Over the past three decades, Manfred Honeck has made two names for himself. The first is as one of the greatest symphonic conductors of our age.
An accomplished violinist and violist, Honeck has both conducted and played with Europe's finest orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, the Czech Philharmonic, the Norwegian National Opera, and more. And since assuming the post of music director for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2008, Honeck has strengthened the city's symphony, securing its reputation, both in Europe and America, as one of the world's finest.
That, however, is only the first name Honeck has made for himself. The second is as a Catholic devoted to his faith and family.
In the world of the performing arts, the religiously devout are the rarest of breeds. But Honeck, who is the father of six, with one son in the seminary, is unabashed about his faith. He prays before concerts, attends daily Mass as often as his continent-hopping schedule permits, and even has a chapel in his Austrian home. To him, his music and his faith are all of one piece, each illuminating the other.
Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
"People today long for spirituality," Honeck told students at the February 9 lecture. "We have machines. We have the Internet. But that doesn't touch our souls, and it can even leave us feeling like it is a cold, cold world. We need something that goes deeply into the soul, that touches our emotions, and reminds us who we are."
One of the "somethings" that can do that, he continued, is music.
"It has the potential to go deeper even than film or words," he explained later in an interview with Franciscan Way. "If you let it in, it can actually help you understand your soul. And if it's sacred music, that's even more true. It's like a telephone number to God."
As a conductor, Honeck strives to be something of an operator, using that "telephone number" to connect his audience to God and truth. In his lecture, he walked students through how that's possible, illustrating his points with musical selection from his 2009 performance of Mozart's Requiem in Pittsburgh's Heinz Hal. And, as the talk progressed, it became clear that doing what Honeck does requires more than just technical skill.
First, as Honeck himself will tell you, it requires understanding, a careful and thoughtful attentiveness to a composer's objectives. As Honeck described it, to convey the meaning behind a piece such as Mozart's Requiem one has to read the music like one reads a letter, striving to understand what the composer was trying to convey. The conductor in turn has to explain that message to the orchestra.
"If we both understand the clear meaning of every note, every word, then the audience will get the meaning, too," he said.
What Honeck doesn't say is that approaching music the way he does also requires great courage. It takes courage to openly confess that you want to "bring God and spirituality" to people. And it requires courage to strive to do it as Honeck does - explaining Catholic doctrines of heaven, purgatory, and hell to musicians so the might understand the meaning behind what they're playing; introducing new musical elements such as Gregorian Chant and church bells into well-known pieces, so that echoes of the liturgical make their way into the concert hall; and incorporating readings from the Bible or meditations on death into the performance so that people's hearts might become a bit more receptive to the message behind the music.
It takes courage to do all that not only because it's musically risky, a variation from the norm, but also because it's professionally risky. It's the sort of thing that even when done well can raise suspicions among non-Christian musicians, irritate concertgoers, and earn you the scorn of critics and peers.
Honeck, however, believes so strongly in the power of music and the truth of his Catholic faith that he's willing to take those risks. At least, he's willing to take them now. But, as he told Franciscan students, that hasn't always been the case.
"As a child, my family didn't pray as much as I wanted to, and I wasn't brave enough to pray in front of them," he said. "So I would go into the bathroom to pray in private. Or, if I was in church, I would look around first before kneeling down to make sure none of my friends were looking at me."
So what accounts for the change from the boy who prayed in the bathroom to the man who talks publicly about his Catholic faith to reporters from the New York Times?
Honeck explained: "When my wife, Christiana, and I were planning to marry, our priest drew for us a triangle with a point upwards, for God, and the other two for Christiana and me. He explained that in the sacrament of marriage, each point must be connected. I must keep my connection with God and my wife. She must do the same. If any pairing becomes disconnected, the marriage will suffer."
In time, Honeck came to apply the same principle to his career. "I know that breaking any connection between me and my music or me and God or my music and God - would cause great suffering in my life," he said.
He's also learned that the same act of faith that nourishes his marriage - prayer - must likewise nourish his career. "If you want a relationship with someone, you call them every day," he explained. "The more you speak with your friend, the more you know him. It's the same with God. If you break the connection between yourself and God, you lose your values and your beliefs. So," he concludes, "prayer surrounds everything I do."
And that shows. It shows in the work - which has been lauded by critics, musicians, and concertgoers alike, not in spite of Honeck's vision of music and faith, but in many ways, because of it. (A Google search of reactions to his performance of Mozart's Requiem quickly produces adjectives such as "compelling," "superb," and "resounding success.") More importantly, however, it shows in the man. At the end of his lecture, one woman asked Honeck if the human heart could be educated. He answered, "It depends on who your teacher is, who educates you. If it is yourself, that is dangerous. If it is God who works on you, then you have a chance. Your heart can be transformed."
And that brings us back to music, which Honeck believes is almost inseparable from God's work of educating the heart. "If you listen to the wrong music, negative music, over a long period of time, it can bring on depression. It can increase your own negativity," he said. On the other hand, he continued, "When you listen to [a piece like Mozart's Requiem], it can bring you to think about your own death or the death of someone close to you. You can be terrified by the Dies Irae, or you can be comforted by the beginning of the Lacrimosa. You can also find hope in the Ave Verum, hope that death is not an ending but the start of eternal life.
God works through many different ways to come to you," he concluded. "He will never give up trying to reach you. That's the wonderful love he has for us. Even if we refuse him, he will never refuse us. So, in music, if your heart is open, you will find him speaking."
And on that count, Honeck himself is proof.