Bernard Haitink, conductor who let the music speak for itself, dies at 92

Opera music

Mr. Haitink called his youth “lazy days.”

“I wasn’t stupid,” he explained, “but I just wasn’t there. Half the time we were taught under our desks because of the air raids. But even when things got normal, I wasn’t interested. Maybe that’s why now, when I’m over 70, people always ask me why I work so hard.

He started playing the violin at the age of 9 and then studied at the Amsterdam Conservatory. He joined the second violin section of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, but was unsure of his abilities as a violinist. After taking a course in orchestral conducting, he was appointed conductor in 1955 at the age of 26.

Mr Haitink, who once said that “every conductor, including myself, has an expiration date,” officially retired in his 90th year after an acclaimed farewell tour of festivals European summer. Reviewing her concert with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall in London on this tour, critic Erica Jeal wrote that “the last word had to come from Bruckner”.

“Haitink, as always, emphasized beauty over structure,” she wrote, “but didn’t let the sense of form in the music relax for a moment.”

His numerous recordings include, for the Philips label, the complete symphonies of Bruckner, Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn and Schumann; the complete symphonies of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, for EMI; the complete Shostakovich symphonies, for Decca; the complete orchestral works of Debussy, also for Philips; and the symphonic cycles of Beethoven and Brahms for the LSO Live label of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. Haitink has married four times and has had several children and grandchildren. Complete information on his survivors was not immediately available.

In 2011, in another interview with The Guardian, Mr. Haitink reflected on the strange life of a conductor. “I’ve been in this profession for 50 years,” he says. “And, you know, it’s a job and it’s not a job. It is sometimes very obscure. What is a good conductor? What is charisma? I still wonder after all these years.