Home Musical score Bernard Haitink believed that genius should speak for itself

Bernard Haitink believed that genius should speak for itself


THE SPEAKS “Great conductor” and “humility” do not often meet together. Almost inevitably, given the podium, the magic staff, the formal attire, and the towering drama of the job, conductors are teeming with ego. Bernard Haitink didn’t have time for that. He was a man of few gestures and even fewer words, humbly accomplishing the mysterious task that had become his life.

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On the podium, he did nothing conspicuous: a finger lift, a meaningful look, a vestige of a smile. His musical personality, he thought, said all that was needed, and the orchestras of Europe and America, especially the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, where he was conductor for 27 years, and the London Philharmonic (LPO), where he stayed for 12 years – learned to read it perfectly, mood for mood. During rehearsals and behind the scenes, he spoke as little as possible, not wanting words to get in the way, and also being afraid of talking nonsense. For the same reason, he stayed away from music politics, unless he was seriously provoked.

When he spoke, it was often to demean himself. He played the violin as a child, but “badly”. At school he was a “lazy pig,” just not interested. He did not impress the Amsterdam conservatory and strummed the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, at the back office of the second violins. Luck led him to direct, when asked to complete Cherubini’s Requiem, but he had no tools for the job. When he went to the Concertgebouw in 1961, he was “totally chaotic”, far too young, at 34, to conduct it. His first attempts at opera were “near-catastrophes”. Etc.

Terribly, crippling shy as he was, it was a way of closing a subject. It also helped him keep his feet on the ground, as critics increasingly marveled at the beauty, pace and clarity of his work. There was no better guide, they said, to the architecture of a Mahler symphony or the spiritual complexities of Bruckner, no better painter of the colors sea and sky by Debussy; some of his interpretations approached the supernatural. How was it done? He did not know. As he saw it, he could always be better.

With orchestras he was a team player; he had been a modest back-desker, after all. He and the orchestra formed a community, a family, and he took as many ideas from it as vice versa. He gave them the freedom to perform the music the way they felt it, with only the tiniest nudges: “Hope you guys agree,” he would say, or “If you don’t mind.” . As in any family, there were quarrels; eventually he resigned from his two long-standing orchestras and (until he quickly relented) from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, where he worked from 1987 to 2002. whenever he stood with his players like one of them. At a desperate time in 1998, he appealed to the “Götterdämmerung” public to save Covent Garden, and he was saved. Just a few words, but from him they seemed to work. Or maybe the music did.

On the program side, he did not win. His favorite symphonic repertoire was rich in Mozart, Beethoven and the romantics of the 19th century, but also Stravinsky and Britten, and he defended his contemporaries. Opera productions often seemed strange to him, but he only raised objections once, when Wagner’s ‘Ring’ in Covent Garden featured young Rhenish girls in fat latex costumes and Wotan and Fricka in a dented limousine. He endured it by closing his eyes to live in music. About opera too, he had many doubts when in 1978, with limited experience, he was hired for Glyndebourne with the LPO. But in the end, it did wonders for him. He learned to be more dramatic, just a little bit, and could lose his ego even more when he was in the pit, almost invisible, collaborating with sopranos and stage designers and everything in between.

He could then devote himself entirely to music, to the service of the genius who had produced it. Both were impenetrable mysteries. Wagner could be horrible, Beethoven irascible, Mozart liked dirty jokes; and then they wrote these sublime works, inexplicably. He was their simple conduit to the world, channeling every composer’s dream like a beautiful blooming flower. The shape of the room was the most important thing, the progression and the flow, knowing exactly where he was going. Yet the delicate inner discoveries were endless. No matter how many times he had performed a piece, he would buy a new sheet music for each season and start over.

When he spoke of music, fear entered her frequently. It wasn’t just the jitters everyone had. He feared that he would not be up to the task he had set for himself. Almost until the end, he moved away from Bach, too tall for him, with so much counterpoint and with such religious fervor, when he had none. How is it then that he was attracted from the age of nine to Bruckner, with his intensely Catholic mysticism? He couldn’t tell.

Mysteries like this largely explained his humility. But he also lived with another strange and disturbing thought. In his early years of leadership he had been such a lucky young man, seeming to become a sleepwalker to international fame, without planning anything. There was a dark reason for this, however. Growing up in Holland under German occupation, he had watched his Jewish friends gradually disappear from the classroom and Jewish players disappear from the Concertgebouw, where he already spent his leisure time. One day he went to see a young Jewish violinist play Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata” at his home. It was wonderfully well done. Then he was gone.

His own family also suffered: his father was sent for three months to a concentration camp, everyone eats tulips during the Honger winter of 1944-45. Yet he was ashamed of both Dutch indifference to Jews and outbursts of violent revenge after liberation, a shame that fueled his later belief that he was no longer Dutch. And he felt that his life had prospered in large part because more talented people had lost theirs.

On the podium, he was still aware of hundreds of eyes behind his back. It was the last place, you think, for someone so shy. But he wasn’t there just to channel the music, although that was the main point. He was also required to do his best to replace an assembly of ghosts. â– 

This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the title “De la musique, pas des mots”