Bernard Haitink: One of the great classical chefs of modern times

Opera music

Bernard Haitink was one of the great classical conductors of modern times, an imposing figure who had conducted many great orchestras from his home country, the Netherlands and the United States. In the UK he has held leading roles at the Royal Opera House, the Glyndebourne Festival and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The death of the 92-year-old Haitink represents a major loss for the world of classical music. Nicknamed the “enigmatic maestro”, he was known for his shyness of publicity as much for the fidelity of his interpretations. He once said that he considered his role as a conductor to be “to embrace the orchestra, not suffocate it”.

Bernard Haitink was born in Amsterdam in 1929, son of Willem Haitink, a civil servant and Anna Clara Verschaffelt, who worked for the Alliance française. He trained at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, where he was first drawn to the violin. However, he quickly found his profession, taking lessons under the eminent conductor, Ferdinand Leitner, in the mid-1950s.

Haitink began his career as a conductor with the Radio Union Orchestra of the Netherlands, making his conductor debut in July 1954. He recalled that first moment on stage with the orchestra “I looked like a rabbit in the light and I remember thinking: close your eyes”. But it quickly captivated the orchestra – and the audience – with attention and admiration.

Two years later, he joined the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. After the unexpected death of Eduard van Beinum in 1959, Haitink became co-principal conductor, along with Eugen Jochum, in 1961. He became the sole principal conductor in 1963. “I was much too young “, He says of these early days with the Concertgebouw:” It took me a long time to reach a certain level. But I’m happy with it now.

Haitink had a reputation as a specialist in Mahler and Bruckner, having recorded complete cycles of their symphonies during his stay at the Concertgebouw. But his repertoire was much larger, encompassing Britten, Shostakovich, even Ravel. He had come to Wagner relatively late in his life, directing Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The ringing cycle”) many times.

Haitink became principal conductor at the Concertgebouw in his early 30s


Nick Kimberley, writing for The independent, wrote: “Haitink has the happy gift of advancing this music at a good pace without ever rushing; and fill in small details without appearing fussy. His presence on the platform was modestly erased, but he seemed to be the epicenter of the cycle.

Along with his key role in Amsterdam’s musical world, he was also Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1967 to 1979. Haitink left the Concertgebouw in 1987, joining the Royal Opera House (ROH), where he succeeded Colin Davis as Music Director. , starting the next step in his long and influential career in British musical life.

When the ROH reopened in December 1999, after three years of extensive renovations, it hosted a star performance – including Placido Domingo, Deborah Polaski, Stig Andersen and Robert Lloyd – at the helm of the Royal Opera Chorus, conducted by Haitink. He will remain at the ROH until 2002.

Haitink conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in celebration of its 90th anniversary in 2019

(AFP / Getty)

Haitink was Music Director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera from 1978 to 1988, overseeing influential productions such as Der Rosenkavalier (1980) – with a scenography by Erte – and Albert Herring (1985), edited by Jane Glover.

Glyndebourne Executive Chairman Gus Christie said in tribute: “We have been incredibly lucky to have Bernard here for 22 years. I especially remember his wonderful interpretations of Peter Hall Mozart’s operas in the 1980s, a golden age in our history! Like my father [George Christie] said in 1988, his last year as Music Director here, “he was a man of utter sincerity, tremendous ability and prodigious achievement.”

Interviewed at the time of his Brahms Prom 2011 concert, Haitink spoke of his faith in the integrity of the composers’ original musical scores, saying, “That word ‘performance’ should in a way be banned. When people talk about ‘this is my interpretation’, my stomach hurts a bit. We have these wonderful scores and we have to try to make them work. And we have wonderful musicians, so what’s the problem? Just make music!

He retired in September 2019, at the age of 90, bidding farewell to his last British concert at the Proms, his 90th Promenade concert. On September 6, 2019, he last conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in Lucerne, bowing out at the end of a program that included his beloved Beethoven and Bruckner.

Haitink had previously been married to Marjolein Snijder, with whom he had five children. He had recently lived in London with his fourth wife, Patricia Bloomfield, lawyer and violist, who survives him.

Bernard Haitink, conductor, born March 4, 1929, died October 21, 2021