Willem Mengelberg: The full story is out now

Willem Mengelberg: The full story is out now


norman lebrecht

September 15, 2016

The first volume of Frits Zwart’s comprehensive biography of the formative and controversial Dutch condcutor appeared in 1999.

The second volume, long awaited, covers his collaboration with the Nazi occupation during the second world war.

The new book was presented yesterday at the Concertgebouw, with a copy given to music director Daniele Gatti (who must be learning to read Dutch very fast indeed).

Who is going to be first to present a summary of its findings on Slipped Disc?



  • Dominy Clements says:

    On Amazon it says: “Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951) is the greatest and at the same time one of the most controversial conductors the Netherlands has had so far.
    This biography describes the period after 1920: Mengelberg’s successful career in America, the struggle for the intended opera house on Amsterdam’s Museumplein and Mengelberg’s battles with the tax authorities.
    In the thirties, the central theme is, of course, Mengelberg’s political position in relation to developments in Germany. The years 1940-1945 were the most dramatic years of Mengelberg’s career. He was hated in the Netherlands for his pro-German attitude. Nevertheless he was also committed to the Jews in his orchestra and also beyond. Through his influential position he managed to help many, but meanwhile he triumphed throughout Europe with his extraordinary conducting, as if there was no war going on.
    After the war he was banned from conducting as part of the purges in Dutch music. Attempts in 1947 failed to end his exclusion from the Dutch music scene. Mengelberg never returned to the Netherlands: in 1951 he died at his home in Switzerland.
    The story of this successful conductor is partly also the history of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Willem Mengelberg took the orchestra to a global level, a position it has maintained ever since.”

  • John says:

    I have a large collection of music biographies, many of them conductors, but there has never been one — in English — about Mengelberg. Given his relative obscurity to many people today, I don’t have much hope that these volumes will see an English language edition (which I’d need), but I hope that it will. Mengelberg’s contribution and career were highly influential in the first half of the 20th century, and as Dominy Clements points out, highly significant to the Concertgebouw’s own history as a world-renowned ensemble.

    Oh, if they’d only publish this in English!

  • Pedro says:

    Mengelberg was a superb Mahler conductor.

    • DESR says:

      Therefore no chance of his being pro-Nazi, or weak? Come ON!

      • John Borstlap says:

        It does not seem to be the case that M was pro-nazi. He was the child of German parents, and at the end of the 19th century, musical life in Holland was profoundly Germanic, as it was since the begining of the 18hundreds. M had strong sympathies with German musical culture, and given the notorious trend of musicians in those days to close themselves off from the world (a ‘romantic’ condition made easy without the ample news information we have today), he decided to ignore the ‘politics’ of his day. When Holland became a German province overnight, with some persuasion by bombing and uniformed crowds, it was not so difficult to choose sides: for M, Germany was, in spite of the war, his cultural Fatherland. What other options did he have? He could have gone to America, where he had quite a reputation. But the temptation to be even more Germanic than he already was, got the better of him. It is a very sad story, but we know such things also from other great performers (Karajan, Böhm).

        • Steven Holloway says:

          I see some parallel with Furtwangler in what you write, but Karajan and Bohm? Karajan was just an amoral chancer, but Bohm was definitely a committed Nazi, complete with salutes and requiring the members of the VSO to sign a statement supporting the Anschluss (not that many needed their arms twisted, I suspect). I still wonder how he got away with it post-War.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Böhm was decontaminated after the war, like Karajan and many other opportunist musicians. These people apparantly thought that in a period of such chaos and danger, it were best to side with the powers, to function musically, and with the advantage of getting the chance of filling empty places which began to appear everywhere – career opportunities. And it should not be forgotten that part of such drives was existential fear – the fear that drove some artists into emigration, but made some others to stay and play the game. Or, to stay and try to make the best of it, what Furtwängler tried in vain. As long as musicians did not actually kill Jews or committed war crimes, it was not very easy to decide the degree to which they were ‘convinced nazis’. People like Karajan and Böhm deservedly dragged the brown smell behind them wherever they went.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            Taking a Jewish wife at the height of the war is hardly the behaviour of a committed Nazi.

  • NYMike says:

    During his tenure @ the NY Philharmonic, Mengelberg conducted a famous 1927? recording of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben – possibly the first done in the US.

  • Melisande says:

    There will appear an English translation in the forseeable future.

  • AMZ says:

    The English translation will appear in 2018.