Mourning Bernard Haitink

On the death of the honorary member of the Berliner Philharmoniker

Bernard Haitink at his last concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker, May 2019
(Photo: Stephan Rabold)

The Berliner Philharmoniker mourn the death of its honorary member Bernard Haitink, who passed away on 21 October 2021 at the age of 92. “For us as the Berliner Philharmoniker, Bernard Haitink was more than a highly esteemed conductor – he was a friend and companion through many decades of making music together,” recall Knut Weber and Stefan Dohr, orchestra board members of the Berliner Philharmoniker. “When he made his Philharmoniker debut in March 1964, he was just 35 years old and at the beginning of a global career. In the decades that followed, Bernard Haitink was a constant in our lives. He always impressed and inspired us with his qualities – his great craftsmanship, his perfect knowledge of the score, his warm, noble bearing. In his approach to music-making, the free flow of the music was always his ideal. We are very grateful that we were able to perform Anton Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony with him one last time in May 2019. We are deeply saddened by the loss of a great conductor and close friend.”

An inconspicuous beginning

Hardly any other guest conductor has been associated with the Berliner Philharmoniker longer and more consistently than Bernard Haitink. His debut with the orchestra took place only a few months after the opening of the Scharoun-designed Philharmonie, at a time when the orchestra was in a phase of transformation. The first appearance of the then chief conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra was overshadowed by another Philharmoniker event: Claudio Arrau was playing a cycle of all five of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano concertos. The critics at the concert focused on the pianist; the young conductor received only a few, albeit favourable, words: his conducting was generally said to have been open-minded, attentive and sensitive. Only the Tagesspiegel predicted: “It could be that a real Beethoven conductor will grow up in him, which the modern concert hall so desperately needs.”

Specialist in Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler

The critic was to be proved right: In the course of a few years, Bernard Haitink developed into a specialist in the works of the First Viennese School. But not only that. Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler became further fixtures in his repertoire. He was instrumental in the renaissance of Gustav Mahler in the 1960s and conducted the composer’s symphonies regularly with the Philharmoniker from the late 1980s onwards. He accompanied the orchestra on several concert tours, conducted Europakonzerts as well as performances at Berlin’s Waldbühne and also took part on several occasions at the Salzburg Easter Festival, for the first time in 1991 when he conducted the festival production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.

Daniel Barenboim, Eliette von Karajan, Intendant Wolfgang Stresemann, and Bernard Haitink at the Osterfestspiele 1991.

Mutual appreciation

“They say about Venice that all cities are more or less the same, but Venice is just a little bit different,” Bernard Haitink once said in an interview with the Digital Concert Hall. “And you could say the same about the Berliner Philharmoniker.” The mutual admiration between orchestra and conductor was obvious. In 1994, Bernard Haitink was awarded the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Hans von Bülow Medal, and in October 2004 he was made an honorary member of the orchestra. At that point, the collaboration intensified, with Haitink often coming to the Berliner Philharmoniker twice a season. He conducted the orchestra more than 200 times. The fact that his last appearance in May 2019 conducting Anton Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker was recorded as a direct-to-disc recording has proved in retrospect, to be a real stroke of luck. It is, after all, an invaluable document in which an unrepeatable moment has been authentically captured – as a memory of a unique friendship.