What Bernard Haitink did in retirement

What Bernard Haitink did in retirement


norman lebrecht

October 23, 2021

He sent this message to the conductor Semyon Bychkov:

‘My own empty days since I stopped conducting seem to fill up surprisingly easily, there is always something to read or hear. I am indulging my passion for Beethoven quartets at the moment, the scores of the late ones seem as complicated as Mahler 7 to me sometimes. The more I look at these things, the more I realise that I don’t know anything’.



  • Orchestra manager says:

    The passing of Bernard Haitink made the world poorer. Even if he stopped conducting at an already high age, he still was among us with his vivid interest in and support of young players. In the message to Semyon Bychkov he mentioned Mahler 7. This made me think of a concert with actually this work in “Gasteig” in Munich. Coming from the podium he said in his timid way and with a smile: “Ein unmögliches Werk!” (“An impossible work!”). My reply: “Aber Du hast es gerade möglich gemacht! Vielen Dank!” (”But you just made it possible! Thank you!”)

    Thank you, dear Maestro, for so many unforgettable concerts. Thank you for your wonderful humour and your friendship. My deep condolences to your spouse Patricia, who so to say became an essential part of your guest performances.

    • chrisd says:

      Thank you for the reminiscence. I went to a Mahler 7 a few years ago and couldn’t wait for it to end and to get out of the concert hall. It was not the fault of the conductor or orchestra. Your post makes me think I will give it another try.

      • Peter Owen says:

        I had exactly the same experience 45 years and have managed to avoid the monstrosity ever since. Wishing you every success.

        • John Borstlap says:

          There are good bits in Mahler VII but as a whole it is a flop, in my opinion, especially the crazy finale. He wanted to ‘say’ something that he said already in nr V and VI and tried to combine it with something more ‘romantic’ and ‘desperate’, but all those elements seem to neutralize each other.

    • Frank Flambeau says:

      Nice. But “Vielen Dank” better means many thanks

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      I saw Haitink and the Concertgebouw do Mahler 7 at Davies Hall in S.F. in either 1979 or ’80. It was just shortly before his second Amsterdam recording of it for Philips was issued. Needless to say, it was fantastic. The interesting thing was that Edo De Waart and the S.F. Symphony gave an equally good performance of it, just months later. That would never happen now, of course. I’m sorry that there are others who can’t enjoy Mahler 7. I loved it from the very first time I heard it, particularly the finale. The 7th acts as a ‘darkness to light’ transition from the 6th symphony’s ‘tragic’ A-minor ending, and eventually placing us on the doorstep of “Veni, Veni Creator Spiritus” in Eb major (8th symphony). Mahler not only pokes fun at himself in the 7th symphony’s kaleidoscopic finale, but the entire ‘overblown’ late romantic idiom. It’s both fun and humorous. The 7th is also his ‘concerto for orchestra’, intended or otherwise. In spite of the large orchestra he employs, everything is clear and audible.

      • Ashu says:

        [In spite of the large orchestra he employs, everything is clear and audible.]

        Even the guitar and mandolin? Many would say not.

      • Distant Prommer says:

        I was at that San Francisco concert you mention. I do believe it was 1980. This concert did open up Mahler 7 for me, and I have cherished the memory of the concert ever since.

  • Max says:

    Genuine humility from a great artist

  • John Borstlap says:

    The late Beethoven quartets are, in fact, postmodern 20C works, dislocated from their time of birth. Their extraordinary expressive richness is stunning and their compositional subtleties and complexities unparalleled – and the most wonderful thing is that they are in the same time accessible and enjoyable. You don’t need to be a specialist to ‘understand’ them.

    One would have hoped that composers like Glass, Ades, Pintscher and Neuwirth would begin to listen to them and make an attempt to learn something from them.

  • Gustavo says:

    Why Semyon?

    Is he the chosen one for Amsterdam?

    • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

      They could do a lot worse. I’ve followed his career since he was in Buffalo in the mid-80s and he’s the real deal.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Strange that for wide stretches of his career Haitink was seen as boring and unimaginative. I’ve just been listening to the recording he made in 1959, long before he was chosen to head the Concertgebouw, initially with Jochum, of Dvorak 7. You will have to search high and low before you find a more absorbing, a more electrifying and a more lyrically persuasive (in the wind writing especially) interpretation of this great work. Haitink aged 30 knew how to pull out all the stops. Utterly remarkable.

    • Anthony Sayer says:

      Maybe having been browbeaten for the last twenty-odd years with overrated, floppy-haired ‘maestri’, we’re finally coming to appreciate the inestimable value of genuine servants of the muse, such as Bernard Haitink and we’re realising that those cheap epithets were employed more to create a generation of Wizards of Oz than to denigrate the insights of true masters.

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    A Haitink story from his ROH days. There was a last-minute substitution in the ranks of the Valkyries. A now-retired eminent member of the music staff took the Einspringerin to see the maestro during the second interval. Nervous as hell, she jabbered on about how she’d be going on in place of NN, and how honoured she felt to be singing under his baton. BH looked her in the eye, smiled, and assured her everything would be fine and that she shouldn’t worry. Said substitute thanked him profusely and took her leave. The member of the music staff returned to BH’s dressing room at the end of the interval to accompany him to the pit. Just before they parted, Haitink turned around and said,

    ‘Oh, by the way, that lady you brought to see me just now’.


    ‘What did she want?’

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    A propos of Bernard Haitink’s death and looking back over those conductors we have lost these last twenty years or so, can we really say they’re being adequately replaced?

  • Chris says:

    “The more I look at these things, the more I realise that I don’t know anything.”

    All you need to know about Haitink’s humility and constant musical searching is in that one statement of his.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes, but it is also – sometimes – an insight that comes with getting older. The more one sees that one did not know before, the more one understands that the unknown will stretch-out forever.

  • Gustavo says:

    Mahler 7 is not complicated. It is easy listening. It’s like good film music.

    • Orchestra manager says:

      A great conductor, like Haitink, makes it possible. The problem is thus entirely for the conductor. Haitink is not the only conductor who expressed this! But he is one of the few who really made it easy (!) to fully enjoy the Mahler 7!

  • Michael P McGrath says:

    Haitink – a great, humble, ever-learning human being. There are far too few.

  • Michael L Conlan says:

    Funny, just listening yesterday to the vivace movement of no. 16, by Bernstein & Vienna Phil. Breathtaking, leaves subsequent composers in the dust.