Born Arthur Oscar Honegger in Le Havre, France. He initially studied harmony and violin in Paris, and after a brief period in Zürich, returned there to study with Charles Widor and Vincent d'Indy. He continued to study through the 1910s, before writing the ballet Le dit des jeux du monde in 1918, generally considered to be his first characteristic work.
Between World War I and World War II, Honegger was very prolific, composing nine ballets and three operas, amongst other works. One of those operas, Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (1935) is thought of as one of his finest works.
Honegger had always remained in touch with his native Switzerland, but with the outbreak of the war and the invasion of the Nazis, he found himself trapped in Paris. He joined the French Resistance, and was generally unaffected by the Nazis themselves, who allowed him to continue his work without too much interference, but it is said that he was greatly depressed by the war. Nonetheless, between its outbreak and his death, he wrote his last four symphonies (numbers two to five), which are quite frequently performed and recorded.
Although Honegger was a member of Les Six, his work does not typically share the playfulness and simplicity of the other members of that group. Far from reacting against the romanticism of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss as the other members of Les Six did, Honegger's mature works show evidence of a distinct influence by it.
The other members of "Les Six" were:
The Pacific is a class of steam locomotive usually designated as a 4-6-2, with four pony wheels, six driving wheels, and two trailing wheels. The title of the Honegger piece Pacific 231 reflects the French designation of this wheel arrangement where wheels are counted as seen from the side, and not to the number of the locomotive.