Charles Boissevain, the Concertgebouw, Gustav Mahler and Willem Mengelberg
Mahler, Mengelberg and Boissevains. Click on image to enlarge.
CHARLES BOISSEVAIN, THE AMSTERDAM CONCERTGEBOUW, GUSTAV MAHLER AND WILLEM MENGELBERG
At a commemorative dinner at the Keyzer Restaurant on the 120th anniversary of the creation of the Concertgebouw, the Amsterdam concert hall, Sacha Boissevain told her cousins Alice and John Tepper Marlin that "grass grew" on the spot in 1888. Credit for the creation of the hall has gone to the editorial and personal support of Charles Boissevain. The Amsterdam leaders who sustained the concert hall included Sacha's father Menso. When young Wilhelm (Willem) Mengelberg was selected in 1895 to conduct the orchestra in the Concertgebouw, Charles Boissevain’s children became friends of their contemporary. Mengelberg in turn was a friend and devotee of Gustav Mahler and, beyond that, his promoter and interpreter. On the 25th anniversary of the Concertgebouw, Mengelberg did all ten Mahler symphonies in nine concerts. A member of the Boissevain family, Han deBooy, took the very famous photo of Mahler at left. The full caption should read: <<On the Zuiderzee by Valkeveen, March 1906. From left to right: Alphons Diepenbrock, Mahler, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Willem Mengelberg. Sitting: M. Mengelberg-Wubbe, Hilda G. de Booy-Boissevain, P.J. Boissevain and Maria B. Boissevain-Pijnappel. (Dutch custom is to hyphenate with the wife's maiden name at the end. Hilda is a daughter of Charles Boissevain and Maria married a Boissevain.) Behind the camera: Han de Booy, husband of Hilda de Booy-Boissevain.>>
The photo has been featured on Dutch postage stamps and Han de Booy's daughter Engelien some 80 years after the photo was taken received phone calls inquiring if she was indeed the "daughter of the photographer".
Years later, during World War II, the aging Mengelberg became out of favor because he continued to conduct during the Nazi occupation. Some members of the family defend him and talk about much what he did for Jewish musicians. Even those who feel he could have done more express sadness and regret at how immediately after the war, when passion for vengeance against alleged collaborators ruled the day, Mengelberg was stripped by the Queen of a long lifetime's worth of Dutch honors for his brilliant conducting because he continued to conduct during the occupation.
Brendan Wehrung wrote the following comments on Mengelberg's continuing to conduct during the Nazi occupation: By 1905, Mengelberg had whipped the Amsterdam Concertgebouw orchestra into a world-class musical team.
He was invited in 1905 to conduct the New York Philharmonic, and had permanent apppointmentsin Germany (1908-1920) and Britain (1911-1914). Between 1921 and 1930 he visited New York City every year to direct the National (later the New York) Symphony and Philharmonic. He helped organize the merger of the two orchestras in 1928, turning the combined group over to Arturo Toscanini. Mengelberg also was awarded an honorary doctorate in music from Columbia.
But the Second World War would not prove to be so easy on Holland as the First had been, when the Dutch were allowed by the Germans to be neutral. By 1942, the Nazi occupation was followed by the removal of many non-Aryan members of the Concertgebouw. Mengelberg made efforts to protect fellow musicians and maintain artistic freedoms, but by continuing to conduct widely in territories under Nazi occupation, he became tainted. After the war, his honors were removed by the Dutch Queen, his passport was withdrawn (he was in exile in Switzerland until his death on March 22, 1951), and he was banned from conducting. Mengelberg did indeed lead the Concertgebouw Orchestra throughout the war. Many of his concerts were attended by uniformed Nazi officials, who, unasked, enrolled him in their cultural organizations. Mengelberg's actions were, however, hardly those of a political zealot, and the damning appearances were, to a great extent, the careful creation of the Nazi propaganda machine. The tone of Mengelberg's supposed "collaboration" was established at the beginning of the war through falsehood. Major Dutch newspapers published a report that the conductor, then on vacation at Bad Gastein, had toasted the fall of Holland with a glass of champagne, something that was widely believed both during and after the war. The accompanying photograph showing the conductor with glass raised was an old one, taken after a rehearsal (not the claimed "toast"). The "event" never happened. It is certain that Mengelberg led an active musical life during occupation, not only in Holland, but also through tours to France, Austria, Hungary, Italy and Germany in various years. He even recorded the Tchaikovsky 5th with the Berlin Philharmonic for Telefunken in July 1940, which may have been the final straw, a continuing affront to Dutch political sensitivity. In Mengelberg's defense, his admirers cite political naiveté and his totally apolitical nature, for which there is considerable anecdotal evidence. His humor could be scathing and did not stop at topics that were politically acceptable to the occupying powers. One concert in October 1940 featured the banned Mahler 1st, and he was generally aggressive in protection of all artistic matters. While it was not something talked about during the war, Mengelberg quietly used his reputation to save Jewish members of his orchestra from deportation. After the war, when voices were needed to speak up in his defense, public disapproval of his person was so intense that those saved were not willing to step into the spotlight of public [dis]approbation. Mengelberg's problem was that in June 1945, immediately after liberation when scapegoats were needed, nobody was willing to believe anything good of him. While living in Switzerland, he was brought in absentia before a military committee and sentenced to permanent exile in Switzerland, where he had a summer home near the borders with Austria and Italy. Aside from exile, his Concertgebouw pension was revoked and Queen Wilhelmina withdrew a previously-awarded Gold Medal of Honor for Arts and Sciences. Mengelberg later decided to fight it, and received quiet support from members of the musical community. In 1947 a group of musicians, including Mengelberg's successor, Eduard van Beinum (who had seen first-hand what happened within the orchestra), sent the following petition to the Centrale Ereraad (Central Honor Council for the Arts): "The undersigned artists and music lovers, having learned that the case of Prof. Willem Mengelberg will shortly come up before the Honor Council, feel compelled to bear witness to their feeling of deep acknowledgement for everything that Mengelberg has done for Dutch musical life. In the course of fifty years he made Holland one of the most important musical centers in the world and raised our musical life to a level at which the names of the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Amsterdam Choir were internationally known. They are convinced that it is a primary Dutch interest that the name of Willem Mengelberg, which has been symbolic of our country for half a century, should be removed from the atmosphere of political controversy and passion in which it has become through tragic circumstances and should be returned to art, which is its historic place." Even in 1947 this petition caused an uproar, and while careful investigation found no pro-Nazi political activity whatsoever (or support for any degree of collaboration), as a highly regarded artist Mengelberg was held to a standard of enlightened perception, in which the court decided that he should have been aware of the appearance his continuing to concertize had on public opinion. To this day there are older Dutch citizens who believe he should have resigned from his position at the Concertgebouw for the duration of the war. In effect, he was sentenced for not resisting, rather than for any provable act. Despite a harsh written judgement, his exile was then commuted to six years, to end in July 1951. As it was, the term of exile proved to be a death sentence.
Philips selected Concertgebouw radio broadcasts for a Dutch LP series, and gave the Schubert 9th and Mahler 4th wider circulation. these transfers eventually made their appearance on compact disc, and have circulated intermittently. In the digital age the conductors' legacy has been most effectively promoted by small companies offering historic reissues.