Bernard Haitink holds an eminent place in European classical music circles as one of the world’s most respected conductors. Haitink’s career has included stints with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of the Netherlands and Royal Opera House at London’s Covent Garden. He departed the latter post, considered one of Britain’s most influential arts jobs, to become conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle in mid-2002. With the Amsterdam and London Philharmonic orchestras Haitink has made a prolific number of recordings; his cycles of Richard Wagner’s operas, as well as the symphonies of Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler, are deemed exemplary. Guardian writer Andrew Clements called him “one of the leading conductors of our age, a superbly natural musician who brings a rare combination of rigour and expressiveness to everything he tackles. Haitink’s performances have always been a reflection of the man himself: direct, unshowy and profoundly truthful.”
Haitink was born on March 4, 1929, in Amsterdam and grew up during the World War II era and the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. It was a dangerous time for his family, for his mother was half-Jewish and thus subject to deportation to a concentration camp. Haitink’s father, a Dutch civil servant, was once rounded up in retaliatory measure by German occupying forces and incarcerated for nearly four months as one of a hundred hostages. Haitink has recalled that the family had no idea of the father’s whereabouts, until he received a letter from him one day that asked about the score for Beethoven’s Fidelio. “We had never discussed any score but it was his code for saying that he was in the same situation as the prisoners in Fidelio” he said in an interview with Nicholas Wroe of the Guardian.
Haitink played the violin as a youth and studied at the Amsterdam Conservatory. He went on to play with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Hilversum, but as a young man felt drawn to the podium instead. He described it to Wroe in the Guardian as a “very strange urge, as I didn’t have the tools for” conducting. It was the early 1950s by then, and Haitink came to believe that much of his subsequent success was borne out of sheer luck. “If I had not lived through those awful times [during World War II] when so many talents were murdered—I’m not only thinking of the Jewish community but people killed at the front as well—there would have been many more available talents and I would not have become a conductor,” he told Wroe.
At the age of 25, Haitink won a place in a conductors’ course sponsored by Netherlands Radio, and at the end he won a contract to conduct four radio concerts. He won a post at the Hilversum Radio Philharmonic, but one day in 1956 a guest conductor cancelled an appearance with Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Haitink was asked to step in. He became its occasional conductor and even traveled to England with the orchestra for a tour in 1959. In 1961
Born Bernard Johann Herman Haitink on March 4, 1929, in Amsterdam, Netherlands; son of Willem (a civil servant) and Anna (an employee of Alliance Française, an international French cultural institution) Haitink; married Marjolein Snijder, 1956; divorced, late 1970s; marriages to a cellist and violinist ended; married Patricia Bloomfield (an attorney); children: (with Snijder) three daughters, two sons. Education: Studied at the Amsterdam Conservatory; Netherlands Radio Union conductors’ course, 1954-55.
Conductor, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, 1955-61; guest conductor, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, 1956; joint principal conductor, Concertgebouw Orchestra, 1961; principal conductor and music director, Concertgebouw Orchestra, 1964-88; principal conductor, London Philharmonic Orchestra, 1967-79; guest conductor, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 1972-77; music director, Glyndebourne, 1978-88; music director, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1988-2002; music director, European Union Youth Orchestra, 1994-99; guest conductor, Boston Symphony, 1995-; conductor, Dresden Staatskapelle, 2002-.
Awards: Decorated Order Oranje Nassau; chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; officer, Order of Crown (Belgium); Bruckner medal of honor, Bruckner Society, 1970; gold medal, International Gustav Mahler Society, 1970; knight of the British Empire, 1977; gold medal, Royal Philharmonic Society, 1991; Erasmus Prize, Netherlands, 1991; Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera, 1996.
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he was named the Concertgebouw’s co-principal conductor, a post he shared with Eugen Jochum, and became the youngest person to hold the post in Dutch history. “Of course I was far too young when I started,” he told New York Times writer James R. Oestreich, “but I was always extremely lucky, always, from the beginning.” Jochum departed in 1964, and Haitink led the group for the next several years. Together they made a large number of recordings for the Philips label, and Haitink’s interest in the symphonic works of Bruckner and Mahler was said to have sparked a renewal of contemporary notice of them.
Haitink endured internal problems at the Concertgebouw after a change in management in 1974, but by then he had already been traveling regularly to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) for a number of years. In 1972 he began conducting the LPO at its Glyndebourne Festival Opera engagements, considered one of the world’s leading opera stages, with a production of the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart opera Die Entf#252;hrung aus dem Seraglio. Three years later, his leadership at Glyndebourne in a production of The Rake’s Progress, the Igor Stravinsky opera, caused a stir in the international opera world, with memorable sets designed by artist David Hockney. In 1978 Haitink was named the Glyndebourne Festival’s music director. He served for the next ten years, but he resigned from it and the Concertgebouw post as well in 1988 when he was named music director for the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.
At both Glyndebourne and Covent Garden, Haitink was closely associated with the Wagner operas, and he made several recordings of the German master’s long, arduous works in the cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. He led the Royal Opera in new productions of Lohengrin and Parsifal, among other Wagner opuses. Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg was “first produced in 1993 and regularly revived ever since,” noted Wroe in the Guardian. “It has been acclaimed as one [of] the best Covent Garden productions since [World War II],” Wroe asserted. Clements, also writing in the Guardian, observed that during his Royal Opera House years, Haitink “demonstrated the knack which all great conductors have of getting orchestras to play at their very best for him.”
Yet as music director Haitink also led the Royal Opera during a contentious time in the late 1990s, when a scheduled temporary closing and $300 million renovation for the Covent Garden house itself became fraught with political and internal wrangling. At one point in 1998, the battle between Britain’s arts-funding agencies, the musicians, and the Royal Opera House board became so fractious that the orchestra threatened dissolution and Haitink offered his resignation. Morale was low among the musicians, and at the end of a Royal Albert Hall performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, Haitink took the bold step of appearing before the audience, asking them to write letters to the government’s cultural department. He was invited the next day to an official meeting to settle the fracas, and, with the future of the Royal Opera House assured, Haitink was persuaded to stay on until 2002.
The Royal Opera House re-opened in December of 1999 with an acclaimed performance of Verdi’s Falstaff with Bryn Terfel. “Haitink is rarely at his most relaxed on first nights,” remarked Hugh Canning in the Sunday Times, “but on Monday the wit and wisdom of Verdi’s scintillating score radiated joyfully from the pit under his benign baton.” Canning granted that there were other notable stagings of this opera at Covent Garden, “but few that have caught the balance between high spirits and humanity so perfectly…. [T]he orchestra was already playing wonderfully for Haitink on opening night. The ensemble in the extraordinary garden scene was as sharp, fleet and vivacious as in any performance I have heard, and the orchestra played the dizzying fugal prelude to Act III with breathtaking finesse, panache and virtuosity. Lucky they who have tickets for the later performances.”
Haitink’s work with orchestras performing the works of Wagner and Bruckner have won him critical accolades. In the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) orchestra’s annual Proms concerts in 2000, he led them in Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. “Haitink has the measure of the symphony, feels its pulse, knows its heart, so the music lives and breathes as naturally as Bruckner must have intended,” declared Richard Fairman, writing in the Financial Times. At the end of his last Covent Garden season, Haitink led his musicians in a four-hour Tristan und Isolde, the classic Wagner opus. It marked his last formal engagement with the Royal Opera. “If Isolde’s final rapture is to mark Haitink’s farewell to Covent Garden, his long and storm-tossed reign could not end on a stiller, stronger, more satisfying note,” remarked Observer critic Anthony Holden. On July 11, 2002, a farewell performance was delivered in his honor. He selected the program, which included acts from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Verdi’s Don Carlos, and Die Meistersinger, and he conducted it as well.
Upon his resignation from the Royal Opera House, Haitink was 73 years old and eager to enter semi-retirement. In addition to his other duties, he also serves as guest conductor for the Boston Symphony, as well as the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras, among others. His position as conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle demands far less of his time, in part because there are no operas on the bill. “An opera house is a hothouse,” Haitink explained to Los Angeles Times writer Chris Pasles. “There are so many interests you have to work with—directors, scenic designers, management.” Leading an orchestra in a symphony performance, by contrast, “comes close to… paradise.” Haitink has been married four times, and each of his wives was a musician. His fourth, Patricia Bloomfield, was once a viola player but then became an attorney. He has five children by his first marriage and homes in London, Switzerland, and southwest France.
Haitink’s recorded works have endured; some that date back to his Concertgebouw days are still considered standard-bearers. He has also recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic. American Record Guide critic Arved Ashby liked a particular rendering of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. “Haitink’s lyrical episodes over tremolo strings… echo in the ear: every detail seems so precisely placed and dove-tailed. He doesn’t squander energy, and this large movement does build to a satisfying climax.” The ninth Mahler symphony, the composer’s last completed symphony and one written just before World War I, was recorded under Haitink by the Concertgebouw Orchestra back in 1969. Remastered and rereleased in 2001, it was extolled by Sensible Sound critic John Puccio. “The finale is beautifully controlled, diminishing gradually and evenly into eternal silence,” Puccio noted. “It is a performance that deserves to be ranked among the very best on record.”
Haitink believes that such superlatives are subjective. If a performance is not technically perfect, he considers it worthy nonetheless, as he told Pastes in the Los Angeles Times. “Art is something of human beings, and it would be awful for all of us to do exactly the same thing. Music is such an elusive art. I conduct pieces that I have lived with my whole musical life. I’m grateful for that. It’s wonderful to evolve with them. I never get bored.”
(With Concertgebouw Orchestra) Anton Bruckner: Symphony no. 3 in D minor, Philips, 1965.
(With Concertgebouw Orchestra) Anton Bruckner: Symphony no. O, in D minor (Die Nullte), Philips, 1965.
(With Concertgebouw Orchestra) Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde, Philips, 1975.
(With Concertgebouw Orchestra) Maurice Ravel: Bolero. La Valse. Le Tombeau de Couperin. Pavane pour une Infante Défunte, Philips, 1977.
(With Concertgebouw Orchestra) Johannes Brahms: Concerto in A minor, op. 102, Angel, 1980.
(With Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Chorus) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Magic Flute, Angel, 1981.
(With Concertgebouw Orchestra) Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto no. 3inC minor, op. 37 for Piano and Orchestra; Concerto no. 4 inG major, op. 58 for Piano and Orchestra, CBS Masterworks, 1986.
(With Glyndebourne Chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni, EMI Classics, 1993.
(With Berlin Philharmonic) Gustav Mahler: Symphony 7, Adagio from Symphony 10, Philips, 1995.
Kuhn, Laura, editor, Baker’s Dictionary of Opera, Schirmer Books, 2000.
Sadie, Stanley, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Volume 2, Macmillan/Groves Dictionaries of Music, 1992.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Classical Musicians, edited by Laura Kuhn, Schirmer Books, 1997.
American Record Guide, May-June 1993, p. 150; March-April 1994, p. 118; July-August 1995, p. 93; November-December 1995, p. 151; January-February 1996, p. 136; January-February 1997, p. 70; March-April 1997, p. 84; March-April 1998, p. 116; May-June 1998, p. 197; September-October 1998, p. 245; January-February 1999, p. 168; March 2002, p. 255.
Dallas Morning News, May 26, 2002, p. 45A.
Financial Times, August 31, 2000, p. 22.
Guardian (London, England), October 14, 2000, p. 6; June 21, 2002, p. 2.
Independent Sunday (London, England), January 18, 1998, p. 8.
Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2002, p. F6.
New York Times, March 10, 2002, p. 12.
Observer (London, England), April 14, 2002, p. 13.
Opera News, February 19, 1994, p. 32.
Sensible Sound, December 1999, p. 88; August-September 2001, p. 78.
Sunday Times (London, England), December 12, 1999, p. 18.