Bernard Haitin - Photo by Simon van Boxtel

Bernard Haitink 1929-2021

In Memoriam Bernard Haitink

In 1954 a young violinist took part in the NRU conducting course. His name was Bernard Haitink. On the advice of guest teacher Ferdinand Leitner, the young Haitink played as a student violinist in the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra for a year, before returning to the course a year later. This time he was successful, because Haitink was appointed assistant conductor in general service at the NRU and was allowed to conduct the Omroeporkest, the Radio Kamerorkest and the Metropole Orkest.

Because of the death of chief conductor Paul van Kempen in 1955, Haitink also got the chance to conduct the RFO. And after his first performances with this orchestra, e.g. during the Holland Festival of 1956, Haitink was appointed as new principal conductor of the orchestra on January 1, 1957.

I was thrown in at the deep end and had to get by,' Haitink would later say of this period.


First Sacre du printemps
Under Haitinks leadership the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra performed in public more and more often. It took part in the Scheveningen Kurhaus Concerts and gave regular concerts on the national stages, bringing the orchestra more in touch with a 'real' audience.

During the Holland Festival in 1959, the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra performed Stravinsky 's Le sacre du printemps for the first time, a performance that greatly strengthened his relationship with the orchestra, Haitink later said. The orchestra had never played the Sacre, so we took our time and rehearsed for a fortnight. We had found no less than four broadcasting companies willing to include the piece in their programming, so we could perform the Sacre five times in total. That was a rare opportunity. A high official of the NRU said: "Haitink should not do that. We should have a conductor like Lorin Maazel for that." The work came to me anyway and I prepared it very intensively. I could not fall back on the experience of the orchestra and my own experience did not count either, as I had never conducted the piece. During the first rehearsal, I showed that I was well prepared and the concert in the Concertgebouw became a great success.

Across the border
In the season 1959-1960, the RFO and the Groot Omroepkoor performed outside Belgium for the first time. In Antwerp, the Choral Fantasy and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony were performed. In 1960 the orchestra travelled to Viersen (Germany) with Bruckner's Ninth Symphony . Haitink would later say about this choice of repertoire: 'How I, in my inexperience, came to conduct precisely this work is a curious matter. I did not find the score so difficult. When a young conductor says that now, I find it a mortal sin. Yet I certainly did not underestimate the music. Strangely enough, I felt at home immediately. More tours followed in 1960 and 1961: to Italy, Switzerland and Germany. During the first foreign tour to Italy, in 1960, the cities of Rome, Milan, Turin and Bari were visited. Everything was done by train, which meant that on their return to Hilversum, the members of the orchestra had travelled over 6000 km between the rails.

Farewell Haitink
Because Haitink gave a large number of concerts with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, he soon became familiar with an important part of the great symphonic repertoire. Besides the modern and unknown repertoire that the broadcasting orchestras regularly played, Haitink and his orchestra recorded six symphonies by Bruckner, three by Mahler and Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps. This knowledge of the repertoire came in handy when in 1961 Haitink succeeded Eduard van Beinum, who had died suddenly two years earlier, as chief conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

From: The power of inspired interplay. 75 years Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Text: Inge Jongerman.


Haitink often returned to the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Between 1965 and 2019 he conducted 18 concerts in the NTR Saturday Matinee, seven of which with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 2010, after the Rutte I cabinet announced the abolition of the broadcasting ensembles, Haitink stood up for the Hilversum musicians in a letter to the editor in the NRC. He also collaborated on the release of a special CD to underline the quality of Dutch music life and the broadcasting ensembles. In 2011, the budget cuts were partially rescinded and the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and the Groot Omroepkoor could continue to exist. At the end of 2012 Haitink became patron of the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 2017 the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and the Groot Omroepkoor were awarded the Concertgebouw Prize. On that occasion Bernard Haitink pronounced the laudatio.


Good evening, audience, ladies and gentlemen and friends of the Concertgebouw,

This hall has marked my musical life, the first time I came here was with my parents, don't be alarmed, it was 1937. Mengelberg conducted the Pathétique, but all I remember was a small, stocky man with an unyielding head. My violin teacher was with the second violins and for me that was the start of a life filled with music.

It was the summer of 1945, there was no TV yet and, glued to the radio, I heard the very first performances by a newly formed orchestra, the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. First a programme of French music and then, a few weeks later, Mahler's First Symphony. Albert van Raalte was the conductor and as chief conductor the guardian of the first hour. How capricious cultural life can sometimes be is evident from the fact that seven years ago I felt compelled to make an urgent appeal to reverse the decision to abolish the Muziekcentrum van de Omroep. I am under the illusion that this was partially complied with at the time, but it was still an unheard-of demolition.

In the meantime, the Radio Philharmonic and the Netherlands Radio Choir have learned to survive with conviction, which has made them artistically powerful and resilient, with great flexibility in terms of repertoire. Where the existing orchestras constantly have to balance between their own artistic considerations and the hard commercial art world, the Netherlands Radio Choir and Orchestra have filled in many gaps in the contemporary repertoire.

The orchestra and the choir have a common history: established after the occupation period, condemned to studio work only, in and from the 1950s the orchestra and the choir increasingly performed in the open. As conductor of the RFO between 1957 and 1961, I witnessed this development, including my debut in Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw Orchestra with the cooperation of the Groot Omroepkoor. As far as the present is concerned, the 'Matinee on the Saturday' is highly regarded, and the orchestra and choir are inextricably linked to The Concertgebouw.

Such a long-lasting marriage is no mean feat, and the awarding of the prize confirms the great cultural value of these ensembles. From the bottom of my heart, I wish you happiness with The Concertgebouw Prize! And so I would like to end this Laudatio, also from the bottom of my heart, with an urgent request to all those concerned: cherish these two ensembles and keep your hands off them!

Bernard Haitink


On 15 June 2019 Bernard Haitink was the last guest with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in the NTR Saturday Matinee. He conducted some songs by Richard Strauss sung by Camilla Tilling, and the Seventh Symphony by Bruckner. You can watch the broadcast here and read the reactions from the press here.

We are very grateful to Haitink for the countless deep musical experiences he gave us and the way in which he always made a strong case for the broadcasting ensembles. We wish his family and loved ones much strength in coming to terms with this loss. We will miss him.

Rest in peace, wonderful musician.

Musicians and staff of the Netherlands Radio Choir and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra


Photo: Simon van Boxtel

Watch here the programming on NPO Radio 4 and television in connection with the death of Bernard Haitink

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