Manfred Honeck and Bruckner’s Eighth

It is fitting that a day in late April, 2017, marked by alternating sunshine and thunderstorms should see Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony in C Minor.  From the first shimmering notes to the final crescendo, it was a triumph.  The setting for this performance was the basilica of the Benedictine monastery of Saint Vincent Archabbey, outside Latrobe, Pennsylvania.  The superb acoustics of the archabbey’s church, completed in 1905, confirmed Honeck’s choice of this sacred venue for conducting the Symphony’s performance of Bruckner’s Eighth.

More so than in his other symphonies, Bruckner’s deep Catholic faith emerges in his Eighth.  Like Bruckner, Honeck is Austrian and a devout Catholic.  In June, 2008, National Catholic Register and in February, 2010, The New York Times ran features on Honeck and his faith.  The New York Times filled nearly an entire page about Honeck, in large part marveling that he prays right before conducting a concert and that any of the orchestra’s musicians who want to pray may join him.  In May, 2010, Saint Vincent College, operated by the Benedictine monks of Saint Vincent Archabbey, recognized Honeck’s commitment to faith and culture by conferring upon him an honorary doctorate.

According to notes that Honeck wrote for the Symphony’s April, 2017, program booklet, he has been familiar with Bruckner’s Eighth for more than thirty years.  As a young musician playing viola with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, he performed it both in Vienna and at Carnegie Hall, each time under the baton of the legendary Herbert von Karajan.  Karajan (1908-1989) had first conducted Bruckner’s Eighth in 1941 in Berlin, and his final performance of it, in November, 1988, with the Vienna Philharmonic, is available on CD from Deutsche Grammophon.

In his program notes for the April, 2017, performance with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Honeck recalled Karajan’s ability to summon forth from the orchestra a sound that was “imperial and pure.”  Honeck wrote that Karajan asked for “the softest pianissimos and the most powerful, loudest fortes.”  Honeck’s conducting follows that tradition, and the Pittsburgh Symphony responds, performing it, as he says, “in the right style, in the right way.”  Their fortes soared to fill every arch and vaulted ceiling of the Romanesque basilica at Saint Vincent, and their pianissimos were as gentle as a breath.

Honeck wrote that Bruckner’s Eighth is “a monumental piece” similar to “a natural phenomenon.”  Unlike Bruckner’s other symphonies, this one uses a harp, and despite its numerous fortes, cymbals occur only once.  For all the lush harmony of the strings and the glorious emphasis of the brass, it is the tympani, like an athletic heartbeat, bringing the Eighth most to life.  Afterwards the timpanist, Mike Kemp, appearing exhilarated and exhausted, told me that the Eighth “is a divine journey.”

Bruckner himself said “my Eighth is a mystery,” meaning that it has a mystical element.  Mystics can be caricatured as levitating oddities, but mystics are human, their spiritual lives, like anyone else’s, occurring alongside everyday life.  As Honeck observed, in Bruckner’s Eighth “we have every facet of human life and emotion.”  Some composers of the Romantic period show us within themselves; Bruckner, notably in his Eighth, shows us ourselves and beyond.

Bruckner, a bachelor of simple tastes and reticent disposition, seemed to many of his contemporaries just another rural man with a crew cut and a bow tie; sympathetic critics now see a musical genius of profound religious insight.  Bruckner’s musical vision saw the larger pattern connecting life’s daily details.  While a passerby might see the various carvings around a medieval cathedral, Bruckner saw that at base it forms a cross.

As with all Bruckner’s symphonies, except his Ninth, left unfinished at his death, the Eighth has four movements, ranging in length from sixteen to twenty-five minutes.  Despite spanning an hour and twenty minutes, the time by no means drags.  Bruckner, as Honeck wrote, “is the master of beating waves of sound over a long period.”  Honeck added, “And if you allow yourself into these waves and these sounds, you will never feel it to be long.”

At a few points in the first and third movements especially, Bruckner seems to transport us right to the edge of the Cloud of Unknowing, only to bring us crashing back to Earth.  That return to ground level gallops in most surprisingly with the beginning of the fourth movement.  Bruckner said it was to be “solemn, not fast,” and its martial quality refers to a ceremonial meeting in September, 1884, of the Austrian Emperor, the Russian Tsar, and the German Kaiser.  A major event at the time, its significance is now all but lost to history.  What Bruckner commemorated serves to remind the listener of the ideal, going back before the days of Charlemagne, that Christian kings ought to lead their people towards the heavenly court of the King of Kings.

Some critics and musicologists call Bruckner’s Eighth “the Apocalyptic,” although Bruckner never used that term to describe it.  Still, the symphony’s organ-like registration, its fugues and counterpoints evoke the Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse, where different images occur to convey the same message:  seven angels, seven trumpets, seven seals.  Then, amidst lightning and hail, in the heavenly Temple appears the Ark of the Covenant; then we are shown a woman clothed with the sun and with the moon at her feet:  different ways to reveal the Virgin Mary in Heaven.  With its moments of sunbeams dappling through expansive alpine thundering, the light and the dark necessarily going together, Bruckner’s Eighth gives us glimpses into Heaven.

Like another great Catholic artist, J. R. R. Tolkien, Bruckner revised and re-wrote his compositions.  He began his Eighth in 1884 and revised it in 1887 and again in 1890.  Standard works of reference encourage the interpretation that Bruckner’s almost compulsive revising derived from insecurity about his work.  More likely, those repeated re-workings show an active mind driven to get it just right.

In 1892 the Vienna Philharmonic gave Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony its premiere.  Bruckner lived another four years, dying at home in Vienna at age seventy-two.  In 1957, his Eighth, slowly entering the repertoire, was first performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony.  In 2017 at Saint Vincent, Manfred Honeck’s masterful and intimate command of the 1890 revision roused some nine hundred people to offer a standing ovation lasting close to ten minutes.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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