Willem Mengelberg’s parents were both German by birth, but worked in Holland, establishing a studio for the production of church furnishings at Utrecht in 1869. The fourth of sixteen children, several of whom died young, Willem learnt to play the organ and the piano in Utrecht, and although he was trained in the work of his father, it soon became apparent that he possessed musical skills which justified formal instruction. He therefore entered the Cologne Conservatory, where he studied piano under Isidor Seiss (who in turn had studied with Friedrich Wieck the father of Clara Schumann) and composition and conducting with Franz Wüllner, as well as music theory and composition with Gustav Jensen. Mengelberg left the Conservatory with prizes for composition, conducting and piano playing and both Wüllner and Seiss envisaged him developing his career as a pianist. His first professional work took place in Lucerne where from 1892 he conducted a choir and an orchestra, directed a music school, gave piano lessons and composed. On average he conducted one orchestral concert each month, and soon learnt that to gain the confidence of orchestral players it was important to possess a working knowledge of all orchestral instruments.
After three years in Lucerne, Mengelberg was approached with the offer of the conductorship of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, in succession to Willem Kes. His initial years with the orchestra were not always easy: his individual interpretative ideas attracted criticism and there was occasional conflict with orchestral players. During this period he often consulted Wüllner, who not only had studied with Beethoven’s friend and secretary Anton Schindler but had also known Schumann and Brahms well; he advised Mengelberg on the performance of major works such as Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. After working with the Concertgebouw Orchestra for several years and establishing himself, Mengelberg began to receive invitations to conduct outside Holland: he appeared at the Richard Strauss Festival in London in 1903, when the Sunday Spectator remarked that it might have been better if Mengelberg had conducted more and Strauss less! With the Philharmonic Society of New York he made his debut in 1905, once again conducting the music of Richard Strauss with great success; and henceforth he conducted throughout Europe, appearing in Paris (1907), Rome (1908), Moscow and St Petersburg (1909) and London again in 1911. In addition he took on the conductorship of the Frankfurt Museum Concerts in 1907 and of the Amsterdam Philharmonic Choir in 1908.
Having been first approached to accept a permanent position by the New York Philharmonic Society in 1910, Mengelberg eventually occupied such a post after World War I, initially with the recently-established National Symphony Orchestra for the 1920–1921 season. Despite enormous success, the costs of this body were too great for its backers to sustain, and it merged with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1922; Mengelberg became one of its permanent conductors alongside Josef Stransky. It was largely Mengelberg’s fastidious training that created an orchestra of the first rank, as his 1928 recording of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben clearly demonstrates. (A third orchestra, Walter Damrosch’s New York Symphony Orchestra, had also merged with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at the beginning of 1928.) The arrival of Toscanini in 1926, with whom Mengelberg shared the post of chief conductor, resulted in the latter’s programmes becoming more adventurous, with a strong showing by contemporary American as well as European composers; but as had been the case with Mahler at the Metropolitan Opera before World War I, so Mengelberg too was unable to resist the influence of Toscanini, and left the orchestra in 1930. It was Toscanini who conducted all the concerts given by the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra on its highly influential European tour of that year.
Henceforth Mengelberg’s work was focused upon Europe and especially Amsterdam, where he had scored a major success with the Mahler Festival of 1920 at which all the Mahler symphonies were performed. This followed his first appearances with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. At the first concert with this orchestra, which took place on 30 December 1917, he conducted Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, after which Alma Mahler gave him two manuscripts of one of the work’s movements, Der Abschied (one a preliminary version and other in full score), with the following flattering dedication: ‘To the Friend of Gustav Mahler… The most wonderful interpreter of his work Willem Mengelberg…’ At the second concert, given on New Year’s Day 1918, he conducted Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.
Throughout the inter-war years Mengelberg was a popular hero in Holland: everything he did and everywhere he travelled was news. He received numerous honours: in 1934 he was made a Grand Officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau as well as a professor of music at the University of Utrecht. However, the rise of the National Socialist movement throughout Europe and especially the German occupation of Holland revealed a startling naivety on the part of Mengelberg. In 1940 photographs were published of him as a tourist in Berlin and five days later an interview which he had given to the Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, was republished in Holland. Mengelberg compounded the negative impression thus created by fraternising with the Nazi leaders in occupied Holland, Seyss-Inquart and Woudenberg, and by accepting conducting engagements both in Germany and in countries occupied by the Germans. Mengelberg’s bland response to criticism, that ‘…as the sun shone indiscriminately for everyone so too was music made for all people’, ignored the reality that under the Nazis the sun did not shine for everyone, and that, to quote his biographer Frits Zwart, ‘…even musicians, composers and their work were forced into a scheme of things which placed no value on freedom.’ Even as late as 1946 Mengelberg failed to accept any personal responsibility for his actions during World War II, writing to a friend, ‘If I had done something I could understand it, but I never got involved in anything!’ In 1945 the Dutch authorities forbade him to conduct in Holland ever again; this ban was commuted to six years in 1947, but he was indeed never to conduct again.
Mengelberg was a highly idiosyncratic conductor who through extensive and detailed rehearsal achieved by current standards the most personal of performances. His approach to interpretation is exemplified by his comments that ‘…the performer must help the creator’, and ‘…faithfulness to the notes is a recent invention.’ He used the several playing norms of the period, such as rubato (tempo adjustments) and portamento (sliding from one note to another, generally on the strings) in such a way as to deliberately intensify his interpretations, and frequently adjusted dynamic markings and orchestrations with the same aim. His sense of phrasing was similar to that which might be more generally expected of a virtuoso pianist, which Mengelberg of course was. In general he cultivated a highly dynamic style of performance which emphasised extreme variation in order to achieve powerful emotional effects. His conducting, for instance of the symphonies of Tchaikovsky, may sound to modern ears almost hysterical in its intensity, but there is no denying that these readings are effective on their own terms. Mengelberg was a close personal friend of many of the most notable composers of his day, such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Alphons Diepenbrock and Ernest Schelling. His correspondence with Mahler reveals the depths of this friendship: in gratitude for Mengelberg’s extraordinary efforts in preparing works by Mahler which the composer was to conduct in Amsterdam, the composer wrote to him, ‘I am so grateful to you for your fresh and energetic initiative, your deeply sympathetic interpretation and penetrating understanding of my work…’ Richard Strauss was equally admiring of Mengelberg’s work, dedicating one of his finest compositions, Ein Heldenleben, to Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Mengelberg’s discography is one of the largest for a conductor of his generation. He was contracted to several recording companies during his career, which covered the eras of both acoustic and electrical recording. Before its takeover by The Gramophone Company to form EMI, he recorded extensively for the British Columbia label from 1926 onwards, and during the 1930s and 1940s he made numerous recordings for the German Telefunken company, some of which are exceptionally rare in their original form because of the exigencies of wartime production. In addition recordings have survived of many broadcasts, including his monumental interpretation of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Mengelberg’s troubled personal history has worked against a careful and reasoned critique of his achievements as a musician, and his large discography, both official and unofficial, has yet to be fully assessed. The recordings of Mengelberg’s broadcast concerts include many vital sound documents of the twentieth century, such as the first performances of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (with Zoltán Székely) and of Hindemith’s Violin Concerto (with Ferdinand Helmann); Mahler’s Symphony No. 4; all the Beethoven symphonies; Ein Deutsches Requiem of Brahms; and works by numerous Dutch composers who were contemporaries of the conductor, as well as other composers of Mengelberg’s generation such as Rachmaninov, Ravel, Kodály, Pfitzner, Hindemith and Bloch. It is impossible to consider the history of orchestral performance in the twentieth century without taking into account the achievements of Mengelberg and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, and thus his recordings are of considerable significance, whilst also constituting highly individual interpretations, possessed of an intensity rarely encountered.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).