b. Utrecht, Netherlands, March 28, 1871
d. Zuort, Sent, Switzerland, March 22, 1951
Willem Mengelberg seemed destined to a life of greatness. His father was the well-known Dutch-German sculptor Friedrich Wilhelm Mengelberg. Deviating from his father’s line of work, Mengelberg began his musical studies in Utrecht with composer and conductor Richard Hol, composer Anton Averkamp, and violinist Henri Wilhelm Petri before transferring to the Cologne Conservatory, where he focused on piano and composition. In 1891, he was chosen to become general music director of the city of Lucerne in Switzerland, and four years later was appointed principal conductor of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, where he remained until 1945. In the latter position, Mengelberg conducted the premieres of a number of Strauss and Bartók masterpieces, while also establishing the Concertgebouw’s Mahler tradition.
A perfectionist who meticulously rehearsed his orchestra, he was associated with the Concertgebouw for most of his career, but was also much in demand as a guest conductor. He first led the Philharmonic during the 1905–06 season; 16 years later, starting in 1922, he arranged his Amsterdam schedule to allow for annual trips to New York in order to conduct the Philharmonic. Mengelberg’s dual-employment status meant that he only conducted half of the concerts in the Philharmonic’s season, marking the end of principal conductors leading every program. The remaining concerts were handled by guest conductors including Igor Stravinsky, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini, Sir Thomas Beecham, and Fritz Reiner.
Mengelberg was a dynamic interpreter of the Romantic repertoire, Tchaikovsky in particular, but also Mahler and Richard Strauss, who dedicated Ein Heldenleben to him. Under Mengelberg, the Philharmonic recorded for the Victor label, including uncut performances of Beethoven’s Coriolanus Overture and Liszt’s Les Préludes. Mengelberg’s live performances exhibited thrilling orchestral precision, although the players often complained about his inordinate speechifying during rehearsals. During Mengelberg’s years as conductor, he helped to oversee the Philharmonic’s merger with a rival ensemble, Walter Damrosch’s New York Symphony, uniting New York’s two premier orchestras. However, just as Mengelberg rose to the fore, so too did Toscanini, whose willful personality began to eclipse him. Mengelberg left the Philharmonic in 1930.
During World War II, Mengelberg accepted invitations to conduct in Germany. After the war, his conciliatory attitude toward the Nazis was bitterly resented, and from 1945 on, he was forbidden to conduct in the Netherlands. Mengelberg retreated to exile in Switzerland, where he remained until his death.