The adoration of the Maestro

The Concertgebouw’s trailblazing conductor sublimated his libido in worship of Hitler and Mussolini

Music
Willem Mengelberg: A flawed but formative figure in Dutch music (Beeldbank Stadsarchief Amsterdam)

Of all orchestral creators, least is known about Willem Mengelberg, chief conductor at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw for half a century. Mengelberg died in Switzerland in 1951 after being expelled from the Netherlands for his role in the German occupation. Given the blind eye turned by the Dutch towards vast numbers of active Nazi collaborators in their midst, the ban on Mengelberg, who committed no crime, was harsh. His orchestra, decades later, is still ranked among the world’s best thanks largely to the disciplines and traditions that Mengelberg instilled. His erasure from public memory has been a blot on Dutch musical life.

A monumental biography—1,300 pages in two volumes from the University of Amsterdam Press—tries to set matters right. The life’s work of Dr Frits Zwart, director of the Netherlands Music Institute, the book almost loses Mengelberg in a pile of humdrum correspondence and social engagements that yield neither incident nor passion, excitement or humanity. Mengelberg seems to lack much by way of personality. He would not have been the first dull man to be a great conductor—think Hans Richter, Karl Böhm,  Adrian Boult—but he was liked by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, who did not tolerate bores, so there must be more to him than meets the archivist’s eye. And, if you read enough hundreds of pages, there is. Deep in this work of worship—one chapter is titled “The Undeniable Importance of Conductor Willem Mengelberg”—lie two dark secrets that make this very Dutch maestro seem, at once, much more human and also more odious than we had ever suspected.

To start with, he was not very Dutch. Both parents were German. They sent the gifted fourth of their 16 children to study in Cologne. At 20, Willem was made general music director of Lucerne in Switzerland. Four years later, in 1895, he returned to Amsterdam as principal conductor of the Concertgebouw orchestra, a young ensemble of no significance. Mengelberg welded it into a winning team by means of what Zwart describes as “rehearsal, endless rehearsal”. With no limits to the time he could spend, he bored musicians into submission with dreary harangues and constant repetition. His method infected their collective DNA. Even today, you will find Concertgebouw players earlier on stage for rehearsal and better prepared than those in any other orchestra.

Strauss and Mahler were so impressed that Strauss wrote Ein Heldenleben for Mengelberg, saying he knew no other orchestra that was up to its demands. Mahler, meanwhile, said there was no one else to whom he would entrust a symphony with greater confidence. If, on recordings, Mengelberg delivers the most breathless opening of the fourth symphony and the quickest Adagietto in the fifth, we may safely assume that he did so with the composer’s authority. Mahler, when in Amsterdam, stayed in Mengelberg’s house.

Mengelberg, who in the first half of his career was idolised by the Dutch public, was powerful enough with politicians to veto the creation of an opera house, fearing it might siphon off his musicians and subscribers. He held a second job as conductor in Frankfurt-am-Main and was a sought-after guest in London, Paris and Rome. Through the 1920s he was chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic, a situation that turned sour when Toscanini stepped in as joint conductor. Back home the Dutch grumbled about his absence and about the lack of Dutch music in the Concertgebouw. Mengelberg did not conceal his contempt for Dutch composers or, for that matter, for the whingeing Dutch, whom he compared unfavourably to the obedient Germans. He had few friends, and no lovers. We know that now for sure.

Zwart reveals that Mengelberg was sexually inert, to the point where he fixed up his wife Tilly in a years-long affair with his nephew, Rudi. The liaison wagged many musical tongues, but was never publicly acknowledged. Tilly, on their 22nd wedding anniversary, wrote to her husband, “If you do not complain—neither will I—and I will personally add that I am very grateful . . .”

Consider, then, the lie that Mengelberg lived. All-powerful to musicians and public, he was a eunuch in his own home, without a friend to call his own. Had Mahler known, he might have sent him to Sigmund Freud. Mengelberg instead found other satisfactions, sublimating his dormant libido in an unbridled adoration of powerful men.

He worshipped Mussolini and collected picture postcards of Adolf Hitler. He was rude about Jews and, when the Germans invaded his country, gave an interview to the racialist Völkischer Beobachter, announcing his joy at the occupation: “We stayed up all night, ordered champagne and celebrated that great hour. It was truly a great hour . . . Europe awaits a new future.”

To the Dutch Telegraaf, he said: “I confess to the crime of being pro-German . . . My forefathers were Germans . . . and since when is it a crime in the Netherlands to be pro or anti something?” Arrogant and heartless, he did little to save Jewish musicians from deportation and was seen rather too often in the company of the music-loving Gauleiter Arthur Seyss-Inquart. If he expressed any distress it was for the loss of half of his audience who deplored his collaboration. As late as April 1945, Mengelberg was still collecting Hitler pictures. He was in his mid-seventies when he retreated to Switzerland and 80 when he died.

Flawed personality that he was, Mengelberg is nonetheless a formative figure in orchestral history, a man whose psychology still affects the Concertgebouw’s relations with its conductors. The orchestra is presently headless, having summarily fired its last music director over media allegations of sexual hyperactivity and then buried the dispute beneath a Dutch duvet for a future musicologist, 50 years from now, to shake out. Just another misjudgment.