THE DUTCH orchestral conductor Willem Mengelberg (pictured) was born of German parents, March 28, 1871, in Utrecht, The Netherlands. He died March 22, 1951, in Zuort, Switzerland, having lived his last six years in exile in his Swiss summer house. During his concert life he trained two orchestras, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam and the New York Philharmonic, into instruments of unparalleled refinement and plasticity. If we collected the sum of our impressions from his recordings with the Concertgebouw, a Mengelberg orchestra could be characterized as follows: lush and rich lower strings; warm and glistening violins; trumpets bright and pungent, but never harsh; melting French horns; trombones with and without the famous Mengelberg snarl; soft-toned wood flutes; nasal, French-sounding oboes — altogether a tonal canvas broader than that of any other orchestra.
Mengelberg was named conductor of the Concertgebouw in 1895, a post he held until 1944, when he fled to Switzerland. His nearly half-century of service with the same orchestra is probably the longest of any conductor of world renown. He first visited the United States in 1905, when he conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in a pair of concerts. Fifteen years later, the season of 1920-21, he returned to conduct New York City’s National Symphony Orchestra, which later merged with the New York Philharmonic. Mengelberg continued to lead the Philharmonic year after year until 1930, when his contract was not renewed, owing partly to Mengelberg’s justified complaint that the newcomer Toscanini was spoiling the orchestra’s tone. It was also due to Toscanini’s well-publicized feud with Fascist Italy, and the prosaicness and tyrannical rigidity of his musical interpretations which were prophetically suited to the spiritual atmosphere that came to dominate New York City and eventually the United States in the coming decades. Toscanini personally disliked Mengelberg and had begun to criticize him as early as 1925 for his rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth. As a consequence of Toscanini’s emergence as a New York cultic hero, the management of the Philharmonic capitulated to his ultimatum that either Mengelberg would not return or he, Toscanini, would leave.
Composers have greatly appreciated Mengelberg, for they could depend on his presenting their music in the most favorable light. He is particularly associated with the work of five composers: Richard Strauss and Mahler, both of whom were his friends, and Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Bach. Strauss dedicated to him Ein Heldenleben for the expertness with which he had trained the Concertgebouw Orchestra to play the work. Mengelberg’s recordings of Tchaikovsky are almost legendary. Modest, the composer’s younger brother, once embraced Mengelberg in Moscow at a Tchaikovsky concert and exclaimed in French, “Ah, Monsieur Mengelberg, at last the tempos of my brother!” His recordings of Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies are masterly examples of how he dissects a composer’s orchestration and then reassembles the parts so as to expose and heighten the expressive intensity.
Mengelberg being interviewed on German radio (German language; no subtitles) in the 1930s; he speaks about Beethoven, Rembrandt, and Tchaikovsky. The interview was made in Munich in 1936 during a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s 5th
While a student in the Music Conservatory at Cologne, Mengelberg had a teacher named Franz Wullner, a composer, conductor and director who himself had been a pupil of Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s close friend, secretary and biographer. Schindler had heard Beethoven play his own music countless times and had conducted all of Beethoven’s symphonies under the composer’s supervision. What he knew of Beethoven’s manners of performance — the phrasing, dynamics and tempo peculiar to the composer’s view of his own music — he taught to Wullner, who in turn taught them to Mengelberg. What is Beethoven and what is Mengelberg in the latter’s magnificent recordings of the former? Although that is an unanswerable question, we can safely say that much of the phrasing, tempo and balance Mengelberg’s basic view of the music — must be the result of his considerable knowledge of Beethoven’s personal wishes.
Mengelberg was very sympathetic to Germany, a sympathy that came naturally because of his German parentage. His pro-German feelings came to the fore in World War I, when, although living in Amsterdam, a city fanatically opposed to Germany, he continued to conduct the Museum Concerts in Frankfurt-on-Main.
Joseph Szigeti, the Hungarian Jewish violinist who ardently admired the Soviet Union, writes in his autobiography With Strings Attached (p. 325): “I played under Mengelberg the day following the Munich Hofbrau attempt on Hitler’s life (Nov. 8, 1939), the failure of which, by the way, elicited from the veteran conductor and myself notably divergent reactions …” That Mengelberg believed National Socialism was a last-ditch bulwark between Europe and Communism is perfectly clear. While conducting the Frankfurt Museum Concerts immediately after World War I, he saw at first hand the starvation and social anarchy in democratic Germany. During World War II he conducted in Germany, Austria, occupied France, Italy and Hungary, while also continuing to lead the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. After the war, his enemies saw to it that Mengelberg was barred for life from again conducting in The Netherlands. The ban was at first perpetual, but subsequently bore a date. In any event, Mengelberg died before the ban expired. Some other Dutch musicians who were also ostracized as collaborators had their ban revoked when they paid an adequate sum of money. Mengelberg might have been able to do the same, but he chose to remain in Swiss exile until his death.
Performance from 1932 of Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture
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Source: Instauration magazine, October 1977