Conductor Willem Mengelberg, by Frits Zwart [book review]

Written by: Colin Anderson

Conductor Willem Mengelberg 1871-1951 Acclaimed and Accused
Frits Zwart
ISBN 9789462986053
Amsterdam University Press

You might think that an undertaking – one subject, two books (as sent for review), and both are doorstop tomes – as exhaustive as this would demand a lengthy write-up; but conversely, for what is without doubt a masterpiece of research, organisation and illumination, then a basic overview seems the apposite pithy response. I’ll simply mention what you get.

Wherever you stand on Dutchman Willem Mengelberg’s musicianship – he could be interventionist and mannered, wilful (very different to Amsterdam Concergebouw Orchestra successors such as Eduard van Beinum and Bernard Haitink), if also another man’s enlightenment, and he was certainly a supreme orchestra trainer – here is a ‘Willem Mengelberg, This Is Your Life’ biopic (and there are plenty of photos and various examples of memorabilia included within the folios), a birth-to-death piece enshrining a triumphant and tarnished life (revered then exiled) of a man who in memoriam remains closely associated with two great ensembles, the ACO and the New York Philharmonic, as well as an inveterate champion of the music of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. The author, Frits Zwart (born 1954), has spent many years dissertating on Mengelberg’s activities and music-making, and it all comes together here.

Volume One (700-plus pages, eighty-five plates) begins at the beginning – the family that Mengelberg was born into; Willem’s early days and his studies; his music-director appointment in Lucerne; a history of the Concertgebouw Orchestra prior to 1895, the year when Mengelberg arrived at its helm … and then discussion of repertoire and reviews, guest conductors and soloists, disputes; colleagues such as Furtwängler, Muck, Nikisch, Richter and Toscanini have their own entries; America generally, New York Philharmonic specifically; composers contemporary to Mengelberg, including diverse creators such Diepenbrock and Schoenberg; the conductor’s personal life, “disappointed, overwrought and overworked”; tax problems, “huge bill”; recording for Telefunken…

Volume Two (pages 726-1329, forty-two plates, an index, several appendices, including repertoire, concert listings, yet no discography) embraces politics – Germany, Hitler, Mussolini; Crisis at the Concertgebouw; guest conducting, not least many engagements in Nazi Germany during 1938; orchestral musicians’ first-hand thoughts on Mengelberg; 1945, Mengelberg banned; court sessions … even more humiliations. And there is also Zwart’s own detailed assessment of Mengelberg the conductor: “his undeniable importance”.

So, a huge undertaking for Zwart carried out with insight, zeal and careful management to create books that make an indivisible pair, dippers-into and page-turners. These publications (which appear to now be a singular issue) document Mengelberg’s incident-packed life (music and otherwise), colourfully vivid for our own time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content