Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951), A Celebrated Musician in Free Fall

Willem Mengelberg was one the most famous conductors worldwide in the first half of the twentieth century. From an early age, he had a close relationship with Germany. His parents were German and had moved to the Netherlands in 1870. Mengelberg even received part of his training in Germany, namely in Cologne. Before the First World War, he had performed in Frankfurt for many years in addition to his work with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.  

Willem Mengelberg (source: Netherlands Music Institute))
Willem Mengelberg (source: Netherlands Music Institute))

In the 1920s, Mengelberg shifted his field of activity abroad to the US, where he was appointed principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, a position he shared with Arturo Toscanini. He again began performing in Germany, where the Nazis had since come to power, in 1936; this brought considerable damage to his popularity and good name in the Netherlands. Not only would Mengelberg’s image suffer even more damage during the Second World War, but his career would also go into free fall as a result of his open sympathy for the Nazi regime.

Crumbling image
Because of his memorable Mahler interpretations and impressive performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Mengelberg had come to be seen as a truly great figure by many music lovers. In a popularity poll conducted in the early 1930s, he came first, even ranking above Wilhelmina, Queen of the Netherlands. But Mengelberg’s towering image would crumble over the years because of his arrogant, seemingly unassailable apolitical stance. A shift occurred in the press in 1935. It was felt that he had a moral obligation to take a stand against Nazi Germany. But Mengelberg felt differently. In fact, he is said to have referred to himself as a Deutsch-Niederländer [German for a “German Dutchman”] and in Germany saw himself as a kind of envoy extraordinary of the government.

In October 1938, the University of Hamburg presented him with the Rembrandt Prize, which was awarded to leading artists in Northern Germanic Europe.  The Dutch newspaper Het Volk published a razor-sharp psychological analysis of Mengelberg, the man and the conductor, written by Paul F. Sanders on March 15, 1938. The article claimed that Mengelberg had boundless admiration for power, which he would unquestioningly accept without moral judgment. Sanders wrote, “Indeed, this explains his attitude toward the dictatorship countries, the way he sees himself as a leader, and ultimately his craving for gigantic orchestral and choral ensembles, his haphazard interference with the notes in a score, and his overestimation of reproductive art to the detriment of creative art.”

Second World War
When the Germans invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940, Mengelberg was in Frankfurt. Two weeks later, he continued on to the Austrian spa town of Bad Gastein to take the waters, leaving for Berlin in early July for gramophone recordings and concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. In this connection, an interview with him appeared in the Nazi newspaper Völkische Beobachter [“National Observer”] on July 5. Five days later, the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf published large parts of this controversial interview under the headline “Mengelberg Has Faith in Our Cultural Future.” The interview did irreparable damage to his image. He is quoted as saying, “When the armistice was signed, we stayed up the whole night; we were in Bad Gastein, where I’d come ten times before to take the waters, but we sat down wit
h all our friends and ordered champagne to celebrate this grand hour. [...] Europe is taking a new direction. [...] Naturally, some people and circles had a different outlook in the Netherlands, but from what I hear, it’s clear they’ve learned a great deal. [...] What short-sighted people they all were. [...] And how deprived of all insight the politicians of the Western powers were who caused the war.” Obviously, such words unleashed a storm of outrage in the Netherlands, and, although he defended himself, Mengelberg understandably came to be seen as a traitor. The celebrated conductor was toppled from his throne. In Amsterdam, anonymous pamphlets were distributed, proclaiming, “Professor Mengelberg drinks champagne while the Netherlands capitulates.”

After Mengelberg returned to the Netherlands some time later, an 'interview about an interview' was published in De Telegraaf newspaper in which Mengelberg firmly denied that he had toasted to the Dutch capitulation with champagne. He also claimed that the interview had been conducted over several separate moments, so that all sorts of things had been jumbled up. Nevertheless, the effect of the original interview remained disastrous. It was not until 1947 that the Centrale Ereraad [“Central Music Honor Council”], announced that it could not be proven that the interview with the Völkische Beobachter had occurred in the way it was reported.

During the occupation, Mengelberg conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra with less and less frequency, a task for which Eduard van Beinum and various guest conductors were increasingly enlisted. The Beethoven cycle performed in the spring of 1944 would be the last concert series conducted by Willem Mengelberg.

Banned from Musical Life

Shortly after the liberation, the quickly formed Ereraad voor de Muziek charged with “expunging” collaborators from Dutch musical life, assembled. The council, made up of J.C. van Oven, Jos Vranken, Eduard Reeser, and H. van den Bosch, delivered its first verdict on July 2, 1945. Mengelberg was banned from participating in musical life in the Netherlands for the rest of his life. The council found that he had been so guilty of “impermissible actions at variance with national honor” during the war “that he should never again be allowed to raise his conductor’s baton in the Netherlands.” Later, his sentence would be commuted to a six-year ban. His Dutch passport was confiscated, which made him a stateless exile in his beloved holiday resort Chasa Mengelberg in Zuort, Switzerland. In 1947, he was also forced to return the decorations conferred on him by the Order of the House of Orange-Nassau. Mengelberg died on March 22, 1951, just before his eightieth birthday - only four months before the ban would have expired. The commemoration concert in Amsterdam featured the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Toonkunstkoor Amsterdam led by Otto Klemperer in music by Bach and Mahler.

Author: Geert van den Dungen