Bernard Haitink: I owe it to the boys who never came back

The Chicago Symphony violist Max Raimi has allowed us to publish this recollection of a remarkable conversation with the great conductor, whose retirement was announced this week.

Bernard Haitink announced his retirement today; he will conduct his last performance at the end of this summer. I am extremely grateful to have worked quite a bit with him; he was the CSO’s Principal Conductor between the tenures of Barenboim and Muti.

Here are some observations about one of my all time favorite conductors:

Because his technique was so unfussy and drew so little attention to itself, it was almost universally underestimated. With a minimum of motion, he could give you every single particle of information you needed. I always could play with confidence and freedom under his baton. I read once that he admonished student conductors, saying “Don’t distract the musicians–they are very busy!”

No matter how familiar he was with the music he was performing, he never became jaded. There was not a shred of artifice or mannerism in his interpretations. He let the music stand on its own considerable merits, unlike a number of conductors who seem to grow bored even by the greatest masterpieces and need to artificially inseminate them with eccentric interpretive touches. Maazel and Tilson Thomas are excellent examples of this, at least in my view.

I still treasure the memory of a conversation I once had with Maestro Haitink. On a Chicago Symphony European tour roughly a decade ago, he threw a party for the orchestra at a winery just outside of Vienna. It is relevant to the story to mention that one of the programs featured Shostakovich’s last symphony. I arrived a little late, and it turned out the only seat still available was at the “adult table”, right next to Haitink!

I was nervous; I don’t dine with great conductors very often. So I drank a goodly quantity of wine a bit too quickly. Then I heard myself saying to him, “Maestro, I find it so meaningful that we are playing Shostakovich’s final symphony with you. I think of it as the last of its kind, the last traditionally structured symphony–sonata allegro first movement, slow movement, scherzo, finale–in our repertoire. Just as you are the last of your kind, the last conductor we see who has a living memory of the world our repertoire came from, Europe before Hitler blew it all apart.”

Through my wine haze, I realized that I had basically called our revered host a fossil. But before I could regret it, his eyes lit up and told me stories about his life as a boy in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. His father was an electrical engineer, responsible for Amsterdam’s electrical plant. He was pressured by the Dutch resistance to shut the city down, but if he had, he would have had to answer to the Germans. He was in an impossible double bind, and it broke him; Maestro Haitink told me that his father died shortly after the war ended.

Then he said something absolutely extraordinary; the most amazing part of which is that he seemed to believe what he was saying: “You know, I was nothing special back in my school days. There were so many of my peers that were much more talented than I was. But they were all Jewish boys, and they were murdered. I was all that was left–that is why I enjoyed the career I have had.”


Bernard Haitink 1957

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  • This beautiful reminiscence of my favorite conductor doesn’t mention the fact that he was of part Jewish ancestry himself – I believe through his mother. Elsewhere he has said that fact presented some problems for him during the occupation.

  • He was too modest. According to inside stories I heard from musicians, he began modestly, but gradually developed into formidable musicianship, dedicating all ego energy to the work in hand, instead of treating the works as mere vehicles for vain ego trippery. The reason is that he is truly interested in the music itself rather than in his own ideas about the music, and that is the only way of authentic performance. In that sense he is a profound lesson in interpretation.

    • ThiJohn: I fully agree. But I certainly wouldn’t call him a slow developer. I remember musicians from the old Orchestre National de France telling me they had him when he was in his mid-twenties, and they already found him to be a fantastic musician and a born conductor. These were people that worked with Munch and Cluytens on a regular basis and had played under the direction of all of the legends of the day.

      • Aha…. which fills-out the picture, and which reveals his true colours. A matter of character and talent.

  • I can’t be the only one to have found just about everything he conducted very routine and rarely exciting.

    • Why does everybody always bash Maazel? I have always enjoyed his interpretative touches, especially with the NYP.

  • ==Was the gibe really necessary against Maazel & MTT?

    Yes, I think so. Good to have perspective. BH is in a different league

      • Ouch! Thus Spake Stringfellow. We cannot but fall eternally silent under the rock thrown at us… Except that such rock, in the end, falls back on no one else but the one who throws it.

  • Funny how this guy says Maazel and MTT are guilty of “inseminating” music with their own interpretative touches. If he wants to be consistent, why doesn’t he mention Bernstein here? He did that as much or more than Maazel and MTT ever did. Let’s be honest, if we play the music exactly as it is written in the score we would only ever need one recording of any piece. Interpretation is what makes music interesting after hearing the same piece 50 times.

    • A fair point, Misha. Three observations.

      1: I saw a lot more of the two I mentioned than I did of Bernstein.
      2: It was certainly not intended as an exhaustive list.
      3: Lennie somehow convinced me that what he was doing actually served the music. Possibly it was the force of his personality and the way his genius was manifest in his every action. Or maybe his ideas were simply better; honestly I don’t know.

      I hope I didn’t give the impression that Maestro Haitink simply “played the music exactly as written”. He most certainly did not. One of his hallmarks was a marvelous subtle flexibility in the tempo, which was possible because of the strengths in his conducting technique that I cited. Another was his ability to elicit a relaxed, transparent, and expressive sound out of our orchestra.

      Oh, by the way. I have a name, which is on the byline. “This guy”…really?

      • Some fair points but I have heard many musicians (who played under both Bernstein and Maazel in NY) say that Maazel knew the music just as well as Bernstein and was a much better swinger of the baton (much easier to follow). I don’t think he’s often given a fair assessment. And his interpretations were much more standard when he was younger. It seems many conductors seem to do some rather strange things as they get older. For instance, listen to the recording of Mahler 1 with the CSO and Haitink. I’m sure you remember it. The performance is interminable. Much slower than just about any that I’ve ever heard. Nothing was gained by doing this.

        • I remember that Mahler 1 well. Your opinion is widely shared, but not by me. I thought he achieved a nobility in the work with his tempos that I had not ever previously experienced. I often find the final peroration somehow cheap and unearned when played at the usual quick pace. Under Haitink I found it immensely satisfying, although it was only after getting used to it in the course of the rehearsal process.
          The last time we played with Maazel, we were treated to the slowest, most grotesque Mozart “Jupiter” I ever hope to experience. The joke circulating around the orchestra was “I have Maazel’s recording of the ‘Jupiter’–it’s a three-CD set.”

        • OK…This might be way too much information, but here is my defense of Haitink’s Mahler 1. First, if I may, a little digression into how the piece is put together, from my perspective:

          In many earlier symphonies—Beethoven 4, Mozart “Prague”, etc. etc.—the introduction to the first movement lays out some basic harmonic issues that end up unifying the entire work. Mahler 1 takes it a step further. The mystery of the endless pedal A’s, the stillness, the birdcalls bring to mind an aura of the prophetic. The first even vaguely melodic line is a series of descending fourths. We start with A-E, implying A major, the dominant of the symphony’s key of D major. If it behaved like a normal dominant, we would then proceed to D, but we don’t. Instead we go first to F-C, suggesting the key of F. Only then do we land on a D.

          This is the prophecy—the way home will lead through F. Sure enough, either F major or f minor rears its head at pretty much every dramatic point in the symphony. The development of the first movement falls to a pedal on F, and stays there, seemingly interminably, until D major returns at the recapitulation. Before the triumphant trumpet calls in the coda of the first movement, the world darkens as the theme of the opening Allegro takes a turn to f minor. The sickeningly sweet decadence of the second movement trio—F major, of course.

          There is an absolutely brilliant touch in the last movement, which begins, incidentally, with an f minor cataclysm (I think it is fair to say that the key is no coincidence.) About midway through the movement, a startling modulation takes us from C major to the first statement of the final triumphant D major. But this turns out to ring hollow and die away. As the prophecy stipulated, we must come through F to reach home, not C; to get there in any other way is not to earn it.

          So there is, inevitably, one last struggle. First comes the longest pedal of the piece—the basses hold a low C for close to five minutes! Why C? This passage, as we have grown to expect at the turning points of the piece, is in F, basically F major, and the least stable configuration of the F major chord (F-A-C) has the C on the bottom. So we are balanced uncomfortably there, with the basses holding down the C longer than any other composer up to that time might have dared. Something has got to give, and it does. The violas shatter the air in our most menacing C-string register, there is a desperate fugal passage, in f minor naturally, and finally the D major triumph is earned. The “He Shall Reign Forever” theme—D-A, B-F sharp, G—are the descending fourths which opened the symphony, now in the major and starting on D, the tonic, not A, the dominant.

          The two conductors who, at least in my view, really brought out the F vs. D tension in this work were Tennstedt and Haitink. Every turn to F major or F minor in Haitink’s interpretation was accentuated, often by some species of ritenuto, as you note, but also by a careful attention to tone color. I thought he came to terms with the piece in a uniquely thoughtful way.

          • Thank you for this long thought out response. It is one of my favorite Symphonies but I do not possess that kind of detailed information about it. I just listen. It’s funny because Maazel does some extremely strange things with that Symphony but I really enjoy it. Here’s a good performance here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IC56kGOgscI

            I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the magical way he waves the baton 🙂

    • I understood that he was saying that Maazel and MTT put in interpretative touches because they were bored. In the case of MTT I can well believe it since he often looks like he is not much interested in what is being performed (especially during the “concerto” part of the concert where the conductor is not the centre of attention). Bernstein also “interpreted the music” but seemed to be much more motivated by genuine musical curiosity.

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