, who died in 1920, the year before its publication.     After settling in Le Havre, Arthur and Julie Honegger had four children, of which the composer was the eldest. On 11 March 1892, the happy father went to the town hall to register the birth of a son, born on 10 March at eight o'clock in the morning, whom he named Oscar-Arthur (the first of these names was never used). The house where the boy was born, since destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, was a fine middle-class structure at 86 boulevard François [], on the corner of the rue Frederick Lemaître. The birth certificate shows the father's profession as "shop assistant," indicating that at that period he had not yet set up on his own. But this soon happened, and Arthur Honegger senior found himself at the head of an extremely prosperous business importing coffee, a sector that, in those days, was largely in the hands of the Swiss colony in Le Havre. This business flourished for a long time, but it collapsed totally after the First World War. Honegger's father had left it by then and retired to Zurich in 1913.     The boy--who, at least in the family, was to be called by the typically Alemannic (German-Swiss) diminutive "Turly" even as a young man--did not remain an only child for long. On 14 March 1893 a sister was born: Marguerite-Julie, called "Toto." On 31 August 1922 she married Rudolf-Hermann Stadler, a doctor of medicine from Zurich, and spent the rest of her life in that city. The youngest child, Julie-Rosa, nicknamed "Wantze" (bug) or "Wantzefloh" (fleabug) and later "Tati," was born on 6 February 1902. She was also married in Zurich, on 1 December 1923, to Hugo Laubi from Winterthur, and later she married the actor Emil Hegetschweiler. But there was also a brother, Caspar-Emile, called "Zigo," born 24 August 1896, who seems to have been a whimsical character, a dreamer, a kind of prodigal son. He first of all tried his hand at acting (Arthur did what he could to help him in this), then at painting, neither of them successfully. On 27 December 1921 he married a Bavarian girl named Anna-Elisabeth Happel in Munich, and then moved to Paris until the Second World War. He lived until the end of his life on his share of the family money, but had to be put under guardianship.     The Honegger family, of course, spoke züridütsch (the Swiss-German dialect spoken in Zurich) at home, and the composer would become fluent in the Alemannic dialect, as well as speaking perfect literary German. A number of family photos allow us to see inside this comfortable household. The father, wearing pince-nez, prematurely bald and presenting an ample silhouette, appears the incarnation of bourgeois respectability, and his kind, round face, with its mustache, contrasts with the long, sensitive face of his wife and her serene, withdrawn expression. As for the boy of three or four, wearing a skirt in the manner of the times and clutching a prophetic locomotive, he is recognizably the future composer of Pacific 2.3.1 . Already we can see the small, firm mouth, the look of intensity about the eye, and the dark curls.     This boy of pure Zurich stock was to live in Le Havre until his coming-of-age, apart from two years spent studying in Zurich, from September 1909 to June 1911. (A document in Zurich's town hall, dated 4 March 1919, certifies that Honegger, "domiciled in Zurich," possesses through his family the freedom of the city of Zurich and is a Swiss citizen by birth.) In one of his autobiographical sketches, Honegger also notes that his family were Protestants and that there was talk at one time of making him a priest! But when the time came to go to school, he found himself in a quite different atmosphere from that of his family circle, and very soon he turned into as much of a Normandy lad as his classmates. Before he ever set foot in Paris, he was, therefore, marked by two quite different and complementary, cultures (three, if we include the later romand , or French-Swiss, influence), and his art blended these into a uniquely original synthesis.     What distinguished the Honegger household from practically all the others in Le Havre was the presence of music, and good music. Both parents played the family piano, and if Honegger's father had a predilection for opera (while not neglecting Mozart and Beethoven), his mother, probably due to her more refined sensibilities, preferred chamber music. The following story shows the uncultured state of a middle-sized French town at the beginning of the twentieth century. Honegger relates how, after he had moved on from his primary school to his secondary one, he mentioned the name of Mozart to his friends, but they only knew the name of Mansart, the inventor of the mansard roof, and tried to correct him.     With his family's encouragement, the boy's taste for music showed itself very early--not that Honegger was a boy prodigy. His father made outlines of various musical instruments for him cut out of cardboard, and the young Arthur, fascinated by an engraving of Mendelssohn composing the overture Fingal's Cave in bed, promptly engaged the help of Toto and Zigo in assembling an imaginary orchestra, which he then conducted with enthusiasm.     Mens sana in corpore sano: we should not imagine a delicate boy with ailing health! The future composer of Rugby was a tough little lad, athletic and madly keen on games and violent sports, even inventing one of his own, bécanard-polo , or bicycle-polo! Living as he did in a large port town, he was fascinated from his earliest years by the sea and the ocean beyond. Although the mountains must have been in his blood, he would always prefer to spend his holidays by the seaside and was an excellent swimmer, never a mountaineer.     When he was nine, Honegger had an experience that was important for his future. His parents took him to the opera for the first time. Like many other French provincial towns, Le Havre then had an opera season in which the regular repertory of the time was performed with whatever resources were at hand, augmented occasionally by a specially imported singer of renown. He underwent first of all the revelation of Faust , and shortly after that of Les Huguenots, Carmen, Lakmé, William Tell , and more. The idea of a story told through music greatly appealed to him, and he decided that he too would compose operas. At the very same moment, another budding composer, Sergei Prokofiev, was making the same decision several thousand miles away. Arthur barely knew the notes and was not aware of the existence of a bass clef, but this problem was surmounted by writing the bass roles (which one needs for noble fathers, high priests, and principal malefactors) in the treble clef, with a note requesting they be sung two octaves down. Full of self-confidence, the boy wrote his own libretto, and when the score was finished he bound it himself. As he admitted, it was the binding that gave him the most trouble.     Between May and July 1903 (he was eleven) Arthur Honegger wrote Philippa , a grand historical drama set in the fourteenth century, which he finished and entitled his "Opus 1." He found the story in La Jeunesse illustrée (an illustrated children's newspaper). The score (a vocal score because, of course, he had never seen a full orchestral one) fills the fifty pages of a bound school exercise book and contains no fewer than fourteen numbers, together with an overture and an introduction for each of the three acts. In the same book, carefully preserved by the composer's daughter Pascale, there is also, sewn in separately, an arrangement of the overture "for two violins and pianoforte" (sic), dated 23 August 1907 and designated as Opus 12. But that is another story.     Then, under the influence of Lohengrin , he concocted a second opera, Sigismond , of which I have found no trace. Its three or four tableaux covered sixty-seven sheets of music. It was his mother who helped him to put these early attempts together by amplifying his still elementary theoretical knowledge. And on this point, Hèléne Jourdan-Morhange cites a curious detail: for Honegger as a child, the upbeat did not exist--a syncopation on the first beat did the same job perfectly well. As she justly remarks, "We shall see that his later style of word-setting remained faithful to this principle." We shall return to this point when we look at Antigone .     There were other discoveries too. From time to time, Le Havre was visited by well-known virtuosi on tour, and in this way the boy was able to hear Enesco, Sarasate, Ysaÿe, Pugno, the Cortot-Thibaud-Casals Trio, and, as he himself recalled, "the splendid Capet Quartet playing to about thirty people." It was at this time that his lifelong passion for chamber music was born. His passion for opera was later to come up against material obstacles that, in France, were impossible to overcome. Even so, as he confessed at the end of his life, "my ideal would have been to compose nothing but operas"--like Mozart, who also wrote far fewer than he would have liked.     His parents realized that Turly was musically gifted and decided to let him learn seriously, without there being any idea at this stage of his making music a career. They set him to learn the violin under a teacher called Santreuil. This choice of instrument was to be decisive for Honegger's character as a composer. Certainly, he was later to master the piano and was good enough to play occasionally in public. But he was never a keyboard virtuoso, and his musical thinking, melodic and contrapuntal rather than harmonic, remained that of a violinist, like that of another violinist-composer, Bohuslav Martinu.     Nevertheless, at the age of thirteen he began to learn harmony from the man he later considered to have been his earliest teacher: Robert-Charles Martin, the organist of the church of Saint-Michel. Truth to tell, his help does not seem to have been particularly decisive, to judge by the composer's own testimony. While on holiday in Zurich, the young Honegger submitted his two operas to his uncle Oskar, in his dual capacity as president of the city's choirs and as a judge. His uncle's response was, as one may imagine, gently ironic, and the budding composer was encouraged to learn harmony. It was at this time that the boy was amazed to discover at home the Beethoven sonatas. In them he found the principles of modulation, of tonal planning, of sonata form, and of voice-leading. In short, as he later said, my harmony lessons taught me what I'd already known for a long time! But if harmony can be learned in a few hours, it is counterpoint that dictates the movement of parts, it is counterpoint that enriches the texture, and thereby creates the harmony and renews its substance.     He was twelve or thirteen years old at the time, and every week he would bring home with him Georges Tobler, one of his classmates, a violinist like himself, and, to judge by his name, also Swiss by birth. With Honegger's mother at the piano, they reveled in the delights of chamber music. The repertory for two violins and piano is small, it is true, but Turly proceeded to address this deficiency, and sonatas began to accumulate, carefully modeled on those of Beethoven (the only ones he knew, but could there have been better ones?). We have been unable to find any trace of these, but apparently they were grouped in sixes. However, as already mentioned, there does exist the transcription of the Overture to Philippa , as well as that of the Overture to La Ermeralda , designated as Op. 8, No. 1.      La Esmeralda was a new opera begun by the fifteen-year-old boy using a libretto that had, in Victor Hugo's lifetime, already been used by a now-forgotten female composer, Mlle Bertin. This time (in 1907) Honegger abandoned the work in the middle of the second scene of Act I, after an overture, a chorus, and an unfinished aria for Esmeralda.     It was unthinkable that a Protestant household like the Honeggers' should not contain both a Bible and works by Johann Sebastian Bach. So when André Caplet, a native of Le Havre and a profoundly religious composer, returned to his home city to conduct two Bach cantatas, the young boy was overwhelmed by the experience. It was enough to make him abandon La Ermeralda on the spot and to begin, in the same notebook, his Oratorio du Calvaire (Calvary Oratorio) in seven sections, including a prelude, an opening chorus ("Jerusalem"), three arias ("A sword shall pierce thy side," "Jesus Christ all-powerful," and "Eli lama sabacthani"), a final chorus "O terror"), and an epilogue. So, after opera and Beethoven, a new element entered Honegger's compositional world: Johann Sebastian Bach and the oratorio. The Oratorio du Calvaire has not survived, but many years later Honegger spoke to his friend Arthur Hoérée about certain of its technical elements (such as the use of only open strings for two of his friends who were beginners on the violin) that already showed the "artisan" side of him, which knew how to get the best out of the resources at his disposal. This prefigures a decisive moment in his career: the seventeen instrumental players in Le Roi David (King David) balanced against the mass of a hundred choral singers. "Composing should be like making a chair," he was to say later: which takes us some way from Berlioz's "Fire and thunder!" and brings us, on the contrary, close to the proud and humble ideal of the cantor of Leipzig. Three songs (now lost) date from this same period, on poems by Moréas, Hérold, and Guillard.     It would be wrong, however, to think of Turly as being entirely absorbed in music. He remained a boy of his age and took a passionate interest in the bustling activity of the great port where he was fortunate enough to live. Here, I cannot resist the temptation of quoting Joseph Delteil (a close contemporary of Honegger) who, in a little-known passage, gives a poetic evocation of a city in which, by the way, he may never have set foot. Le Havre is a dirty, cheerful city, with ocean-liners, women from the Caux country, and fishing-boat owners. It rains there, and in poky, disreputable taverns a damp gloom is refined that breeds wide eyes and thick ears. In the streets, a dog, a man from Cancale, and a seaman's wife follow one another constantly in single file. A siren howls and the captain of an ocean-going vessel swears.     The Honegger family had some years before left the house on the boulevard François [] for the rue de Picpus, much nearer the ships that fascinated the young Arthur. At the end of his life, he related these memories to Bernard Gavoty: What do I owe to Le Havre? My childhood and, the thing that lies at the heart of that wonderful area, the sea. I loved the boats, especially the sailing ships. I knew by name the different kinds of ship and the details of their rigging--three-masters with topsails, brigs, schooners. The sea had a very profound influence on my development, it widened the horizons of my childhood.     Even if this love of the sea and ships did not have the effect of turning him into a sailor, as in the case of Albert Roussel, the attraction of foreign countries was still nourished by the reading of numerous adventure stories. One of them, Gustave Aimard's Le Souriquet , was to inspire one of his earliest orchestral works, Le Chant de Nigamon (The Song of Nigamon), in 1917.     While the Oratorio du Calvaire seems to be lost, this is not the case with what may perhaps be considered the most important fruit of the adolescent composer's efforts: a collection of Six Sonatas for violin and piano , the first completed on 8 March 1908 and the last on 3 July. Even though they are clumsy and naive, and desperately Beethovenian, to the point of practically ignoring the century-long development that separates them from their model, they bear witness nonetheless to a keen appetite and to a real creative ambition. Two of the sonatas, the first and the third, adopt the Beethovenian key of C minor. The third, the longest of the six, is in four movements and lasts well over twenty minutes, while two of the others, the fourth and the sixth, even end with a fugue--or at least what the apprentice composer thought he could call a fugue: six or seven entries, all in the tonic, and a polyphonic texture never going beyond three voices.     These sonatas are Honegger's last surviving works before his official Opus 1, the Three Pieces for piano published in 1910 by Desforges, a minor publisher in Le Havre. But there does survive one further trace of a "pre-Arthur, ante-Honegger" endeavor: a brief page for organ (or harmonium), probably contemporary with the Oratorio du Calvaire , that thirty years later was to find a place in the church scene in the film Marthe Richard au service de la France (1937).     Obviously, the boy had reached a turning point. His parents could no longer ignore their son's exceptional musical gifts and, although there was still no question in their minds of a professional career, with a truly Swiss realism and straightforwardness they prepared to face the consequences.     Turly spent every summer in Zurich with his uncle Oskar, who was now president of the city tribunal and honorary president of the choral society. He was increasingly snuck by his nephew's gifts, and together with Robert-Charles Martin decided to try and persuade his father to let him study for two years at the Zurich Conservatory. So it was that, from the start of the 1909 academic year, Turly settled on the banks of the river Limmat. Shortly before Turly left Le Havre, the poet Henriette Charasson left this portrait of him: "a small youngster, already solidly built, with abundant dark hair, a powerful forehead and black eyes that seemed to be lit up by intelligence and willpower."     In Zurich, the seventeen-year-old found himself for the first time in a large city with a flourishing musical life. Whereas in Le Havre he had no opportunity of getting to know any modern French music (whose riches he would only discover when he went to Paris in 1911), Zurich was alive to the German music of the time. If the memory of Wagner was still strong (half a century earlier he had conceived Tristan and Isolde there in the villa belonging to his benefactor, Otto Wesendonck), that of Brahms was no doubt even more so, and more recent. Johannes Brahms had often stayed in Zurich, largely because it was the home of one of his closest friends, Friedrich Hegar (1841-1927). Hegar was the moving spirit behind the city's musical life, being both founder and director of the Conservatory, conductor of the Tonhalle, and director of the men's choir. In the particular context of the German-speaking Switzerland of the period, the activity of choral societies, and especially male choruses, was the most important of all.     When Hegar got to know Turly, he was so struck by the young composer's ability that he wasted no time before giving him private lessons. The name of Friedrich Hegar, totally unknown in French-speaking countries, is still current in German-speaking Switzerland, especially in connection with his excellent male choruses, some of which, like the well-known In den Alpen , are almost part of folklore. One cannot insist too strongly on the fundamental importance of choral culture in Swiss musical life, reflecting as it does a communal spirit that has absolutely no equivalent in France. Hegar offered the young Honegger practical teaching that was both lively and effective. Honegger would bring a piece of his own (for example, his Adagio for violin and piano , which impressed his teacher greatly and which certainly dates from after the naive sonatas of 1908), and Hegar, while retaining its substance and thematic ideas, would recompose it, correcting mistakes and eliminating weaknesses. Honegger would never forget the beneficial effects of such a practical composition course.     It was possible in Zurich to hear the most recent works not only of Richard Strauss, but of Max Reger, whose music Honegger took to straightaway (as one can tell from his String Quartet No. 1 ). Later he tried to pass on this enthusiasm to his fellow pupils at the Paris Conservatory, but in vain--Reger remains terra incognita in France.     At the Zurich Conservatory, Honegger entered the violin class of Willem de Boer, an excellent musician of Dutch origin, and for harmony, that of Lothar Kempter, an old man (he died in 1911), but thorough and extremely knowledgeable in the spirit of the old school. We shall see that when, in 1915, Honegger was trying to convince his father to let him continue his studies in Paris rather than send him to Germany, he considered that the standard of the French harmony and counterpoint classes was distinctly above that of their German counterparts, including those of German-speaking Switzerland.     Otherwise, evidence relating to his two years in Zurich is almost nonexistent, since no correspondence has survived. Nor are there any compositions from these years, as the Adagio that Hegar liked has disappeared and the aforementioned Three Pieces for piano ( Scherzo, Humoresque, Adagio ), although published in 1910, were probably written before Honegger left Le Havre. They are, for one thing, dedicated to Robert-Charles Martin.     According to Honegger's own account, when he came to the end of his time in Zurich at the beginning of the summer of 1911, his father addressed his nineteen-year-old son as follows: "You're going to come into the family business. You won't have much to do--in the morning you'll spend a couple of hours at the exchange, in the afternoon you'll sign letters, and the rest of the time you can spend on music." But this was not the future Honegger saw for himself. He did not want to become an amateur, but rather to devote himself entirely to his art, make a career of it and, if possible, make a living at it. Friedrich Hegar, for his part, was convinced that the young man had exceptional talent and urged the elder Honegger to send his son to the Paris Conservatory.     It was not an easy decision since there were four children in the family. The youngest was only nine, and in principle it was the duty of Arthur, the eldest, to take up the reins of the family business. During the eleven years of life left to him, Honegger's father would have the opportunity to realize that his sacrifice had not been in vain. We shall be quoting extensively from the letters that his son wrote him during this period. They show a lively and touching sense of gratitude on Turly's part, together with a continuing desire (one that was to be fulfilled, what is more) to prove himself in the eyes of such a generous and understanding father. Both his parents, in their pragmatic Swiss fashion, regarded his chosen career as anything but silly. But, realizing how difficult it was, they merely hoped that he could make a living from it and that it would bring him success. Years later, Honegger remarked to his friend Bernard Gavoty: "Almost all the coffee merchants in Le Havre were ruined after the 1914 War. If I'd taken my father's original advice and stayed there, I'd barely have earned a living as second violin in their Folies-Bergère!" Copyright © 1992 Arthur Honegger.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. 9
Acknowledgmentsp. 11
Introductionp. 13
Part 1 Chronicle of a Lifep. 15
1 Turlyp. 17
2 The Paris Conservatory and Honegger's Earliest Worksp. 25
3 Six or Swiss? from Le Dit Des Jeux Du Monde to Le Roi Davidp. 53
4 "King Arthur": Dramas and Triumphsp. 90
5 Reversal of Fortune: in the Trough of the Wavep. 126
6 Toward the Summit: Claudel and the Cinemap. 132
7 The War and After: Climax of a Careerp. 162
8 Catastrophe and Reprieve: the Final Harvestp. 192
9 Epilogue: Life's Setting Sunp. 216
Part 2 Inventory of Worksp. 231
10 Chamber Musicp. 237
11 Orchestral Musicp. 300
12 Theater and Musical Frescoesp. 393
13 Incidental Musicp. 500
14 Light Musicp. 547
Part 3 Gathering the Threadsp. 565
15 Honegger's Physique and Characterp. 567
16 Two Countries, Three Culturesp. 573
17 Political and Social Ideas; the Role of the Composerp. 580
18 The Problem of Faithp. 588
19 Tastes and Influencesp. 593
20 Ethics, Aesthetics, and Craft: the Mission of the Creative Artist and the Mystery of Creativityp. 603
21 The Musical Languagep. 610
22 Honegger's Place in the Twentieth Centuryp. 621
23 Epiloguep. 627
Appendix 1 Chronological List of Worksp. 629
Appendlx 2p. 638
Notesp. 639
Selected Bibliographyp. 649
Index of Namesp. 653
Index of Worksp. 668

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