Faith and Divine Music

Conductor Manfred Honeck shares two of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s passions.

(photo: Shutterstock)

Maestro Manfred Honeck is the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and one of the world’s foremost conductors.

He is also a Catholic and unabashedly open about his faith.

Born in Austria as one of nine children, he is the father of six. He shared his views on why he believes it’s vital to be open about one’s faith, the importance of beauty in musical compositions and why he feels a sense of the sacred is returning to music. He spoke with the Register during a break at a Jan. 22 concert of Mozart and Dvorak that he was conducting at Santa Cecilia auditorium in Rome.


How much does your faith impact your work as a conductor?

My faith is the most important thing in my life, actually, because I often think about where we come from and where we are going.

It’s a long journey, but we believe it will be a short one compared to eternity; and I have learned the importance of putting God in the center of my life.

Whatever I do is guided by God, and, therefore, if I make music, I do it in honor of God. Whether I do it well, that’s another question — I cannot judge that!


Do you try to offer an interpretation of God through the music you conduct?

Definitely. You can’t ask God how you should do it. If I let God be part of my life, like we say in the Lord’s Prayer, "Your will is more important than my will," then he can guide me in the direction sometimes I don’t want, but it’s better for me.


It’s said you would like to use your fame and reputation to further the Gospel. Can you tell us more about how you try to do this?

There is an important element in our Christian life: that we have courage to speak about our faith.

Wherever I go as a conductor, I come into contact with media people, with audiences, and, somehow, people always ask about my life and about my faith.

Instead of hiding and being quiet, I will talk about it. I think it’s very important for us all, not only conductors, to speak about our faith and have no fear.

When I gave an interview to The New York Times two or three years ago, some people told me: "You shouldn’t talk about Catholicism." And I said: "No, I will. Why shouldn’t I?"

They thought it would be a disadvantage to me, and I said: "No, if it’s a disadvantage, it’s not a problem for me; it is a problem for others." And it turned out very well. I believe people still think of me as crazy. That doesn’t matter. It’s not the question.

If every Christian were to talk more about his belief and take a stand for it, then it might be very helpful for the sacredness of the environment.


What is your opinion on the liturgy? Do you feel it needs to be made more reverent, more traditional, perhaps?

I think Pope Benedict is doing the right thing. It’s such a wonderful liturgy. The liturgy is the center of our belief, and the more beautiful it is, the better it is for us; and we get inspired by that.


Do you think contemporary music lacks a certain transcendence and awareness of beauty and truth?

Yes, and it goes quite far back. But I know some composers who are using more sacred elements in their music, especially in America. There are transcendent elements.


Do you think a sense of sacredness is coming back?

I think so, because we talk about God a little bit more now, which did not happen 20 years ago. But you can never predict. We still have a lot of enemies.


The concert this evening contains a piece by Mozart. Is there something very special and spiritual about Mozart’s music?

Yes, it is spiritual — and I would say Divine.


Do you think that the way you conduct music can direct you and others to God?

Yes, there is always imagination with music. You can never fix it to a certain point.

Music, compared to the [spoken] word, has the advantage of going deeper into the soul, I would say. Music can guide you into some areas when you cannot express yourself, when you cannot find the right words. And you can find yourself in a world you did not expect. You might not understand it, and that’s especially true of Mozart, but he brings you certain melodies and some harmonies — and then, suddenly, disturbances.

That’s the famous contrast and battle between dissonant and consonant, between harmony and disharmony. How much a person can bear disharmony is a question we have to find out. The flute concerto this evening [by modern composer Marc-Andre Dalbavie] is certainly more dissonant. It’s absolutely clear that in all the things you hear — the music you experience in your life — there is no life which is only harmony, and there is no life which is only disharmony.

The solutions and transitions from harmony to disharmony — that’s where a great composer has the talent to bring you to a certain level, and he thinks then about his own life.

If you have a problem at home or somewhere, music helps you understand, because you can identify with the problem. When the music comes into your body, into your soul, it can help you to solve the problem. It won’t directly help you to do that, but it can help you to think in a different way, to guide you. And that is the influence of God.

Don’t misunderstand me: Not all music can do that. There is some music which, unfortunately, can destroy. We never talk about that, unfortunately, which is not good, because we have a lot of scientific and medical research that found that, in hospitals, when they put music in the rooms, they found that certain music is healing.

Mozart and Bach come first [as uplifting]. So if there is music which can be healing, we must raise the question: Is there a music that does not do that? And I believe there is. It is a music which can destroy and bring you to depression.

Has that music increased in the past 50 or 60 years? Would you say it is in modern music?

I wouldn’t say modern music has that effect. Any music that is influenced by darkness is somehow dangerous or influenced by another purpose — simply a purpose to provoke an effect, maybe even in the text.

In entertainment music, there are wonderful pieces. Also in the pop industry there can be some wonderful music in which you can identify, but there is also some with mystic elements.

Young kids especially don’t understand the text, and they (just) hear the music. But if it’s about bad things, with a bad spirit, that is not good.


The English philosopher Roger Scruton has argued that, as we’ve lost a sense of the sacred, so our art and culture have become more dissonant; they’ve lost their beauty. Do you think that’s true, and can that be applied to classical music? Where are the Bachs and Mozarts of today, for instance?

In a certain way, yes, but I would not agree with that 100%, because what is beauty in a certain period of time can be viewed differently in another.

It is clear that, in the time of Bach and Mozart, the experience of dissonance was very strong; but now the dissonance in Mozart’s music is not there anymore. One hundred years later, when Wagner and Berlioz came on the scene, there was more dissonance; and then, when Mahler was composing, there was yet more, in the 20th century.


The perception of harmony and dissonance is therefore relative?

Exactly, because the human ear has a certain level which accepts dissonance. But it’s good that composers are going back to harmony.

We need harmony; we need peace. And we need music which helps us understand beauty. Beauty is something which is so important. (See related story on page B3.)


Would you say a great piece of music is synonymous with Truth?

Absolutely. Composers and music makers talked about Truth at the end of the 19th century, and then suddenly that disappeared. It has something to do with relativism, which is now a big theme in our day — that everything is possible, and there are no rules anymore. (See related column on page 7.)

The culture reflects the society very often — actually, always — I would say.