Manfred Honeck’s Requiem

The Austrian conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony calls on tradition to come closer to a true telling of Mozart’s death

On The Town | Dardis McNamee | December 2012 / January 2013

Austrian star conductor Manfred Honeck: ‘at home’ again between concerts (Photo: Felix Broede)

The opening concert of the Pittsburgh Symphony Vienna tour fell on Thursday, 1 November, Allerheiligen, the Feast of All Saints. This a special occasion here, more than in the English-speaking world, when tradition escorts the Viennese to the graves of their ancestors, when the ageless sense of continuity is particularly strong. It’s a sense that pervades the culture, its habits and thought alive in its music, as in all art.

So when the Austrian Manfred Honeck became principle conductor of a famed American orchestra, he made himself a promise to carry on the traditions from his childhood in Vorarlberg and his later saturation in Vienna’s musical life.

"I think it was one of the reasons they hired me," he said, the next morning over coffee at the Café Imperial, "…that I would carry these traditions. Even in Europe, when I come back to Vienna, I sometimes have the feeling that I need to remind the Viennese musicians…" He laughed.  Of course, traditions change over time, "which is as it should be," he agreed.  But we need to be able to find our way back.

Which is why it mattered to him to perform the Mozart Requiem - und der Tod in Musik und Wort (Mozart Requiem - and Death in Music and Word) for the second half of the All Saints concert. The piece is Honeck’s own arrangement, a collage of the unfinished Requiem with other selections from Mozart’s sacred works, Gregorian chant, and readings from Mozart’s letters and two short poems by the 20th-century poet and Holocaust witness Nelly Sachs.

"I thought a lot about the Austria traditions, and about Mozart’s own death, the circumstances surrounding it," he said. "How did Mozart think about death?" Here it turns out there is clear evidence, a letter to his father written shortly before Mozart’s death, "one of the most beautiful documents we have," Honeck confirmed, where Mozart speaks of Death as his "best friend", of whom he has no fear.

Mozart was constantly confronted with death – of his mother, and four of his six children – it was simply a part of life, in a way that is hard for people to understand today.

"So I find this letter particularly moving," Honeck said. "Here you have Mozart not as the ‘absolute musician’ but as a human being who is speaking to you."

Mozart died on 5 December, this we know, and according to law, was buried within 24 hours. We know that his coffin, according to tradition, would have been carried into the side chapel of Stephansdom, where he and Constanza had been married, and that Gregorian chants would have been sung. The congregants are there  in the added choruses and as in country villages, the church bell, the Totenglocke, is rung, three times, "as a kind of Trinity".

And so the piece had unfolded in concert, telling a story of Mozart’s last days, or perhaps only hours, what he might have heard in his imagined ear, or written, or thought, as he came closer to a trusted end.

"What I wanted finally," Honeck said, "was for everyone to be engulfed in silence. It’s so beautiful when 1,700 people are completely quiet, for a certain time – I didn’t measure for how long – but after the Ave Verum, after the striking of the bells, no one dared to begin clapping.

"And that for me is the most beautiful moment, because it is in that moment that the Requiem is fulfilled."

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