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Le Roi David was composed in Mézièresmarker, Switzerlandmarker in 1921 by Arthur Honegger and is classified as an oratorio or more specifically as a dramatic psalm. The libretto was written by René Morax ( 1873-1963), and tells the biblical story of King David’s life from the time he was a shepherd, to his conquests in battle, his rise to power, his lust for another man’s wife, his agony over his son’s death, his disobedience to God, and finally to his own death. The work is separated into twenty-seven sections or movements and depends heavily on thematic elements.

Arthur Honegger was commissioned to write incidental music to accompany Rene Morax’s play Le Roi David in 1921. Honegger was given the nearly impossible deadline of 2 months to complete the work and was rewarded with much acclaim at the premiere. In 1923 he combined Morax’s narrative with his music and created a "symphonic psalm," the form that is familiar today, and titled his work Le Roi David.


The instrumentation is often sparse, as a medium-sized orchestra (2 flutes [1 doubling piccolo], 2 oboes [1 doubling English horn], 2 clarinets [1 doubling bass clarinet], 2 bassoons [1 doubling contrabassoon], 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, tam-tam, organ, celesta, harp, timpani, and strings) accompanying a chorus (often singing antiphonally or in unison), soprano, alto and tenor soloists, a narrator and an actress for nº 12 - Incantation Scene (Saul and the witch at Endor). The music is separated into 27 mostly brief sections and features many individual instruments.


  1. Introduction
  2. The Song of David, the Shepherd
  3. Psalm: All Praise to Him
  4. Song of Victory
  5. March
  6. Psalm: In the Lord I Put my Faith
  7. Psalm: O Had I Wings Like a Dove
  8. Song of the Prophets
  9. Have Mercy on Me, my Lord
  10. Saul's Camp
  11. Psalm: God, the Lord Shall Be my Light
  12. Incantation
  13. March of the Philistines
  14. The Lamentations of Gilboa
  15. Festival Song (Song of the Daughters of Israel)
  16. The Dance before the Ark
  17. Song, Now my Voice in Song Upsoaring
  18. Song of the Handmaid
  19. Psalm of Penitence
  20. Psalm; Behold, in Evil I Was Born
  21. Psalm: O Shall I Raise mine Eyes unto the Mountains?
  22. The Song of Ephraim
  23. March of the Hebrews
  24. Psalm: In my Distress
  25. Psalm: In this Terror, the Gread God which I Adore
  26. The Coronation of Solomon
  27. The Death of David


Le Roi David is divided into three main parts and tells the biblical story of King David. In the first part, the Lord directs the prophet Samuel to choose Saul as the ruler of the people of Israel. However, when Saul does not follow the Lord’s instructions, Samuel is told to place David as ruler. The first part continues to tell the story of David’s battles against the Philistines as well as Saul’s growing jealousy of David. The second part covers David’s crowning and unification of Israel. The third and final part tells of David’s lust for Bathsheba and his punishment for adultery. In this final section of the piece, David flees Jerusalem, loses his power, manages to restore his position as king then offends God by censuring the people. An epidemic disease afflicts Jerusalem, and David appoints his son Solomon to succeed him and then dies. At the end of the piece an angel tells of Isaiah’s prophesy of a flower blooming from David’s stem.

Analysis of text and music

The most significant element of Le Roi David is the combination of different styles of music in one complete work. Honegger uses compositional techniques ranging from Gregorian chant to Baroque to jazz. Honegger’s utilization of all of these concepts allowed him to make a serious contribution to the neoclassical era. The music is littered with thematic gestures and is most often performed in French.


  1. Arthur Honegger's King David Francis Poulenc's Gloria
  2. Classical Net Article - Honegger - Le Roi David
  3. Arthur Honegger's King David Francis Poulenc's Gloria
  4. A History of Western Music, Burkholder

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