“I always try to make the music really flow”

Bernard Haitink on his 90th birthday

(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Would such a career be possible at all today? The young Bernard Haitink was interested in conducting, but his instrument was the violin – so a traditional career as Kapellmeister was closed to him. Because in order to become a conductor, you have to master the piano and, as part of your studies, imitate the orchestra with a fellow student on two pianos while a third conducts, then later work as a répétiteur in the theatre. Haitink, who was born in Amsterdam in 1929, took the entrance exam for the violin at the conservatory, but at the same time he also attended the conducting courses regularly held by the Stuttgart general music director Ferdinand Leitner with the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra.

After graduating, Bernard Haitink found his first job with this ensemble as leader of the second violins. But because Leitner actively promoted him, he managed to rise within the orchestra to the position of assistant conductor in 1955. Just one year after, he got his big chance: when Carlo Maria Giulini cancelled an appearance with the Concertgebouworkest due to illness, the 27-year-old was allowed to lead his homeland’s most famous orchestra.

Successful stand-in

He mastered the challenge with flying colours: he soon became head of the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra, and in 1959, together with Eugen Jochum, took over the direction of the Concertgebouworkest after only five years of professional experience. He was ready neither professionally nor personally for this challenge, as Haitink later frankly admitted. But the musicians appreciated his work ethic, the thoroughness with which he prepared himself, and the serious work in rehearsal – where every detail counted. His ultimate goal was to serve the compositions, to bring the musical notes on the page to life. “I always try to make the music is really flow, so that the musicians feel the meaning of the music,” he explained in 2014 in a conversation with the Tagesspiegel on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

From Amsterdam out into the world

After first introducing himself in Berlin with the then Radio-Symphonie-Orchester in 1960, the Philharmoniker engaged him for the first time in 1964, one year after taking over sole responsibility for the Concertgebouworkest. Haitink received invitations in those years to Vienna, New York and Boston, and in 1967, the London Philharmonic Orchestra appointed him music director. In a career phase when conductors usually spend their time touring the provinces, Bernard Haitink was in a position to mature artistically in contact with the best ensembles in the world.

Mahler and Bruckner specialist

Consequently, the very large symphonic works become his speciality: at the request of the Concertgebouworkest he revived the Amsterdam pre-war Mahler tradition; his recording of the complete Mahler symphonies not only became an interpretive pioneering act, but also a success in terms of records sales. Haitink also devoted himself to the work of Anton Bruckner, as well as later on to Wagner and Strauss as chief conductor at the Glyndebourne Festival in southern England and at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. And also Dmitri Shostakovich, all of whose symphonies he recorded shortly after the composer’s death in 1972. In his approach, he went against the mainstream, looking solely at their structural aspects and their relationship to the composition tradition rather than focusing on them from a historical perspective as did most of his colleagues, as commentaries on political events and private trials.

An unpretentious maestro

When Bernard Haitink says he doesn’t like the word “interpretation” much, preferring to speak of “reproduction”, he underplays his role in concerts. Haitink critics may take from the honest craftsmanship of his approach to the scores a certain blandness, a lack of magic from the conductor’s desk, but when at his best, this unpretentious maestro can unleash impressive orchestral powers: he gives the musicians room to unfold, masterfully coordinates the build-up of tension and the differentiation between orchestral sections – and is rewarded with a sound of enchanting beauty, the most sumptuous, luscious variety of colours that can be imagined.

A fruitful artistic partnership

When a successor to Herbert von Karajan was sought in Berlin in 1989, Bernard Haitink was one of the favourites. He didn’t resent the Philharmoniker for electing Claudio Abbado, so this unique musical friendship has been able to continue to grow. The extraordinarily long career that Bernard Haitink has enjoyed has allowed him to share his knowledge and his enormous wealth of experience with several generations of the Berliner Philharmoniker. “Whenever Bernard Haitink returned as a guest, the orchestra’s playing is more relaxed, spatial and expressive the following week,” as Simon Rattle sums up the conductor’s effect on the Philharmoniker. In that sense: Fijne verjaardaag, geachte heer Haitink!

From the photo archives of the Berliner Philharmoniker

Bernard Haitink at a rehearsal in 1996(Photo: Reinhard Friedrich)

From the concert archives of the Digital Concert Hall