On Music

High-voltage Haitink recalled

Bernard Haitink, who died last month, was a conducting master

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Watching Bernard Haitink from the choir seats behind the orchestra at London’s Royal Festival Hall, I received free masterclasses over several years in the art and practice of conducting. Haitink would come on stage, bald pate sheened with sweat, and after a glance around the musicians get straight to business. Hands, eyes and lips in perpetual motion, the rest of him quite still. 

What ensued was a revivalist miracle. A bunch of musicians who had been working non stop since nine in the morning and might not get home before midnight, had their fatigue dispelled by the kind of leadership normally seen on the battlefield. What Haitink did, repeatedly before my eyes, was to relieve performers of accumulated stress and allow them room to breathe.

I was aware I was watching an outstandingly able maestro, one who had rare empathy for music and musicians. It took me longer to understand that the shy, unflashy Dutchman was a transformative conductor, changing the very nature of how music is made.

As a teenager at the Salzburg Festival just after the Second World War, the first conductors Haitink saw were Wilhelm Furtwängler, who wavered on stage waiting for the spirit to descend, and Herbert von Karajan, who micromanaged every last detail. Bounding up behind was Leonard Bernstein, calisthenic as a personal trainer, and Georg Solti who yelled his way to Ring triumph. None of these maestros was remotely how Haitink saw himself.

The son of an Amsterdam electricity official and his Belgian, half Jewish wife, Bernard Haitink saw his father held hostage by the Germans and all the Jewish boys vanish from school. He survived the war in hunger and fear. After liberation, he saw Nazi collaborators reinvent themselves as resistants. It bred in Haitink a lifelong mistrust of men in authority.

Scraping into a conducting course, he got his break when Carlo Maria Giulini dropped out of a Cherubini Requiem, which Haitink had recently rehearsed. An explosive debut led to work with the radio orchestra and, aged 30, his appointment as chief conductor of the Concertgebouworkest, the crown jewel of Dutch arts. 

Haitink suffered from the Dutch tall poppy syndrome: raise your head high and it will be lopped off

But the job came with strings attached. The big decisions were taken by the artistic director, Marius Flothuis, and German repertoire was handled by a dull Kapellmeister, Eugen Jochum, feeding Haitink’s dislike of self important institutions.

A record deal with the Dutch label Philips brought him to the London Philharmonic, where he flourished in the 1970s, joining the orchestra at its summer opera residency at Glyndebourne, his first real experience of opera. 

Haitink, though prolific on record, was not famous. When he asked why his sales did not match Karajan and Solti, producers urged him to give press interviews. But Haitink suffered from the Dutch tall poppy syndrome: raise your head high and it will be lopped off.

Even more inhibiting was a humility founded upon grim experience. Late in life he told a Chicago musician: “You know, I was nothing special back in my school days. There were so many of my peers that were much more talented than I was. But they were all Jewish boys, and they were murdered. I was all that was left — that is why I enjoyed the career I have had.”

Too modest by half, what Haitink did was to reinvent conducting as an ego free zone in which the maestro is barely primus inter pares with the musicians. 

Let others strut and shout. He said little at rehearsal and less in public. Only twice did he speak out — threatening to quit the Concertgebouw over cuts to musician jobs, and repeating the threat when Covent Garden tried to disband its orchestra during a 1990s rebuilding crisis. On both occasions, Haitink prevailed. 

He hated confrontation and did not handle it well. Ousted from the Concertgebouw in 1988, he neither forgot nor fully forgave. Sacked by the record industry in a massacre of top maestros, he argued bitterly with the executioner and would not speak to him again for years. 

I remember a Covent Garden Jenufa where the tremolo in the lower strings was so affecting that I could hardly hear the music for the sobbing around me

He could be petulant, but also kind, showing infinite patience with singers who struggled to shape a phrase and endless courtesy to conducting students. “Don’t think too much,” he’d tell one. “You’re doing too much,” he’d admonish another. 

After Covent Garden he had a spell in Dresden and a happy decade with the tough minded musicians of the Chicago Symphony. Among my indelible memories are a Chicago performance of the long silenced Shostakovich fourth symphony, which Haitink liberated from political agendas; a Schubert Great C major with the London Philharmonic which sounded far ahead of its time; and a Mahler ninth where under utilised wind players sat with hands on knees, transfixed by Haitink’s voltage. 

Most of all, I remember a Covent Garden Jenufa where, when the foster mother takes the baby to be drowned, the tremolo in the lower strings was so affecting that I could hardly hear the music for the sobbing around me (later, a cellist told me that they, too, had wept). Many shed a tear when Haitink died last month, aged 92.

What was it that Haitink brought to conducting? An ethos of equality, selflessness and service to art and humanity. One other virtue dawned on me, sitting in the back ache choir seats. Haitink relieved musicians of fear. The teenaged Simon Rattle, playing piano in The Rake’s Progress at Glyndebourne, recalled that, “if Bernard was on the rostrum I found I could play it all without faking or missing out handfuls of notes. It must have been something to do with the space he imparted.”

That’s what a great conductor does: he sets the music free. 

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