Willem Mengelberg

The New York Philharmonic

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Willem Mengelberg


b. Utrecht, March 28, 1871
d. Zuort, Switzerland, March 22, 1951

Willem Mengelberg was a perfectionist who meticulously rehearsed his orchestras. He was associated with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw for most of his career, but was also much in demand as a guest conductor. The Dutch conductor first led the Philharmonic during the 1905-06 season; from 1921 to 1930 he arranged his Amsterdam schedule to allow for annual trips to New York in order to conduct the Philharmonic. The remainer of each season was handled by various 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. (With a limit of four minutes per side, substantial cuts were more usual.) 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, the Orchestra merged with a rival ensemble, Walter Damrosch’s Symphony Society. As a conductor, Damrosch was in no position to compete with the Philharmonic’s current stars, Mengelberg and Toscanini. But just as Mengelberg rose to the fore by being a guest conductor under Stransky, so too was Toscanini’s willfull personality beginning to eclipse Mengelberg’s.

During the Second World War, Mengelberg accepted invitations to conduct in Germany; his conciliatory attitude to the Nazis was bitterly resented and after 1945, he was forbidden to conduct in Holland. He retired to Switzerland.

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