Photo: Hector Retamal
Bernard Haitink, the iconic Dutch-Canadian conductor who was known for hewing close to the music rather than talking about it and allowing it to speak for itself, has died at the age of 92.
Haitink, who had announced last autumn that he was retiring as music director of the Amsterdam Philharmonic and the LSO in London, died of septic shock after a urinary tract infection, it was announced on Friday.
New York Times critic Charles Steilo called Haitink “a major figure in 20th-century musical history” and fellow conductor Michael Tilson Thomas called his death “a tragic loss for the art of music”.
He recorded more than 2,500 works by 80 composers.
He was born on 2 December 1926, in Leyden, a town south of Amsterdam. After studying violin at the Amsterdam Conservatory, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London.
Photo: Hector Retamal
Haitink was brought to the United States in 1955 as a conductor to direct the New York Philharmonic and he was named music director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in 1960. He made his debut with the Vienna State Opera in 1965 and first appeared with the New York Philharmonic in 1970.
He was named music director of the LSO in 1987 and the Amsterdam Philharmonic in 1998.
In a career spanning half a century, Haitink founded several orchestras and conducted more than 3,000 performances. He was recipient of many awards, including the Oeilungren Extra Medal and the Maurizio Pollini Lifetime Achievement Award.
He was a much-loved figure, which was reflected in his name or other expressions of affection becoming trending topics on Twitter after his death was announced.
In a recently published interview, he explained that the phrase he put his name to was “My Life on Music”, a phrase inspired by the 1971 concert that he gave with legendary conductor Riccardo Muti as the first musical leaders in Auschwitz.
During the concert, which was broadcast as part of the radio documentary Sixty Minutes from Auschwitz, the two men met inmates from both the Majdanek and Birkenau death camps.
Haitink, who had previously conducted regularly in the death camps, explained that it was a way to challenge audiences to accept the artists they were hearing, who might have been performing for Nazi sympathisers.
“Agnès Debut at Auschwitz was a massive breaking of the mould in the sense that when these horrible words for so many years, until my retirement, appeared on a printed page, suddenly the words sounded so innocent.
“The question I came to was: at this point what were the real values of music? What are the other values that music is supposed to impart?
“If these instruments are just listening to their own sounds and they are not considering how they can make their sound sound different, then it is just another instrument of the military background. That’s my main point,” he said.