When Manfred Honeck takes over in September as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Catholic conductor will follow in the footsteps of Sir Andrew Davis, Fritz Reiner and Andre Previn.
Manfred Honeck wowed music critics and audiences in Pittsburgh last month. And the Austrian conductor returns in September as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
A Pittsburgh daily newspaper article last fall went into detail about Honeck’s home life and his Catholic faith. Honeck and his wife, Christiane, realized a deep wish when they built a house chapel into their attic. “Here the family prays together,” said the Austrian native, 49. “It is very important for the family to have a half an hour just to be together as a family.” His eldest son is a seminarian.
Register correspondent Robert Rauhut spoke with Honeck about the relationship between his family and his career.
You were born in the quiet Alpine village of Nenzinger Himmel, Austria. What events and persons from your childhood do you particularly remember?
I have eight brothers and sisters. Our living conditions were very simple, primitive, I mean materially, not spiritually. There was not much money, no TV, hardly any radio. My parents, my father in particular, are the persons who have shaped me decisively. But also my brothers and sisters have certainly influenced me.
I grew up in a natural, peaceful atmosphere, which was not under such strong influence of the media. We often went into the mountains. Nature was important.
You were very young when your mother died. How did this death affect you?
I think it is a characteristic of a big family, that you stand close by in such situations, if something like that occurs. A big family compensates this; you are closer to each other than you were before. I have the older brothers and sisters, who replaced my mother in a certain way. As a 7-year-old boy I was very touched by that death, but I think that I did not realize that in its fullness at that time. I realized it later, when I missed my mother, e.g., when friends’ mothers went to the mothers’ meeting or when they celebrated Mother’s Day. But that came later. I was too young. The other brothers and sisters understood the situation much more.
You grew up in an area with traditional popular piety. Did your father play a decisive role with regard to your faith?
It went without saying in a such a village that you participated in the life of the local church, that you approved these traditions, that you took part in processions, that you celebrated name days, not so much birthdays, that you served as altar server, that you made pilgrimages, for example, to a Marian chapel, on the way to Nenzinger Himmel. It has got a 17th-century image from a church that was washed away by a river. Only that image is left from the church, and in the middle of the torrential river the image remained unspoiled. That was seen as miracle, so that the people started building a chapel for the Mother of God and honoring that image.
These traditions have been very important to us because they have grown out of a long history forming a natural continuation which we were allowed to experience. Today some traditions have naturally been lost. One of these traditions was that we went together with our family to the house of the deceased and sprinkled the coffin with holy water.
Today it is not like that any more. Some alienation is taking place in the village and you do not have that personal contact on the same scale. But if you remember those traditions, you realize how important they are. When you sort of hinted at the conviction that it is the mother who passes on faith, then I want to note that, if I remember properly, the newest research has shown that the fathers, when they deeply live their faith, impress their children very, very strongly. Therefore it is not only the mother who is responsible for the passing of the faith, but I think that children are very fascinated when their fathers suddenly kneel down.
If a child sees that his father has, so to speak, another father, then the child will certainly grow up in a different way. Then the father is still there, but there is something or somebody who is bigger.
Your father helped set you on your current path when you went to the academy in Vienna, a big change from the village of your youth.
I would like to add one memory of my life that is never mentioned. My father was a keen lover of music, classical and folk music. He played the flugelhorn, but he loved music very much, especially harmonic music. There was a choir from the Cistercian Abbey of Zwettl in Lower Austria and they were giving a concert tour nearby. My father asked me: “Would you not like to sing there?” And then he enrolled me at that school.
I went there for a year, living in a boarding school, in order to learn singing. And suddenly I ended up in an absolutely foreign area to me, close to the Czech border, a very deserted area. My brothers and sisters were in the Vorarlberg region, about 372 miles away. So I spent a year there and I was only able to return home at Christmas and Easter.
This time at the boarding school shaped me very much, not only as I learned a lot about singing, but also because I got to know a different culture and a sort of different language, a different dialect. In Vorarlberg we spoke the Alemannic dialect and there they spoke Eastern Austrian, nearly the Viennese dialect, but I learned that later. While at school I did not realize it but later on I realized that this period of life was very important for my later understanding of music and also for my consciousness, also my spiritual consciousness. My family then moved from Vorarlberg to Vienna; I followed a year later.
My father was a person who liked to take risks because moving with a huge family to Vienna, with little money, was extremely daring. Who would do something like that today? I mean, you have to survive in a huge city. And then the change from a little cozy village to a cold city, where you do not know anybody. And he did it all for one reason, so we could study music in such a way that we would have a good job potential.
To go with God’s confidence in such a huge city, the more I look back at it, the more respect I have regarding that step because it shows that my father had a lot of confidence.
But the student’s time can also be a time of questioning one’s own traditions.
In my case I cannot agree. You have to see it from the background of my family.
There is a family coming to Vienna, we were seven at that time altogether, two already married abroad. We did not know anybody, we formed an enclave, which was completely isolated and strongly influenced by our father. As a consequence we did not take part in all the waves of that time and I am very thankful for that. I mean, for example, going to the disco every Saturday and Sunday. This did not exist in our family. Instead, we went on trips on Sunday.
We always were family; there was no time for experiments, and we had a lot to practice when playing an instrument. For questioning and all the ideas of that time there was no time.
It is true that once you leave your family you have to adjust to the new situation. I got to know my wife very early. She was 16 and I was 21. Two years later we married and we did not know that we would have six children.
How did you get to know your wife?
Both of us visited the Orchestra Academy in Salzburg, where both of us played the violin. I was the leader of the second group of violins and then we got to know each other slowly but surely.
Was it self-evident for you to marry that early?
If you fall in love, you do not think about the moment. For me personally it was important to have a woman who in principal shares the same values, that she is open to having children, that she loves children, that she has faith, whereby at the beginning my wife may not have stood that firm in faith, but she had that desire. And what she told me later, I did not know that at that time, that already in her childhood she had prayed to know the right husband. If God wants this, what can I do?
This question of when one should marry has become popular nowadays. This is formed by the widespread opinion that first one has to have a job, and then we will see if we can afford it and then we may have children. At that age you are often 30 or 35 years old. That it has been different in the past, we all know that. Life expectancy, for instance, was much shorter. Although people generally married earlier it worked. If the love is harmonious and has really been examined, then I am convinced that a marriage can last for eternity.
Robert Rauhut is based
in Munich, Germany.
- June 1-7, 2008