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Conductor Willem Mengelberg, 1871-1951:a Acclaimed and Accused
by Frits Zwart
Publ. 2019, 1329 pp.

Willem Mengelberg was one of the great conductors of the 20th century. Frits Zwart’s title ‘Acclaimed and Accused’ signposts Mengelberg’s clouded reputation of alleged support for the Nazi occupation of Holland. However, the 1988 Concertgebouw centenary led to a reappraisal of Mengelberg. Haitink said he was rediscovering his predecessor’s legacy, and Chailly sought out Mengelberg’s scores of Mahler. This major monograph in English allows us to make a fresh reassessment. Frits Zwart is the Head of the Netherlands Music Institute and has accessed diaries, letters and memoirs, plus interviews with relatives and associates. This book is the most thorough and well-researched monograph about any major conductor that I have ever come across. Thanks to Zwart’s painstaking research, we can grasp fully the musician he was and how the Concertgebouw became one of the world’s great orchestras, and indeed continues to bear his legacy.

Willem Mengelberg came from German, Catholic roots; his father was an artist from Cologne (his works decorate Cologne cathedral) and mother was from a doctor’s family (her father also wrote poetry and music) in Schloss Allner. Their sixteen children were brought up to be pious and god-fearing; most of them became artists, composers, and singers. Willem sang, and played piano from the age of three years. He played the Brahms Handel variations for the composer who praised his interpretation. From eight he was improvising at the keyboard, and at fourteen conducted the local church choir, and played the organ in Utrecht Cathedral. Mengelberg studied with Wüllner (a student of Schindler) at Cologne Conservatoire. His outstanding musical talents were appreciated from an early stage, (including Richard Strauss who praised his student conducting of Don Juan). His bright blue staring eyes and red hair immediately drew attention - Alma Mahler said he resembled Loge from Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Mengelberg became Music Director in Lucerne at the age of twenty (he said he was twenty-three) and was responsible for orchestras, choirs, music school and music events. He gained respect and was extremely well-paid. In 1895 his appointment at the Concertgebouw - despite lower salary - offered better opportunities. The Amsterdam Concertgebouw subsequently and swiftly became a centre for contemporary music. Conflicts developed with his musicians because of the strict discipline introduced by Mengelberg; musicians playing a wrong note would be fined. Mengelberg quickly became known as a martinet and succeeded in sacking anyone he disliked. Mengelberg attained rapid rises in his salary and paid for visiting conductors from his own pocket including Mahler, Strauss, and Weingartner. This was aimed at getting lucrative return engagements. He filled his home with expensive furniture, carpets and a vast library of scores.

The relationship with Mahler was the most mutually beneficial and Mengelberg intrinsically grasped the essence of Mahler’s symphonies. Mahler said of him: ‘The only one whom I trust with my work with complete confidence.’ The Mahler Festival in 1920 attracted visitors to the Concertgebouw from all over the world and established the Mahler tradition - despite poor audiences - Mengelberg took his music everywhere he travelled. Mengelberg used the composer’s manuscripts marking notes into his own scores and continued to make changes finding something new each time, ‘anyone watching him beat the opening bars would have sworn that a world premiere was beginning’ (1). Interviewed in New York, Mengelberg said: ‘Mahler is the Beethoven of our time. […] he predicted all the movements that have lately taken place among the nations, including the Great War and the upheaval in Russia. […] a prophet, poet, and philosopher, capable of feeling all the joys and sorrows of mankind and expressing them in his music’ (2). Mahler and Strauss - together with Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky - dominated his programmes. Mengelberg was introduced to Tchaikovsky’s own conducting scores by the composer’s brother Modeste, on the basis of which he made changes to the published scores of the 5th and 6th symphonies. Mengelberg was quick to appreciate Schoenberg as ‘a genius’ and invited him to conduct his own works. The list of composers that Mengelberg championed is huge and wide ranging in styles and content. A composer himself - he wrote many pieces in his youth - his Variations dedicated to Rembrandt was highly praised. He never conducted in the opera theatre but gave many chamber recitals in which he accompanied singers on the piano.

The board of the Concertgebouw quickly discovered that Mengelberg’s talents attracted interest throughout Europe and from America. It was agreed to give him more time away from Amsterdam in the hope that he would stay with them. Between 1908-1920, Mengelberg conducted the Frankfurt Museums Orchestra. The interest of American orchestras was immensely attractive, but he never left Amsterdam using foreign engagements as a bargaining ploy to get more money. Mengelberg earned huge fees as a guest conductor, usually $20,000 (in today’s money), and one engagement in Moscow paid out $45,000. Controversy seemed to follow him for he was criticised during the Great War for being too Germanic and excluding French music. There were critics who had a vendetta on Mengelberg – for them he could do nothing right, however Zwart shows both the supportive and the negative reviews, and the true evidence of his success were the regular standing ovations. On another occasion in Russia, Nikolay Medtner refused to play with him accusing Mengelberg of bullying.

In impressive detail, Zwart records that Mengelberg was one of the first ‘globe-trotting conductors.’ One week would begin in London - a few days later he would be in Russia - at the end of the week was conducting in Amsterdam. He endured great difficulties traveling between Amsterdam and Frankfurt and with poor connections, it would take two days by train in 1919 - and he had to put up with street fighting and arson at his hotel. He travelled with twenty large bags containing his scores and all the parts together with his select cognacs and wines and, with a diplomatic passport, he became a skilled negotiator through European borders evading customs inspections.

The work with the New York Philharmonic ended when Toscanini was appointed chief conductor and Mengelberg was stopped from sharing the European tour in 1930. The Italian took over the orchestra which had been trained by Mengelberg – Toscanini seemed to begrudge his influence. The loss of the US concerts were a major financial setback. At the same time tax problems developed which meant he had to commute to Amsterdam living in a hotel and most of the year was domiciled in Switzerland where he was not taxed. In Holland the tax rate was 75%. His troubles were enhanced by losing $5.5 million because his agent speculated his accounts on the stock markets.

Zwart clearly examines Mengelberg’s relationship with Nazi Germany and his perceived anti-Semitism. It would be fair to say that the writer considers the opinions for and against Mengelberg’s politics and morality. The conductor was surrounded by anti-Semites, including his wife - he joked about Jews - yet enjoyed friendship with Mahler, Schoenberg, Kreisler, Heifetz, Bloch, Rubinstein, Horowitz, Menuhin, Hubermann, Bruno Walter, and Jewish politicians and businessmen. Zwart writes that ‘Mengelberg was also known to repeatedly state that Jewish musicians were the best.’ During the Third Reich, he engaged Jewish musicians who had lost jobs in German orchestras. Mengelberg tried to help the Jews in the Concertgebouw from deportation, only achieving their deporting to labour camps in Holland, not to concentration camps. He couldn’t understand why Mendelssohn and Mahler could not be played anymore, a clear example of naivety Zwart writes. The Nazis never considered that he was anti-Semitic and distrusted him. His pleading for Jewish musicians led to Mengelberg receiving threatening letters from the Dutch Nazis. Zwart however writes that Mengelberg was fascinated by ‘strong men’ like Hitler and Mussolini perhaps envying their power and glory. His affinity with Germany allowed him to be used by the Nazis; in Aachen, Karajan in Nazi uniform made a political speech immediately before Mengelberg started to conduct.

The catalyst for the loss of respect among the Dutch public was when Mengelberg was reported to have drunk champagne when Holland was occupied by Germany. As he does throughout, Zwart examines this in forensic detail. It was claimed the champagne drinking was in Berlin, his wife said this was in Krefeld and Mengelberg himself said it was just a friendly drink in Strasbourg with a German businessman. These stories circulated in Holland, and the appearance of photos in the press of Mengelberg meeting Nazis only helped destroy Mengelberg’s reputation and was reflected at concerts with many walking out or not applauding. In 1945 he was banned for life from working in Holland and his passport was withdrawn. The ban, after appeal, was reduced to six years. His bank accounts were frozen and special permission allowed release of his pension, attempts were made by Telefunken to make recordings in Italy, however he had declined both physically and mentally. so this was abandoned. Zwart shows how old friends such as Schoenberg, Casals, Stravinsky and others turned against him after the war. Mengelberg’s treatment was harsh – Zwart argues – in comparison with Furtwangler, Karajan, and others who were able to restart their careers by 1947. Mengelberg believed politics and art cannot mix, however Zwart questions this mantra because he criticised communism yet never criticised the Nazis at any time, even after 1945.

He was more concerned with his own injustice and banishment than the fate of the Jewish people who had perished in the war. Zwart writes. ‘His narcissism is clear evidence of Mengelberg’s complete lack of self-reflection.’ Mengelberg was used as a loyal conductor; his last concert was in June 1944 conducting Beethoven’s Ninth for Nazi troops in Paris before they were about to go into battle against Allied troops in Normandy.

He lost his wife in 1943 and with a lost reputation, Mengelberg died in Switzerland a lonely man a few days before his 80th birthday in March 1951. He was buried next to his wife in Lucerne, where, by a strange quirk of fate, he had started his musical career sixty years before.

Zwart shows how Mengelberg arranged extended rehearsal sessions to achieve perfection and the sound he demanded. He preferred rubato and portamento, with clear articulation. Most of the time was spent by Mengelberg explaining the music to them and demanding maximum efforts without keeping anything back. ‘Mengelberg’s concerts were known for their technical perfection as well as interpretations that were built from the understanding and recognition of the fundamental architecture of a piece. The playing was homogeneous, the rhythms were precise, there was a strongly developed attention to detail, the tempi were flexible, and everything was of a transparent, clear sound thanks to close attention paid to balance.’ Zwart writes that ‘where other conductors conclude their studies, Mengelberg was just getting started.’ The rigorous rehearsal process allowed him to achieve remarkable results, both at the New York Philharmonic, and the Concertgebouw and everywhere that Mengelberg conducted the standards rose remarkably. His work with the Toonkunstlercoor in Holland and the Cecilia Chorus in Frankfurt were as important and Mengelberg spent just as much time with them, to the point that singers were physically exhausted. Despite which they would gather and see Mengelberg off at the end. He introduced the tradition of performing St Matthew Passion on Palm Sundays, and many of the Bach cantatas. His character at the rostrum, was of a bully and hard taskmaster, yet away from it, he was a genial chap full of bon homie, and sought after for his after dinner talks.

This edition is based on the original Dutch version published in 1999 and revised in 2016. The book is organised into nine periods of Mengelberg’s life and career, and a series of chapters in volume two cover his musicianship, repertoire, personal life, finances and politics. There are thirteen appendices on his compositions, repertoire, concerts abroad, soloists, interviews and letters, and the Mahler performances. Throughout are 128 inset photos and scores. The texts are highly readable and well translated. This book should be read by everyone who is interested in the art of conducting, in musical performance, and the musical business in the 20th century. It is highly recommended.

Gregor Tassie

1. Joseph Deems Taylor, Musical Courier, 16/3/1922
2. Christian Science Monitor, 8/1/1921

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