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It was with great sadness that we learned of Bernard Haitink’s death in London on 21 October. Maestro Haitink was by far the greatest Dutch conductor of his generation. From 1961 to 1988, he stood at the Concertgebouworkest’s helm. He served as the orchestra’s honorary conductor from 1999, having led the orchestra on many other occasions, most recently in January 2019. Our thoughts are with his wife Patricia and his family.
Bernard Haitink remained active as a conductor of the highest calibre well into old age. He simply could not live without music. ‘It’s my life,’ he once stated in an interview. ‘If I were to stop, I would have to be careful not to fall into a black hole.’ Even as late as June, August and September 2018, he led the Concertgebouworkest in astounding performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. In January 2019, he conducted the orchestra for the last time and announced his retirement from the concert stage in June of that year.
We remember Bernard Haitink as a modest man and as a great musician. The musicians of the Concertgebouworkest have always had a deep affection for him because his approach to performance as a primus inter pares among them was always very intuitive, and he would often give them great scope and freedom.
Bernard Haitink’s relationship with the Concertgebouworkest spans sixty-five years. He first conducted the orchestra in November 1956, standing in for Carlo Maria Giulini. After Eduard van Beinum’s sudden death, Haitink, who was then thirty-two, was appointed first conductor in 1961, a post he shared with the more seasoned Eugen Jochum. Haitink then served as the orchestra’s chief conductor from 1963 to 1988. Haitink embodied the most distinctive qualities of his three predecessors: Willem Kes’s discipline, Willem Mengelberg’s natural talent and Eduard van Beinum’s sense of ensemble playing and orchestral sound.
Under Maestro Haitink, the Concertgebouworkest garnered great acclaim at all the major international music festivals. During his tenure, it built up an impressive discography including all the symphonies of Beethoven, Bruckner and Mahler. He also brought Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel and numerous Dutch composers to prominence with the Concertgebouworkest.
Starting from 1977, the Eurovision Christmas Matinees, which were broadcast live in many countries, brought him worldwide fame as an interpreter of Mahler. In April 1988, on the occasion of the orchestra’s Centenary Celebration, Bernard Haitink conducted his final concerts as chief conductor of the Concertgebouworkest: four performances of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.
After relinquishing his post as chief conductor in Amsterdam, Haitink held the position of music director of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden for over fourteen years. He also served as musical director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera and as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As a guest conductor, he made regular appearances with the world’s leading orchestras. His extensive discography includes a large portion of the symphonic repertoire and many operas.
At the invitation of the Concertgebouw, he put together the Carte Blanche series, launched in the 1998–99 season. That same season, he returned to the Concertgebouworkest and was appointed honorary conductor. He made regular guest appearances ever since, including on its 125th anniversary in 2013, when he led the orchestra in Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. He conducted the orchestra in three separate programmes in its 2018–19 season. On his last concerts with the Concertgebouworkest on 24, 25 and 27 January 2019, he conducted Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and Brahms’s Symphony No. 4.
Bernard Haitink was a great ambassador for symphonic music and for Dutch culture in general. He was awarded numerous distinctions, including the Erasmus Prize in 1991 and the Medal of Honour for the Arts and Sciences in the Order of the House of Oranje-Nassau in 1998. In 2002, he was made an Honorary Companion of Honour by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He served as conductor emeritus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was an honorary member of both the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
In 2006, the Concertgebouworkest commemorated Haitink’s fiftieth anniversary since he first conducted the orchestra with a gala concert (Goud voor Haitink). This anniversary also gave rise to the establishment of the Bernard Haitink Fund for Young Talent. Haitink was also the recipient of the Concertgebouw Prize (in March 2007) and the Edison Classical Œuvre Prize (November 2016). In 2017, he was made a Commander in the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands, an order awarded for ‘special merits of a very exceptional nature for the benefit of society’. Indeed, Bernard Haitink’s merits are undisputed.