After six-and-a-half decades on the podium, Bernard Haitink was incredibly lucky to conduct himself into retirement in September 2019, rather than simply vanish in the orchestral silence of 2020. And how lucky I was to witness at close quarters his final, transformative Bruckner performances in London and Lucerne, the latter of which was caught on film for my BBC documentary.
Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was the work he chose both for his first British appearance in Liverpool in 1961 and at his BBC Proms debut five years later. By wonderful symmetry, the same towering piece marked his Royal Albert Hall farewell in 2019 – at the age of 90, giving his 90th Prom. The audience was focused, rapt and deeply moved, as he waved his baton and walked off down the bull-run for the final time.
If Bruckner is seen by many as a divisive composer, Haitink has always known which side of the fence he sits on. He was bowled over by the Eighth Symphony on the radio when he was nine – but then, as he told me, the young Bernard was ‘not normal’. The shy boy let slip his enthusiasm for the composer at school, and was accordingly mocked. He was later declined conducting lessons, told by a teacher that he had ‘no talent’.
It was under Nazi occupation during the war that Haitink first encountered a symphony orchestra. In 1947, he travelled to the Salzburg Festival to hear Furtwängler conduct Bruckner’s Eighth (‘fantastic’) and a young Karajan in Beethoven’s Ninth (‘empty’). He remains ambivalent about Karajan, whom he describes as an ‘orchestra tamer’. The music‑making he admired – if not always the methods – came from Otto Klemperer, Erich and Carlos Kleiber, Bruno Walter and Adrian Boult.
Eventually he managed to join the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic (‘in the back desk of the third violins’, he says with typical self-deprecation) for a year, which perhaps explains the heartfelt commitment to orchestral musicians that has defined his career. The orchestra then bravely took him on as its conductor (‘we wanted a Dutchman’, says its erstwhile percussionist Rob Meyn), which soon led to his long relationship with the famous Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, where he was chief conductor for 27 years. But that relationship was often prickly, and it was significant that for his final Dutch performance last year, he chose to return to the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic instead – a thank you for the gamble it had taken on him 65 years earlier.
We filmed their first rehearsal in Hilversum, where we tried to solve the Haitink conundrum: how does such a modest, undemonstrative man – the antithesis of the ‘normal’ maestro – galvanise his players to create such a distinctive sound? ‘The orchestra just sounds different under him,’ says Vienna Philharmonic double bassist Michael Bladerer. ‘When he takes up the baton,’ adds Haitink’s wife Patricia, ‘it’s as though the electricity is switched on. When it’s over, he’s confronted with himself again.’ He speaks very little in rehearsal but will sometimes rein in the brass. According to concertmaster Elisabeth Perry, he often asks the orchestra to play quieter than any other conductor does.
Haitink has always known he can ‘translate music’ with his hands. ‘I’m quite proud of it,’ he tells me. The fizzing flick of his wrist gives a glimpse of the fire still in his belly. In both London and Lucerne, he conducted the 65-minute Bruckner 7 from memory, standing most of the time and constantly tuned into every nuance. The crescendos were carefully paced to avoid preempting the climaxes, while the delicacy of the composer’s scoring in the slow movement was hauntingly realised, never losing momentum. To give his interpretations scale and shape, ‘he stands at the edge of the landscape and can see all the way to the end of the horizon,’ says pianist Emanuel Ax. Haitink himself compares it to climbing a mountain, but he has no time for those lingering over the view: ‘Come on!’ he says, ‘there are still more beautiful places to explore!’
In his tenth decade of life, Haitink had an almost Zen-like calm, but the younger man could be awkward or brittle, which perhaps made him an ideal exponent of the edgy music of Mahler. His relations with management were sometimes tense – more than once he threatened to resign over planned cutbacks, thereby saving his musicians’ jobs. When he later came to opera, he found himself at odds with the wackier ideas of stage directors. Richard Jones’s offbeat production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at Covent Garden caused him particular grief, but in the end, he always surrendered to the music.
In recent years he has passed on the torch to aspiring conductors in masterclasses. His advice to them was gentle but stern: ‘Don’t think about how you look. Study your scores. Then, if the Holy Spirit comes, you’ll have a good day.’
It’s advice that he continued to take himself. Just as he used to do after difficult performances, he would read – and make notes on – the score of a Beethoven string quartet. ‘My heart opens again,’ he said. ‘This is my home. I love it, and don’t want to give it up. Music is my life.’