Bernard Haitink, conductor who let the music speak for itself, dies at 92

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Bernard Johan Herman Haitink was born on March 4, 1929 into a wealthy family in Amsterdam. His father, Willem Haitink, was a civil servant and his mother, Anna Clara Verschaffelt, worked for the French cultural association Alliance Française. Musicians neither. The family lived under Nazi occupation during World War II, and Willem was imprisoned for three months in a concentration camp.

Mr. Haitink called his youth “lazy days”.

“I wasn’t stupid,” he explained, “but I just wasn’t there. Half the time we were taught under our desks because of the air raids. But even when things got normal, I wasn’t interested. Maybe that’s why now, when I’m over 70, people always ask me why I work so hard.

He started playing the violin at the age of 9 and then studied at the Amsterdam Conservatory. He joined the second violin section of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, but was unsure of his abilities as a violinist. After completing a course in conducting, he was appointed conductor in 1955 at the age of 26.

Mr Haitink, who once said that “every conductor, including myself, has an expiration date,” officially retired in his 90th year after an acclaimed farewell tour of festivals European summer. Reviewing her concert with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall in London on this tour, critic Erica Jeal wrote that “the last word had to come from Bruckner”.

“Haitink, as always, emphasized beauty rather than structure,” she wrote, “but didn’t let the sense of form in the music relax for a moment.”

His numerous recordings include, for the Philips label, the complete symphonies of Bruckner, Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Schumann; the complete symphonies of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, for EMI; the complete Shostakovich symphonies, for Decca; orchestral works by Debussy, also for Philips; and the symphonic cycles of Beethoven and Brahms for the LSO Live label of the London Symphony Orchestra.


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