Renowned Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink died Thursday at age 92. The range of his work gives a glimpse of how much he was admired and beloved both in Europe and the U.S., particularly by orchestras and soloists who hailed him as a musician’s musician, prizing the work itself over showboating and glamor.
Over the course of his long career, Haitink served as the chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam; music director of The Royal Opera, Covent Garden and Glyndebourne Festival Opera in the U.K.; principal conductor of both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic; and principal guest conductor and then conductor emeritus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
He made some 450 recordings of orchestral music and opera, ranging from Mozart’s Don Giovanni to a complete cycle of Shostakovich’s symphonies, as well as complete cycles of the symphonies by Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler and Beethoven (the last twice: once with the Concertgebouw and another with the London Symphony Orchestra).
His management company, Askonas Holt, announced his death, saying that he died “peacefully at home.” No cause was given.
Bernard Haitink was born March 4, 1929, in Amsterdam. He grew up under Nazi occupation, a particularly frightening prospect given that his mother, Anna, was half-Jewish. His father, a civil servant named Willem, was held for three months in a concentration camp along with about 100 others as retaliation after a Nazi bookshop was bombed.
Haitink started out playing violin at age 9, and went on to study at the Amsterdam Conservatory. He won a seat as a second violinist in the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, but soon began studying conducting as well. Shortly thereafter, he became conductor of the radio orchestra — and perhaps it was his own experience, sitting in the back ranks of the violins, that made him so sensitive to the players as well as to the score.
In 1956, Haitink was asked to step in for conductor Carlo Maria Giulini at the Concertgebouw; at first, he said no, saying that he wasn’t ready for the opportunity. At last he acquiesced — and it became the beginning of his six-decade association with that orchestra, which he led as chief conductor for 27 years before becoming its honorary conductor.
When Haitink was awarded Gramophone magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015, pianist András Schiff remarked of his friend and colleague, “Bernard is unique because, of all the conductors I know, he has the least ego. It’s like a breath of fresh air! The way he loves music, and respects and reveres the great composers, and how he sees his role, is exactly as it should be: as a medium between the composer and the players and the listeners. He’s not driven by the huge overblown egos of certain other conductors! … Bernard is, I think, modest to a fault; he has such a fantastic conducting technique that he believes firmly that it’s totally unnecessary to say anything to the orchestra, so if something goes wrong he thinks it’s probably his fault…but it isn’t! He’s so modest and that’s why all orchestras respect him.”