Bernard Haitink, 1929–2021

The LSO was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Bernard Haitink, who has passed away at the age of 92.

Bernard Haitink’s first appearances with the LSO took place in 1998 at the Barbican, a series of three concerts featuring music by Haydn, Bruckner and Mahler, which marked the start of a relationship that deepened through performances, recordings and tours over the subsequent two decades. He conducted the Orchestra in 2004 as part of the LSO’s centenary year, in a concert that also celebrated his own 75th birthday, and in 2006 conducted a complete cycle of the Beethoven Symphonies, the recordings of which are still considered to be among the finest in the repertoire.

LSO on tour 130228 c Vincero concert in Seoul 01

Bernard Haitink’s tours with the Orchestra took in performances across Europe, the United States, Japan and Korea, and at an LSO concert in 2003 he was presented with the ABO (Association of British Orchestras) Award by Sir Simon Rattle. In 2019 he joined the Orchestra in London and Paris for concerts celebrating his 90th birthday, described by The Times as ‘music making of the highest order’.

David Alberman, Principal Second Violin and Chair of the London Symphony Orchestra, said: ‘Bernard Haitink will be hugely missed by all of us in the LSO – and by our colleagues in other orchestras – who had the privilege of working with him. His vast humanity, and mysterious but unmistakable ability to change the sound of an orchestra with his mere presence, are unforgettable. The few words he needed in rehearsal belied the depth and breadth of his knowledge of both the score at hand, but of all related literature – whether music or word. This he distilled down to small but irresistible gestures – a minute inclination of the head, for instance, to listen to a leading voice would immediately make us want to do the same, and problems of balance simply melted away. The result was apparently effortless but powerfully moving music, and a strong feeling that he enjoyed making us into the best musicians we could be. We enjoyed it too!

Our thoughts are with his wife Patricia and all of his family at this sad time; but we also give thanks for his long life, particularly the last 20 years, during which we shared so many memorable performances – the Beethoven Symphony cycle being a particular highlight.’

Sir Simon Rattle, Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, said: ‘It is so hard to imagine that Bernard has left us: he was a constant presence and inspiration to all of his fellow musicians, and the world seems a smaller and less generous place this morning.

Although I had been watching and listening to him throughout my teens, we first met in Glyndebourne in 1975, where I was a pianist for the legendary Hockney/John Cox production of the opera The Rake’s Progress. Bernard taught me an indelible lesson there: the piano score is famously tricky to play, but if he was on the rostrum I found I could play it all without faking or missing out handfuls of notes. It must have been something to do with the space he imparted. The how and why remains a mystery, but it was abundantly clear that I could not play it in the same way if he was not conducting.

Although I had witnessed great conductors previously, this was my first direct experience of the immense difference that one person’s presence could make. It is a microcosm of all I saw him do throughout his career. Without fuss, and utterly without drawing attention to himself, he created a place where everyone could give their best, and normal problems of ensemble or balance simply vanished. It became almost a commonplace to think, ‘If we can’t play well under Bernard, it’s time to take up another profession.’

I found him warm and encouraging from the first moment on, and although I tried not to bother him, if I needed advice or was in a crisis, he was always there, generous with time, wisdom and empathy. I owe him more than I can put into words: he was a famously difficult man to thank or congratulate, the lack of fuss once more. But I think, however unwillingly, he must have sensed the love and gratitude around him.

My heart goes out to Patricia who has surrounded him with more love and care than anyone could wish, and who has been as selfless and generous as her husband. He was one of the rare giants of our time, and even rarer and more precious, a giant full of humility.

My dear Bernard, we keep you deep in our hearts.'

Haitink credit Clive Barda

Bernard Haitink was born in 1929 in Amsterdam, and studied the violin and conducting at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. He took conducting courses under Ferdinand Leitner in 1954–55, and conducted his first concert on 19 July 1954 with the Netherlands Radio Union Orchestra.

He became Principal Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1961, before a move to London, where he served as Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as Music Director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He was made an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1977.

Haitink Kevin Leighton 2016