Manfred Honeck and Bruckner’s Ninth

“You are in for a treat,” John Berky told me when he heard that Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra would be in the basilica church of Saint Vincent Archabbey to perform Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in D Minor.  Berky is Executive Secretary of the Bruckner Society of America and edits the society’s web site and on-line newsletter.  He heard Honeck conduct Bruckner’s Ninth in New York when Honeck filled in at the New York Philharmonic for an ailing Christoph Eschenbach.

Honeck shares much in common with Bruckner.  As was Bruckner, Honeck is Austrian, and both men’s lives center around their Catholic faith.  Bruckner (1824-1896) began his musical career as an organist at Saint Florian’s abbey church in Linz, in upper Austria, and his symphonies grew from his gift as an organist for filling vast vaulted spaces with rich layers of sound.  More so than other composers, Bruckner imbued his symphonies with a three-dimensional quality, soaring and yet solid, earning comparison to Gothic cathedrals.

Bruckner dedicated his Ninth Symphony “To the beloved God,” and so acoustics were not Honeck’s only reason for wanting to use Saint Vincent’s 120 year-old basilica as a venue.  At sixty-one, Honeck is at top form, and his long association with Saint Vincent includes receiving in May, 2010, an honorary doctorate from Saint Vincent College, and in April, 2017, conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony in Saint Vincent’s basilica with a magnificent interpretation of Bruckner’s Eighth.  Honeck appreciates that Bruckner’s music expresses a deep Catholic spirituality, and so a sacred setting for its performance is more than fitting.

For nine years Bruckner worked on his Ninth Symphony, characteristically revising it, striving to get it exactly right.  Work on other projects, such as a choral setting for Psalm 150, interrupted the writing and re-writing of the Ninth Symphony.  Bruckner completed the first three movements of his Ninth.  Weakened by diabetes and congestive heart failure, he had a sense that he would never live to finish the fourth and final movement, and so he left instructions stating that, in place of the incomplete fourth movement, conductors could use his Te Deum.  Bruckner’s Te Deum was first performed in the United States in 1892 in Cincinnati, and in 1904 in that same city his Ninth had its American debut.

In 2015, Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra issued their recording of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, and this summer they released a compact disc of Bruckner’s Ninth, recorded at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall.  For that recording of the Ninth, Honeck used the Leopold Nowak edition of Bruckner’s three completed movements, and for the performance at Saint Vincent, Honeck included Bruckner’s Te Deum.

One of Christianity’s oldest hymns of praise to God, the Te Deum has long been traced to the late fourth century and attributed to Saint Ambrose.  In the sixth century it became integral to the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict.  By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Catholic composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and Verdi were setting that ancient chant to more modern music, and so Bruckner was in good company.

With explosive, ecstatic energy, Bruckner’s Te Deum thunders with operatic intensity.  To sing it, Honeck called upon the brilliant voices of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh.  In 2016 they joined Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony in the Saint Vincent basilica for a performance of Bach’s Saint John Passion.

For the Pittsburgh Symphony’s new CD of Bruckner’s Ninth, Honeck wrote extensive liner notes.  In them he explained his interpretation of this symphony, a work he first performed as a violinist under the direction of Leonard Bernstein.  Honeck’s understanding of Bruckner’s Ninth brings forth the march, possibly a funeral march, recurring and processing through the First Movement, as well as the Scherzo’s variously raucous and ethereal dance.  As Honeck put it, when considered “in the context of faith, it is clear now that Bruckner has entered the supernatural.”  Most intriguing is Honeck’s intuition that permeating the Adagio, or Third Movement, are echoes of a prayer that has been part of the Catholic Mass since the end of the seventh century, the Agnus Dei.  “I center my interest,” Honeck wrote, “on the connection of words to musical interpretation, rather than the direct match of words to music.”

That is to say, while listening to the Adagio, one is not moved to intone the Latin text of the prayer, Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,” but one senses the main petition of that prayer, miserere nobis, “have mercy on us.”  Then, in the Adagio’s shimmering final notes, seemingly floating one into the silence of Heaven (Revelation 8:1), one’s soul sighs, dona nobis pacem, “grant us peace.”

Bruckner was a master of the adagio, and his Ninth’s adagio repays repeated listening and meditation.  Werner Wolff, in his Anton Bruckner:  Rustic Genius (1942), wrote, “At the end of the Adagio, the flickering violins and the dark-tinged tubas convey the picture of the deeply absorbed composer writing the last pages with a trembling hand.”  As a boy Wolff (1883-1961) met Bruckner in Berlin, Wolff’s father having been a founder of the symphony orchestra there.  As Bruckner so often managed to do, he impressed (to use a neutral word) the Wolff children as a bumpkin, memorable for his baggy suit and his drawling southern dialect.

Wolff wrote that as a young law student he heard a performance of Bruckner’s Ninth, and it changed his life.  Wolff recorded in his diary, “The rhythm of the clarinets at the end of the First Movement over the inexorable organ point on D will never cease haunting me.”  After law school, Wolff became a musical conductor, his first concert being Bruckner’s Eighth.

As Honeck wrote in the liner notes for the Pittsburgh Symphony’s new CD, “It is in the Ninth that Bruckner invites us into the presence of God to experience the beauty of his world, while also facing the darker and more violent abysses.”  Significantly, appropriately, he and the Pittsburgh Symphony will perform Bruckner’s Ninth (with Te Deum) again on 1 November, the Feast of All Souls, in Vienna’s Musikverein.  On a warm September evening, with a sustained standing ovation, around a thousand people in Saint Vincent’s basilica affirmed the profundity of the Ninth and of Honeck’s masterful reading of it.  They knew that had just experienced a rare treat indeed.

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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  1. Honeck’s performance is one of, if not the most moving, performance of this super-human symphony that I have heard in the 60 years I have been entranced by this unequalled composer