Joseph Willem Mengelberg (28 March 1871 – 21 March 1951) was a Dutch conductor, famous for his performances of Mahler and Strauss with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Mengelberg was the fourth of fifteen children of German-born parents in Utrecht, Netherlands. His father was the well-known Dutch-German sculptor Friedrich Wilhelm Mengelberg. After studies in Utrecht with the composer and conductor Richard Hol, the composer Anton Averkamp (1861–1934) and the violinist Henri Wilhelm Petri (1856–1914), he went on to study piano and composition at the Cologne conservatory (now the Hochschule für Musik Köln), where his principal teachers were Franz Wüllner, Isidor Seiss and Adolf Jensen.
In 1891, when he was 20, he was chosen as General Music Director of the city of Lucerne Switzerland, where he conducted an orchestra and a choir, directed a music school, taught piano lessons and continued to compose.
Four years later, in 1895, when he was 24, Mengelberg was appointed principal conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, a position he held until 1945.
In this position, Mengelberg was to premiere a number of masterpieces. For example, in 1898, Richard Strauss dedicated his tone poem Ein Heldenleben to Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, telling journalists that he "had at last found an orchestra capable of playing all passages, so that he no longer needed to feel embarrassed when writing difficulties." Among other notable premieres were those on 29 March 1939, when Mengelberg conducted the premiere of the Violin Concerto no. 2 by Béla Bartók with violinist Zoltán Székely, and on 23 November 1939, he premiered the Peacock Variations of Zoltán Kodály.
Mengelberg founded the long-standing Mahler tradition of the Concertgebouw. He met and befriended Gustav Mahler in 1902, and invited Mahler to conduct his Third Symphony in Amsterdam in 1903, and on 23 October 1904 Mahler led the orchestra in his Fourth Symphony twice in one concert, with no other work on the program. Mahler wrote to his wife Alma Mahler that this programming idea (presumably Mengelberg's) was a "stroke of genius." Mahler regularly visited The Netherlands to introduce his work to Dutch audiences, including also his First, Fifth, and Seventh Symphonies, as well as Das Klagende Lied and Kindertotenlieder. Mahler edited some of his symphonies while rehearsing them with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, making them sound better for the acoustics of the Concertgebouw. This is perhaps one reason that this concert hall and its orchestra are renowned for their Mahler tradition. In 1920, Mengelberg instituted a Mahler Festival in which all the composer's music was performed in nine concerts.
Mengelberg also founded, in 1899, the annual Concertgebouw tradition of performing the St. Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach on Palm Sunday.
One criticism of Mengelberg's influence over Dutch musical life, most clearly articulated by the composer Willem Pijper, was that Mengelberg did not particularly champion Dutch composers during his Concertgebouw tenure, especially after 1920.
Mengelberg was music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra from 1922 to 1928. Beginning in January 1926, he shared the podium with Arturo Toscanini; Toscanini biographer Harvey Sachs has documented that Mengelberg and Toscanini clashed over interpretations of music and even rehearsal techniques, creating division among the musicians that eventually resulted in Mengelberg leaving the orchestra. Mengelberg made a series of recordings with the Philharmonic for both the Victor Talking Machine Company and Brunswick Records, including a 1928 electrical recording of Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben that was later reissued on LP and CD. One of his first electrical recordings, for Victor, was a two-disc set devoted to A Victory Ball by Ernest Schelling.
Mengelberg was described by Fred Goldbeck as "the perfect dictator/conductor, a Napoleon of the orchestra"; Alan Sanders writes, "his treatment of the orchestra was autocratic. In later years his behaviour became extreme, and there are extraordinary stories of abusive verbal exchanges between him and his players at rehearsal". Berta Geissmar records an incident in 1938 when Mengelberg rehearsed the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the Vorspiel und Liebestod from Tristan and he gave them tortuous lectures as though they had never seen the music before.
The most controversial aspect of Mengelberg's biography centers on his actions and behaviour during the years of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands between 1940 and 1945. His biographer Fritz Zwart writes (for Radio Nederland) of an "interview Mengelberg had given with the Völkische Beobachter, the German Nazi newspaper...the gist of it was that, on hearing of the Dutch surrender to the German invaders on May 10, 1940, he had brought a toast with a glass of champagne [and] had also spoken about the close bond existing between the Netherlands and Germany." Zwart also notes that Mengelberg conducted in Germany and in German-occupied countries throughout the war, and was photographed in the company of Nazis such as Arthur Seyss-Inquart.
Explanations have ranged from political naiveté in general, to a general "blind spot" for criticism of anything German, given his own ancestry. After the war, in 1945, the Netherlands' Honour Council for Music banned him from conducting in the Netherlands for life; in 1947, after an appeal by his lawyers, the Council reduced his ban to six years, though also in 1947, Queen Wilhelmina withdrew his Gold Medal of Honor. This notwithstanding, he continued to draw a pension from the orchestra until 1949 when cut off by the city council of Amsterdam. Mengelberg retreated in exile to Zuort, Sent, Switzerland, where he remained until his death in 1951, just two months before the expiration of his exile order.
Willem Mengelberg was the uncle of the musicologist and composer Rudolf Mengelberg and of the conductor, composer and critic Karel Mengelberg, who was himself the father of the improvising pianist and composer Misha Mengelberg.