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On the afternoon of Saturday, January 24th, 1953, a special presentation was held for the Dutch press and important members of the musical and commercial scene in the Netherlands. They gathered in the so called 'Kleine Zaal' (small auditorium) of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
There was an important announcement to be made. Yet no instrumentalist and no singer was present on the stage to add to the importance of the gathering. What could be seen was a catafalque surrounded by flowers. And there was a somber, painting - in the style of Jan Toorop - hanging in the background, as journalist Ruth Zimmerman described it in her article published in Dutch weekly 'Vrij Nederland'.
It all looked as if a funeral service was going to take place. No wonder there was a cold and dull expression on most faces. Until...
... until the murmur of people in a large acoustic space was being heard through loudspeakers - the catafalque apparently hid a sound reproducing system. The murmur was followed by a firm, light ticking of a baton, the conductor's baton, not just calling all musicians to be attentive, but merely asking the audience to be quiet. And then the performance began, in fact the performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's 'Matthaeus Passion' performed by soloists, choruses, the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and conductor Willem Mengelberg, exactly as it had been recorded on April 2nd, on Palm Sunday of 1939! The music came from four twelve inch Philips Minigroove Long Playing records.
a journalist reported afterwards, that from the first bar until the
last, everyone present was captivated by the extraordinary performance
of Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion', now played back on four Philips
Minigroove Long Playing Records with a total playing time of three
hours, notwithstanding the cuts Mengelberg had made.
Philips Eindhoven was in the posession of a registration of this performance
on a so called Miller Tape. This sound tape with a total length of eight
kilometer, was handed over to Philips Phonographische Industrie in Baarn,
wanting to try to transfer the sound of this film to long playing records.
oboe players were George Blanchard (1883-1954), who was born
in Brussels and played in the orchestra from 1904 until 1943, and W.
Peddemors. The flute was played by 32 year old Hubert Barwahser
(who later made recordings with Eduard van Beinum).
The youngest performer of importance was organist Piet van Egmond, who had started his career as organist of the Concertgebouw Orchestra when only 19 years old, now aged 27. In the mid nineteen fifties Piet van Egmond himself conducted a complete performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion for the Musical Masterpiece Society label with Corry Bijster (soprano), Annie Delorie (alto), Willy van Hese (tenor), Carel Willink (bass), and instrumentalists Koen van Slogteren and Leo van der Lek (oboe da caccia and oboe d'amore), Willy (Wilhelm) Busch (violin), Piet Lenz (viola da gamba), H. Sekrève (violoncello), Hans Philips (cembalo), Alex Schellevis (organ), the Amsterdam Oratorio Choir, the Vredescholen Boys Choir, and the Rotterdam Chamber Orchestra. The recording was made in the Old Church (Oude Kerk) in Amsterdam, in 1955, and released on The Opera Society / Concert Hall / Musical Masterpieces Society, reference MMS 2037, 3x 12" LP. Concert Hall/Musical Masterpiece Society.
was Mengelberg (March 29, 1871, Utrecht, The Netherlands - March 22,
1951, Hof Zuort, Switzerland) who established the tradition of performing
Bach's St. Matthew Passion BWV 244, every year, for the first time on
April 8, 1899. Like Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, the discoverer of the
original SMP score, Mengelberg made several cuts for whatever reason.
tastes are catholic and his artistic sympathies are wide. His programs
range from Bach to Strawinsky - and beyond. In his own country, particularly
he does not hesitate to go behind the beyond - as Nietzsche would say.
Concertgebouw of Amsterdam at the time when Willem Mengelberg was a
revered conductor in New York.
Goldmark surely used the meaning
of "faithful" in a religious instead of a pure musicological
"I do not know if in the early years historical, musicological or other objections to this execution were put forward (...) But in the press the opposition to the interpretation gradually grew bigger; it became a burning question, in which the public also took part. One swore either by Amsterdam, or by Naarden where on Good Friday the attendance was as big."
Naarden being the town where, from 1931 on, the Dutch Bach Society (Nederlandse Bach Vereninging) under Dr. Anton van der Horst gave a more authentic rendering of Bach's masterpiece of which a recording from the 1957 performance exists on Dutch Telefunken /CNR LCT 8002/5, with the Residency Orchestra (Hague Philharmonic Orchestra) and Dutch singers - Tom Brand (tenor), Laurens Bogtman (bass), Guus Hoekman (bass), Erna Spoorenberg (soprano), Annie Hermes (contralto), Arjan Blanken (tenor) - and many well known instrumentalists: violinists Herman Krebbers and Theo Olof, viola da gamba player Carel van Leeuwen Boomkamp, oboist Constant Stotijn, organist Albert de Klerk,and cellist Martin Zagwijn.
When American Columbia had made the complete Mengelberg SMP Philips recording available in the US in tyhe fall of 1953, critic Warren DeMotte characterized Mengelberg's performance in his Long Playing Record Guide (1955) as follows:
"Mengelberg's incomplete reading is somewhat special. It is moving, romantic in conception, and grandiose in execution. It is Bach done in the shadow of Richard Strauss, not the Bach we favor today." - Warren DeMotte
is visually indicated by Mengelberg's strong annotations on practically
every page of the score. His writings show accentuated drama alternating
refined movement of melody and subtle contrasts. The baton was the important
and basic instrument for the conductor. His left hand joined to add
depth and nuance.
"Sometimes I listen to the performance of 1939 with emotion (so neat with the little ticking!), recorded by Philips and released on record - a wonderful recollection. After Mengelberg had died I was given the baton as a souvenir." - Jo Vincent
After the Germans had occupied the Netherlands in 1940, Mengelberg continued to conduct 'his' St. Matthew Passion on subsequent Palm Sundays except for the last two years of the war. And he continued performing for the Dutch radio. And he continued recording for the Telefunken label, Symphony No. 3, Eroica (Beethoven) on November 11-13, 1940; Symphony in C and Unfinished Symphony (Schubert) in November 1942. Just before the invasion he had recorded Ein Heldenleben (Richard Strauss), and Symphony No. 9 (5) "Aus der neuen Welt" - "From the New World" (Dvorak). During the war Mengelberg received financial and organizational help from the occupier for performances, concerts and travels. His last recording was made in November 1942 conducting Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" (A Little Night Music). During the war many performances by the Concertgebouw Orchestra continued to be recorded, also with Eduard van Beinum, Paul van Kempen, Eugen Jochum, and Herbert von Karajan.
When the war had started, numerous artists, especially of the younger generation and those who had just started to make a name for themselves, did not want to give up their careers. When the war was over, many musicians like pianist Cor de Groot (Seyss-Inquart's favorite pianist), organist Piet van Egmond, conductor Willem van Otterloo, and also composer Henk Badings (director of the 'Rijksconservatorium' in The Hague from 1941-1944), who all had been members of the Dutch 'Kulturkammer' (culture chamber), were forbidden to perform for one or more years but most of them were soon cleared of alledged misconduct, they were de-nazified.
Also Mengelberg had chosen not to deprive himself of what he had accomplished as a conductor. In order to be able to continue to do what he loved most, namely conducting "his" Concertgebouw Orchestra, he worked together with and for the Germans. This despite his age. In 1940 Mengelberg was 69, an age when retirement under the given circumstances would have been logical, or at least would have been wise. Mengelberg, like Furtwängler (who also did not understand the signs of the time) and many others, did not go into exile. To go to America, where Toscanini was number one, was no option for Willem Mengelberg. He stayed in Amsterdam and secured his position.
art was deeply rooted in the Austro-German culture. He could not deny
that this was part of his own existence. However, the question of working
together with and for the German occupier is not of an artistic nature.
The question is a moral one: How strong are you mentally. How much insight
do you have in a given political situation. How far do you go in making
use of the regulations and how far do you go in answering to the demands
of the occupier.
Right from the beginning Mengelberg showed what his position was. Many judged his behaviour as 'ambivalent', as he was not taking a firm stand. He was not politically engaged and cared solely for his music business. When in May 1940 the Netherlands were invaded by the Germans, Mengelberg was in Germany, in Bad Gastein taking the cure and he later traveled to Frankfurt. He did not see a possibility to return to Amsterdam immediately. Sources say that he did not see the necessity to return. He first traveled to Austria and from there, in early July, to Berlin to participate in the festivities to commemorate Tchaikovsky's One Hundredth Birthday. And it was there that he recorded Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23, with pianist Conrad Hansen, just two months after the Germans had invaded the Netherlands on May 10th and had bombed and burned the heart of the city of Rotterdam on May 14th, 1940. In an interview in the Nazi newspaper "Völkische Beobachter", Mengelberg said that Europe was going "in a new direction". The new direction was even more evident later in 1940. In November of that year when he conducted the orchestra at the occasion of the founding of a section of the NVV, the Dutch Labour Union. The section was named "Joy and Work" (Vreugde en Arbeid) which was the equivalent of "Kraft durch Freude" of the German NSDAP, National Socialist Workers' Party. It is no wonder that sometime later Mengelberg conducted a concert for Reichskommissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart and other German officials. And there was no resistance from most of the orchestra members when the orchestra was to be "arianized", purged from Jewish influences, sometime later.
was all in stark contrast to Arturo Toscanini's attitude who
did not want to conduct his orchestra playing "Giovanezza",
the Fascist hymn, for dictator Mussolini, and he left Italy for good
in 1936 to live in the USA taking his assistant, Hungarian conductot
Halasz, with him.
Mengelberg was even allowed to travel to Spain and Portugal, as Dutch journalist Dick Verkijk mentions in his extensive documentation "Radio Hilversum 1940-1945" (Amsterdam, 1974), while others had to follow difficult tracks, sometimes via Switzerland and through the Pyrenean Mountains, in order to reach Spain. For them this was the only way to avoid execution, the only way to finally reach England to report to the government in exile, or to join the Allied Forces eventually. De Groot also performed in Riga (Latvia). And in April, 1942, the entire Concertgebouw Orchestra with Willem Mengelberg and Cor De Groot traveled to Vienna to celebrate the centenary of the Wiener Philharmoniker (March 1942). Cor De Groot was the soloist in Variations Symphoniques (César Franck), Mengelberg conducting. After the war it was argued that Cor de Groot, by accepting many privileges and "collaborating" with the German occupier, was able to protect the lives of two people important to his relatives.
There were many performers, composers and artists, who did not want to become a member of the Reichsmusikkammer, the music section of the "Reichskulturkammer" (Chamber of Culture), the institution which set the rules for performances and stipulated what material could be performed and what was "denatured art" (Entartete Kunst). Those who did not want to join were not allowed to perform and could hardly earn a living. (Nevertheless the Germans were sabotaged time and time again and the "Kulturkammer" never had a firm grip on the artistic life in the Netherlands.)
Lies the meaning of Bach's St. Matthew Passion solely in "the most beautiful music that was ever written"? Was the appeal - as Mengelberg put it - "die Schönste Musik die je geschrieben wurde"? Did the magnificent work of J.S. Bach not relate to a deeper consciousness? Were there no aspects of a human and also of a political nature?
Right from the start of his conductorship (in 1895, when he was only 24 years of age), it became clear that the Concertgebouw Orchestra had a genius at its head, a director who was a great organizer, a man who had an eye for detail when executing a work, planning a performance, or starting a tour, and a musician who could instantly be inspired by the score he had laid eyes on.
Through the years Mengelberg became not only internationally recognized, also nationally he was a prominent personality who did appear every so often in magazines and newspapers. He was a popular celebrity. When returning from a tour abroad and arriving at Amsterdam Central Station, newspapers would announce the arrival accompanied with a picture of the man. In magazine articles Mengelberg checked the modern recording techniques, did take part as a juror of a contest, was photographed at a farewell diner just before boarding a steamer to New York, etc. Mengelberg gradually became an institution and as such played a most significant role.
would the orchestra have become without this important but also presumptuous
conductor who molded the institution to high standards and brought it
to world fame? It probably would have been a third rate ensemble.
of his prominence he was judged more severely than any other artist
who had manipulated himself through the five year war.
In the 1949 edition of "Radio Encyclopedie",the only entry with the name Mengelberg is of composer/musicologist Dr. (Kurt) Rudolf Mengelberg, nephew of the former conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Kurt Rudolph Mengelberg was artistic director of the Concertgebouw from 1925 till 1935 and general director from 1935 until 1954.)
The question is also why the ideas of certain conductors, composers and instrumentalists, are often on the political right side. Maybe it is because they do not have the time to study political ideas and the evolution of society thoroughly. But most of all many tend to think only in structured music, in organized sound, in which for them there is no place for external influences. This is applicable for the classically oriented musicians. Those who roamed the realm of modernistic and avabntgarde music styles are generally more rebellious.
Mengelberg's behavior had not only become problematic to the Dutch music
scene but also to the entire nation. In 1945 he was declared unworthy
to keep his post of principal conductor of "his" orchestra.
This verdict became definitive in 1947, the year in which bans on several
other prominent people with questionable behavior during the war were
lifted. (In Germany prominent Wilhelm Furtwangler was allowed to perform
The Dutch government did not have an eye for gray tones but only could see black and white at the time. Mengelberg was to spend the remainder of his life in exile, in Switzerland, in his chalet - Chasa Mengelberg, Hof Zuort, Graubünden - were he died in 1951. That was in fact two years before the presentation in 1953 of the sound recording of his 1939 performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Sometime before his death several intellectuals and government officials had been asking to have the ban lifted, but a positive action taken by the government came too late.
from the wire recorder, the tape recorder and the direct-to-disc
recording system (as it generally was used in the days of 78 RPM
before the tape recorder made the LP possible already in 1947, but launched
in 1948), there is another medium for sound recording that has been
widely used. That medium is celluloid film as it is used in the film
industry. The sound track is a narrow strip on one side of the images
on the 35 mm (and also on the 16 mm) celluloid film. The track is a
photographic track, read by a photocell.
Philips Miller sound recording system however had a different way of
recording and had its own specifications.
The speed of the film is 32 cm/sec. (12.56 inch per second.). The reading of the track is done the same way as with the optical soundtrack of a movie. The Philimil film passes along a narrow slot with a lamp on
side of the film and the variations in the signal are read by a photocell
on the other side and then translated into sound.
of the recorded Philips-Miller film by means of splicing was possible
and thus mistakes could be corrected by eliminating or replacing them
by bits of other takes. Since the film did not need developing, the
recording could be played back instantly on the spot.
The Philips Miller sound recording system was used by various radio stations like the BBC and the Dutch Radio Broadcasting Union (Nederlandse Radio Unie) well into the nineteen forties and early fifties, and it was also used by the technicians of the Philips laboratory in Eindhoven. It is on this sound film that Willem Mengelberg's famous performance of 'St. Matthew Passion' (BWV 244) on Palm Sunday 1939 was recorded. It was not a recording by AVRO radio but by engineers of Philips in Eindhoven as is stated in "Discografie van het Concertgebouworkest" (Discography of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, 1989), entry 39-2 April. The films were considered to be lost or even non existent until they were found in a damp cellar. The importance of these recordings was immediately recognized by Philips in Eindhoven. In 1952 the recordings were handed over to their subsidiary 'Philips Phonografische Industrie' after they were carefully restored and could be transcribed to LP.
The restoration of the 8000 meter film and the transfer to tape were a painstaking operation. Attention had to be paid to keep the black top layer intact. Furthermore a constant playback speed should be maintained throughout. And dropouts caused by erosion or mishandling of the black top layer should be eliminated. This could be done of course after the transfer to magnetic tape had been made and the advantage of the tape recorder could come fully into service by copying, replacing and inserting bits of tape, in one word: splicing. Fortunately various Philips-Miller systems were still in use in the beginning of the nineteen fifties. The final magnetic tape became the master from which the matrixes were cut and the records were pressed on the Philips Minigroove label in 1953.
Some sources on the Internet mentioned that Mengelberg's St. Matthew Passion was issued earlier on 78 RPM records before the release on LP in 1953. And they maintained that the shellac discs had been the basis for the Philips Minigroove 4 LP set. This of course is not the case.
These recordings were not made in 1939 for immediate commercial release as "N.V. Philips' Gloeilampenfabrieken" in Eindhoven did not have established a record label yet. Plans for a record division were certainly in the pipeline but a commercial realization was obviously obstructed by the outbreak of World War Two.
In 1942 "N.V. Philips Gloeilampenfabrieken" in Eindhoven acquired "Hollandsche Decca Distributie" (Dutch Decca Distribution). It was a small factory located above a laundry in the city of Amsterdam. This production facility was later to be the basis for the Philips label. (Note: The acquisition also explains the collaboration between Philips and English Decca, and finally the acquisition of the Decca label by Phonogram as the company was named in the nineteen sixties). Despite the 1942 purchase, a release of the Mengelberg recording could only be materialized many years later when the Long Playing record had become the medium and after 'Philips Phonographische Industrie' had been founded in 1950. And of course when the Miller films had surfaced.
There is another noteworthy aspect of the Philips recording of St. Matthew's Passion. In those days the concerts given in the Concertgebouw were broadcast at regular intervals. This custom was ended in the early nineteen eighties. Before the war the performances were captured with just one microphone hanging slightly in front of and several feet above the orchestra. (So Bob Fine's Mercury Living Presence mono-technique was not all that new.)
A microphone with a cardioid characteristic is used. It captures very well the musicians in the orchestra, but is not sensitive in the direction of the audience. No phase shifting took place which occurs when various microphones are being used and placed near groups of instruments in the orchestra at various distances to highlight these instruments for clarity. But that practice can easily change the natural sound balance of the orchestra and the harmonious character of the instruments (as is already more or less the case in early Remington Musirama recordings with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra).
When listening to the "one microphone recording", the instruments, singers and choruses are placed in a natural perspective, exactly as they were positioned on the stage of the Concertgebouw's main hall with its beautiful acoustics. Us van der Meulen recorded Mengelberg's St. Matthew performance in 1939. He did join Philips Phonografische Industrie in 1950 when the Philips label started and the first recordings were made with conductors Willem van Otterloo, Paul van Kempen and Antal Dorati, with pianists Clara Haskil, Cor de Groot, Alexander Uninsky, Abbey Simon, Eduardo del Puyo and Theo van der Pas, with violinists Herman Krebbers and Theo Olof, with singers Jo Vincent and Gré Brouwenstijn, and other artists who made the Philips classical label famous at home and abroad. (Note: Eduard van Beinum had a long standing contract with English Decca. He joined the Philips label only much later, in 1956.)
Some 8 years after the first release on LP this historic performance with Mengelberg was re-released in a new transfer when tape heads and amplifiers had gained in dynamic capability and when the filtering and the editing technique certainly had been improved, and when the cutting process and the production of matrixes had been improved significantly. But then the producers of 'Philips Phonographische Industrie' thought it appropriate to leave out the ticks of the baton at the beginning of the performance which were so characteristic of Willem Mengelberg.
of the existence of CD, DVD and SACD, a significant aspect of optical
signal reading is the obvious absence of the mechanical contact of tape
and tape heads and of the stylus and the groove in the vinyl disc. If
one compares the recording of 'St. Matthew Passion' to the recordings
of other historic performances made with 78 RPM acetates, one can easily
hear that the recording of 'St. Matthew Passion' was done using the
Philips Miller audio recording system and thus does not show the "mechanical
quality" of acetates.
the old Philips-Miller machines would still exist and could be restored,
and if the technicians could transcribe the films once again, it would
be possible to transfer the sound captured on the Philimil film directly
to a high resolution digital format (DVD or double layer SACD) after
which the restoration of the signal and the editing could take place
in the digital domain. That would mean the complete elimination of the
intermediate magnetic sound recording tape and its anomalies, and it
would mean that the authenticity of the performance could be heightened
further. This of course would only be true if the CD transfer of the
magnetic tape on the current Philips CD edition showed that the result
of the totally optical transfer was superior.
LP RELEASES AND REISSUES
Bach's 'Matthäus Passion' conducted by Willem Mengelberg. The famous live performance on Palm Sunday 1939
Original booklet of the first release.
W 09900 L - Beethoven Symphonies Nos.1 and 8
W 09901 L - Beethoven Symphony No.2, Overture "Fidelio"
W 09902 L - Beethoven Symphony No.4
W 09903 L - Beethoven Symphony No. 6 "Pastorale"
W 09904 L - Beethoven Symphony No.7
W 09905 L/W 09906 L - Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 9
W 09907 L - Brahms Symphny No.1
W 09908 L - Franck Symphony, Strauss "Don Juan"
W 09909 L - Schubert Symphony No.9
W 09910 L - Schubert Symphony No. 8 and incidental music from "Rosamunde"
W 09911 L - Mahler Symphony No.4 (with Jo Vincent, soprano)
W 09912 L/W 09913 L - Brahms "Ein deutsches Requiem" (A German Requiem) with Jo Vincent and Max Kloos, baritone; on Side 4 excerpts from St. Matthew Passion (also released on Turnabout TV-M 4445/M 4446)
In the series of the live performances for AVRO Radio Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 was damaged. The 3rd was later included in the LP box containing all of Beethoven's Symphonies (Philips 6767 003) when Teldec made their recording of the Third Symphony available.
Many recordings made in Amsterdam, Berlin and New York have been edited and released on CD. There are various chapters of the "Willem Mengelberg Society" where more details can be obtained by subscribing to a newsletter.
The series Documenta Musicae was a project of former conductor, the late Otto Glastra-Van Loon who was responsible for building a classical catalogue right from the beginning of the existence of the Philips label in 1950.
Even though the Philips Miller Sound Recording System was in use by the Dutch Radio Authority, performances of the Concertgebouw Orchestra which were broadcast by AVRO Radio (Algemene Vereniging Radio Omroep) in Hilversum, the Netherlands in the 1930 and 1940s were cut on two-sided acetate discs playing at 78 RPM. So were the many Symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Franck and Schubert, conducted by Willem Mengelberg, as listed above.
an example, at left a few acetate discs (glass covered with a layer of
lacquer), not of Willem Mengelberg but of Eduard van Beinum conducting
the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Dvorak's Serenade for Wind Instruments,
Violin and Bass, Slavonic Dances Op. 46, Nos. 1 and 8, Overture "In
Nature", and Dvorak's Mazurek in E minor for Violin and Orchestra
with Violinist Frans Vonk. (His son was the late conductor Hans Vonk -
recordings of works of Antonin Dvorak were made on the 11th of September,
1941, by AVRO Radio, no public was present.
CHOOSE ANOTHER SUBJECT
Visit also The Bach Cantatas Website (BCW), a comprehensive site covering all aspects of J.S. Bach's cantatas and his other vocal works.
Amsterdam Concertgebouw on a Postcard from the 1960s. And below a photograph
taken in 2011.
The Concertgebouw was completely restored in the 1980s, inside and outside, and reopened in 1988.
Note the different color of paint used for windows and facia.
Since a modern ventilation technique was applied in the restored building,
the roof exhaust traps were omitted.
The four towers were adorned with the ornamental forgings in original style.
This page, first published on the internet in 2001, is an elaboration of an article written in 1995.
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