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 role of music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2008, Honeck has led the revival of the city’s symphony, securing its reputation 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 classical music, the religiously devout are as rare as they are in Hollywood. 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 a piece, each illuminating the other.  

Which, as he made clear in an interview about faith and music with Our Sunday Visitor, is exactly how God designed it to be. 

Our Sunday Visitor: What is the special power music has over the human heart? 

Manfred Honeck: People today long for spirituality. 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. 

Music can help to do this. It has the potential to go deeper even than film or words. 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.  

OSV: How so? 

Honeck: Well, it starts with you. You have to be willing to let something in. God works through many different ways to come to you. 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. It might be through a certain instrument, phrase or type of music that brings you into a mood which you didn’t expect. It might be music that reminds you of other times in your life, or it can remind you that you are not only living in this world now, that there is more to come. Music is something that is eternal, so it can bring you out of one moment into another moment.  

OSV: Could you maybe talk about how a specific piece of music does that? 

Honeck: Consider Mozart’s “Requiem.” When you listen to it, 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. I hear so often from people how they start to cry at that moment in the “Requiem,” how they know then that God is taking care of them.  

OSV: Are those emotions written into the piece by Mozart, or is it just a matter of personal interpretation? 

Honeck: When a composer like Mozart composed a piece like his “Requiem,” he had something in mind. He knew what he was talking about. Think of it this way: When you write a letter, you choose every word, and the words you choose, you choose in order to make yourself understood. Music is like that. It’s a musical letter. So, as the conductor, my first goal must be to find out what Mozart was thinking, what he was trying to communicate. Then, my second goal is to explain that to the orchestra, choir and soloists. And if we understand the clear meaning of every note, every word, then the audience will get the meaning, too. But the message is not mine. It’s Mozart’s. He is the one who created it. 

OSV: We’ve talked about the positive effects music can have on the heart, but what about the negative effects?  

Honeck: 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. Sometimes in hospitals they put music on, so they’ve done research to find out what kind of music is best for the body, what kind of music helps the healing process go quicker.  

And they’ve found that Mozart and Bach are the best composers for healing. Bach, Mozart — they make people happy. On the opposite end of that is music that ignores the heart. That can be music that is only intellectual and conceptual or it can be music that is not tonal. It’s music that goes against what the nature of the body asks for.  

OSV: Is the role music plays in educating the heart why the Church has been such a great patron of music through the centuries?  

Honeck: In many ways, the history of music and the history of the Church are closely related. It was through the monasteries that music developed. In the sixth century, Gregorian chant became the first notated music. It was understood, this connection between God and music, and through the Church, music developed, from Gregorian chant to polyphony, then instrumentation. 

Like painting and writing, music was and is a way to express love to God, and the developments that happened through the Church in music along the way, that was God allowing people to find new ways to express their love of him. 

Over the last century, the world of classical music and the Church, they have grown apart, but we can be very thankful for all that the Church did for so long to help create something so beautiful. 

OSV: What do you think the renewed emphasis Pope Benedict XVI has placed on Gregorian chant means for the future of music in the Church? 

Honeck: Pope Benedict is very keen to bring back Gregorian chant, and I think people are keen to hear it.  

It fascinates me that monks in monasteries bring out CDs and young people buy them. I think there’s something in the music — the simplicity and honesty of it — that people need to hear. 

More importantly, however, Gregorian chant is part of the Church’s tradition. And we cannot separate the Church from the tradition. 

All of the beautiful music that has been composed for God, from Gregorian chant through Palestrina to Mozart, Brahms and Bruckner, it is all part of our history, part of people’s experience of faith, and as Catholics we must recover and embrace that history. 

What Pope Benedict is now promoting, I think, can lead not only to a rediscovery and recovery of this great tradition, but maybe will start a new wave, a new era in Church music that gives glory to God.  

OSV: Is it difficult, living your faith so publicly in a profession where so few do the same? 

Honeck: When my wife, Christiane, and I were planning to marry, our priest drew for us a triangle with a point upwards, for God, and the other two for Christiane 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.  

The same applies to my career. Breaking any connection — between me and my music or me and God or my music and God — would cause great suffering in my life. 

When I was growing up, I did not have the courage to pray. My family didn’t pray as much as I wanted to, and I wasn’t brave enough to pray in front of them. 

So, I would go to the bathroom to pray.  

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found courage. Now, prayer surrounds everything I do. And because of that, through music, I can bring God and spirituality to my audience. I am very lucky. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.