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hobbyists's views for hobbyists
Willem Mengelberg, Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion' and The Philips Miller Sound Recording System


Research, scans of original images, Rudolf A. Bruil.
This page, first published on the internet in 2001, is an elaboration of an article first published in 1995.

PHILIPS PRESS CONFERENCE - 1953

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.
The cover of the first issue on record of Mengelberg's St. Matthew Passion as performed on Palm Sunday 1939.
Philips Minigroove A 00150/151/152/153 L.
On a few pages short examples of music will start playing automatically after the download is ready, but only if Microsoft Internet Explorer is your browser. Mozilla Firefox, Safari, and Google Chrome do not have the facility to let you hear sound in the background.


The press conference was organized by 'Philips Phonographische Industrie' (PPI), the Dutch record company that was founded two and a half years earlier, in September of 1950.
 

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.

Bach Mengelberg Philips  4 Minigroove Labels
Metthew Passion on Philips MINIGROOVE

THE JOURNALISTS - REVIEWS

Newspaper clippings

Many 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.
The headline of journalist Ruth Zimmerman's newspaper column read: 'One cannot describe happiness', thus indicating the impact the auditioning had on her and others present. She writes that for the first time she understood the full impact of the text "Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden, so scheide nicht von mir."
Under the heading 'Matthew Passion under Mengelberg heard again after 14 years' music critic Ralph N. Degens wrote in his review about the 8000 meter sound recording which had been transferred to LP:

 

 

"(...) 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. (...)
Listening to the now released gramophone records, one undergoes the spell of this perfect chorus sound, of the orchestra playing. One hears the unequaled Evangelist-performance of Karl Erb, the impressive part of Christ by Ravelli, one hears Jo Vincent, Ilona Durigo, Louis van Tulder and Herman Schey on the height of their artistic abilities and one realizes that this recording also in this respect is a historic document which will gain in value as our musical life, by lack of truly great figures, will slip back to mediocrity." - Ralph N. Degens

THE ARTISTS - 1939

 


In 1939 Hungarian alto Ilona Durigo was 57 years of age. Tenor Karl Erb (1877-1958) was 62. He sang in Mengelberg's Matthaeus Passion every year from 1918 on (and would do so for the last time in 1943).
Mengelberg himself was 68. Violinist Louis Zimmermann (born in 1873 in Groningen), who had been concert master of the Concertgebouw Orchestra since 1911, played the violin solos (his violin was a Guarneri del Gesu). He was 65 years of age. Violinist Ferdinand Helmann (1880-1954) who played in the orchestra from 1916 till 1948, was 59 years.
His violin was a Gagliano.

The 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).
Of the other singers Willem Ravelli (bass) at 46 was on the top of his career, as were soprano Jo Vincent (41), tenor Louis van Tulder (46) and bass Herman Schey (43; sometimes spelled Hermann Schey). Their ripened insights and sublime artistry contributed immensely to the compelling performance.

They all were recognized and were celebrated artists by the devoted music listeners and concert goers. And singers Jo Vincent and Louis van Tulder, and violinist Louis Zimmerman were popular in the musical circles around the country. They all recorded for Columbia Records. Above is an advertisement that appeared in Dutch weekly 'Panorama' in December of 1936 announcing 'Our Christmas Program'.
Jo Vincent and Louis van Tulder sing Haydn.

Bach's St. Matthew Passion, conducted by Piet van Egmond (recorded in the Old Church in Amsterdam, in 1955), was issued on Musical Masterpiece Society MMS 2037.

On an old Columbia Graphophone record (D9943 & D10036) Jo Van IJzer-Vincent sang "Silent Night" (Stille Nacht) and "Cradle Song of the Shepherds" (Wiegenlied) together with Theodora Versteegh (alt), Evert Miedema (tenor), and Willem Ravelli (bas), accompanied by organ, recorded in Christ-Church, London.

Oratorio singer Jo Vincent was a religious person. She made recordings in the 78 RPM era. On Columbia DHX 3 she sings with Louis van Tulder: "Ihr Schönen aus der Stadt" (Haydn).

Herman Schey excelled in other repertory as well. His performance of "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" from November 9, 1939, available on Michael G. Thomas Archive Documents LP and Music & Arts CD. Schey later recorded Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, Willem van Otterloo conducting the Residency Orchestra on A 00103 R, one of the earliest Philips 10" LP releases.

Jo Vincent sings Silent Night
Tenor Karl Erb sang in the 1936 recording of an abridged version conducted by Günther Ramin on Electrola DB7625/40 (DBS7638 a one sided disc). At left the label (2nd pasrt) of Erb's aria "Ich will bei meinem Jersu wachen". The recording was made in the Thomas Church, Leipzig with Tiana Lemnitz (soprano), Friedel Beckman (contralto), Gerhard Hüsch (bariton), Friedrich Schuilze (bass), with the Thomas Church Choir and the Gewandhaus Orchestra.

The youngest performer of importance in the 1939 recording was organist Piet van Egmond, who had started his career as organist of the Concertgebouw Orchestra when he was 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), and Carel Willink (bass).

Instrumentalists were Koen van Slogteren (oboe da caccia), Leo van der Lek (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 (probably members of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra free lancing for Musical Masterpiece Society).

The recording was made in the Old Church (Oude Kerk) in Amsterdam, in 1955, and released on The Opera Society / Concert Hall / Musical Masterpiece Society label, reference MMS 2037, 3x 12" LP. Concert Hall/Musical Masterpiece Society

 
THE TRADITION

It 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.
Mengelberg's intense affinity to Bach's magisterial work is well known and is well documented.
Mengelberg was conductor in New York from 1921 till 1930. First of the National Symphony Orchestra and from 1922 on of the New York Philharmonic Society
(after these two orchestras had merged). On December 26, 1925, Willem Mengelberg was honored during a
Front page of the Menu Card for the dinner held on December 26, 1925, to honor Willem Mengelberg.
Picture taken from the Dutch monthly "Caecilia en Het Muziekcollege" of February 16th, 1926, which also contained Rubin Goldmark's speech in its entirety.
Dinner organized by "The Bohemians, New York Musicians' Club". American composer Rubin Goldmark (1872-1936) said in his honoring speech:

"(Mengelberg's) 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.
But let me tell you of the one occasion, when he joined a new insight and when to me the greatest Mengelberg of all was revealed and disclosed.
This is purely personal, and I apologize beforehand to any of the distinguished critics here present, if I am trespassing on their prerogatives. But the time that M. loomed to me at his biggest - no it was not in a crashing (stirring) rendering of his famous Preludes, - it was not in the Mahler symphonies he loves so much, it was not even in a historic rendering of the Brahms C minor Symphony - of which I remember every detail - it was one night when I heard the still small voice, when I sat through a long performance, that was mostly quiet, serious, in dark tones - yet of ineffable beauty, with a reduced orchestra, that did not even contain horns or trombones (in fact it wasn't an orchestral work at all that he was rendering), it was when I heard him conduct, like a religious service, the immortal St. Matthew's Passion of Bach - that is where M. was at his biggest for me and when he said to me right after the performance, his voice still vibrant with emotion: "Diese ist die schönste Musik, die je geschrieben wurde" - This is the most beautiful music that was ever written -, I knew that there was a master who stood bowed in reverence before the greatest in our art, and who felt his greatest function in being his faithful interpreter." - Rubin Goldmark

The Concertgebouw of Amsterdam at the time when Willem Mengelberg was a revered conductor in New York.
Original Postcard from the late nineteen twenties (Ansichtkaart - Uitgave: N.V. Magazijn "De Bijenkorf", Amsterdam-Den Haag.)

THE QUESTION OF AUTHENTICITY

Rubin Goldmark surely used the meaning of "faithful" in a religious instead of a pure musicological sense.
In her interesting and amusing memoirs, "Singing Through Life" (Zingend door het leven), published in 1960, soprano Jo Vincent mentions the musicological aspect of Mengelberg's interpretation of Bach's St. Matthew Passion
:

Dr. Anton van der Horst in the nineteen fifties. Highlights from the complete recording of the Naarden Bach Society's recording were released on Telefunken BLE 14074. The complete recording of this sober and integer live performance from 1957 was released on CNR LCT 8002/3/4/5 the following year.

Dr. Anton van der Horst was already a noted Bach interpreter in the shellac era as is witnessed by the 78 rpm Columbia DX 36 12 inch recording of Toccata in F.

"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.
The page of the chorale "Was mein
Gott will das g'scheh allzeit"
with Menngelberg's annotations

When American Columbia had made the complete Mengelberg SMP Philips recording available in the US in the 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

This 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.
Jo Vincent - who sang in St. Matthew's Passion for the last time in 1953 under Eduard van Beinum conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra - recalled when the Minigroove 4 LP record set was available:

"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

Click here for a longer Sound Clip of the Opening Chorus recorded from the original LP from 1953.

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THE SECOND WORLD WAR: 1940 - 1945

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.
Willem Mengelberg in 1935 - Image taken from Dutch magazine 'Katholieke Illustratie'.


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.

His 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.
"How far can you go", seemed to be an individual matter with personal consequences. Many people believed that the Nazis would soon be stopped and therefore they did not work for, nor with, the occupier. But the Nazis were stopped only much later. And if Mengelberg would have helped saving the lives of 29 Jewish musicians, it was for artistic reasons only and not for a political or moral argument.

PERSONAL CONSCIENCE

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.

PERFORMING UNDER THE NAZIS

This 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 Laszlo Halasz, with him.
 Willem Mengelberg however wrote letters addressed to the occupier, expressing his thanks for this or that arrangement, for a supply, or for a contribution. Willem Mengelberg was allowed to travel with his orchestra to Paris to be filmed in performance. He and pianist Cor De Groot traveled to Salzburg to perform at the Salzburger Festspiele (Salzburg Festival) on August 16, 1942, Cor De Groot being the soloist in Beethoven's Emperor Concerto (No. 5 Op. 73).

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.)

MENGELBERG'S PROMINENT POSITION

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? <;tr>
A one page version of the above image appeared in a Dutch magazine in 1913. It is of the painting made by Thérèse Schwartze (1851-1918) of Willem Mengelberg aged around fourty, expressing passion and prominence. Original photograph made by Wegner and Mottu.
Scan of the original magazine page submitted by Jan Willemsen, painter in Amsterdan - restored by R.A.B.

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.

What 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 second rate ensemble.
That is why, from 1940 on, Mengelberg's foremost aim was the preservation of his orchestra and securing his own position - no matter what. That included the well being of his musicians; among them several Jews.
His concern was only partly just, of course. He could have made other choices. But he did not. Leaving the country meant leaving the orchestra that he had built during the last 45 years. That was no option. It would be a mental blow which would affect his whole being if he left his creation behind.

SEVERE JUDGEMENT

Because of his prominence he was judged more severely than any other artist who had manipulated himself through the five year war.
How severely? After the libartion of the Netherlands by the Allied Forces and after the Germans had capitulated in 1945, the name of Willem Mengelberg was hardly ever mentioned, except in private conversations, one would say. He was banned, his personality ridiculed.
In 1947 a new dictionary of composers and compositions with the title 'Musical Roundup' (Muzikale Ommegang) was published. In the paragraph about Gustav Mahler there is no mention of Willem Mengelberg, despite the fact that he had been instrumental in promoting Mahler's music in the Netherlands, in Europe and also in America. Proof was the organization by Mengelberg and staff of the Mahler Festival (Mahler Feest). Oddly enough composer Henk Badings gets extensive coverage in the book, notwithstanding his alledged inclination towards the ideas of the occupier.
The Concertgebouw, main entrance, picture taken from the English quaterly DISC, issue No. 17, from 1951.
Eduard van Beinum in his characteristic pose of concentration in front of the orchestra. Photograph taken from the Dutch weekly 'De Spiegel' (The Mirror) from 1956.

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, of ideas organized in 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 avantgarde music styles are generally rebellious.

Willem 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 again in 1947.)
Mengelberg was living in Switzerland when the 1947 announcement was made that for the next six years he was not allowed to return to the Netherlands, not even for challenging the verdict. He did no longer have a valid passport.

The Dutch government did not have an eye for gray tones but only could see black and white at the time and the leaders announced that Eduard van Beinum was to be principal conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Mengelberg spent the remainder of his life in exile, in Switzerland, in his chalet, Chasa Mengelberg, Hof Zuort, Graubünden. In 1950 Mr. Michael Thomas of the Cherubini Socoiety in London corresponded with the conductor and proposed making recordings. On August 14th, 1950, Mengelberg wrote:

"Dear Mr. Thomas - My manager Mr. Johan Koning who has shortly visited me informed me, that I still have obligations towards the "Telefunken" Company. This being the case it is impossible for me to sign any other contract at present. I am extremely sorry to have to disappoint you and sincerely hope that we may come to some agreement later. At last I have received a passport on condition that I do not conduct anywhere without having previously obtained a special permit from the Dutch government and which is only valid for the Benelux countries, Switzerland and Italy (not England). However it is a beginning an I trust further difficulties will be removed in the near future. Believe me, dear Mr. Thomas, Yours sincerely Prof. Dr. W. Mengelberg."

The "near future" was very short for a man his age. He died on the 22nd of March in 1951, in Switzerland. 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.
By the end of the 1940s several intellectuals and government officials had been discussing Mengelberg's position and his importance and were proposing that the ban should be lifted. Yet a positive action taken by the government came too late.

Dutch composer, musicologist and journalist Wouter Paap (1908-1981) is the author of a small but comprehensive 80 page illustrated biography of Willem Mengelberg, published by the Elsevier Company. The book was written in conjunction with the Mengelberg Ducumenta Musicae LP series, issued by Philips Phonografische Industrie in 1960. The book included a 7 inch 45 RPM disc with the performance by Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Oud Nederlandse Dansen composed by Julius Ròntgen. On the last pages Paap recounts that on the day Willem Mengelberg would have been 80, March 22nd, his actual birthday, farmers of Zuort had put his body on a sleigh and brought him on the snowy path to the valley while bells were ringing. In the Hofkirche in Lucerne the Funeral Mass of Johannes Verhulst was performed. Ferdinand Helman, former concert master of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, played the Second Movement from Bach's Violin Concerto.

On the afternoon of Saterday, March 31st, 1951, a concert was given in memory of Willem Mengelberg by the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Otto Klemperer. The program was well chosen and opened with Mozart's Maurerische Trauermusik (Masonic Funeral Music). Then Dutch contralto Roos Boelsma was soloist in Der Abschied (The Farewell), the last song from Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth). The Amsterdam Toonkunstkoor sang the Choral Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden (When I must depart one day) from St. Matthew Passion. The last work on the program was Beethoven's 3rd Symphony with the marcia funebre, the Eroica Symphony. It is true, Mengelberg led an intense and heroic life that he spent in the service of music... and humanity

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AN EXTRAORDINARY SOUND RECORDING ON PHILIPS MILLER FILM

Apart 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.
For specific sound recording there was the Philips Miller Optical Recording System, invented by J.A. Miller from America and further developed in the research laboratory (Natuurkundig Laboratorium) of N.V. Philips Gloeilampenfabrieken, Eindhoven, the Netherlands and introduced in 1936.
The dynamic range is determined by the relation between the angle of the chisel, the width of the black coated celluloid film and the displacement of the coils steering the chisel. The lower image shows a very high sound level.

The Philips Miller sound recording system however had a different way of recording and had its own specifications.
The system was in use by radio stations in the nineteen thirties through the beginning of the nineteen fifties. The sound carrier in is the special Philimil film which is a 7 mm wide transparent celluloid film, covered with a relatively thick, transparent layer of gelatin which is topped by a very thin, black layer. A sapphire chisel with a very wide angle of 176 degrees functions as a cutter. The musical signal is fed to the coil connected to this chisel which moves to the minute electrical variations of the signal. Since the shape (angle) of the chisel is just under 180 degrees, the indentations in the black top layer show a rather wide range of dynamics: 1 : 40. Since it is an optical system the signal to noise ratio is only further limited by the noise level of the electronic circuits using valves and transformers.

TECHNICAL 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
Engraved Philips Miller Film

one side of the film and the variations in the signal are read by a photocell on the other side and then translated into sound.
The signal-to-noise ratio is said to have been better than the 40 dB mentioned for the soundtrack of 35 mm film used in the film industry.
The frequency range was 50 to 7.000 Hz. within 2.5 dB and 30 to 8.000 Hz. +/- 6 dB. If measured with higher slopes of 12 dB the bottom end of the frequency curve could be close to 40 Hz. and the top could probably be 10.000 Hz., the limits being set by the limitations of the technique of those days: valve amplifiers, microphones, coils moving in a magnetic field. Despite the "restricted" bandwidth, the suggestion of a refined and relatively extended frequency characteristic is given.

Editing 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 system was also suitable for recording and reproducing two-channel stereo sound as is stated in "Radio-encyclopedie voor Nederland en België" from 1956. In the early thirties, right after its introduction, l'Union Internationale de Radiodiffusion (International Radio Broadcasting Union) announced that the Philips-Miller System was the best system available for sound recording.

The photograph shows two Philips-Miller recording/playback machines. The one on the left has a full reel (spool) and the one on the right is actually recording or playing. Flawless transition from one reel to the next was achieved by optical markings which gave a signal to the second machine to start the turning of the reel and gave a signal to the first machine to stop the recording or the playback, whatever function was active.

Each reel could take up to 15 minutes of recording time. During recording as well as playback damage to the film was practically impossible because of the hollow shape of the guiding wheels which let the engraved part of the film untouched. Only when handling the film damage was possible which would be translated by some noise or a plop. A non musical spot could of course be repaired.
Picture taken from "Radio Encyclopaedie", 1949.

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THE RADIO STUDIO RECORDINGS

 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.

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78 RPM SHELLAC - DECCA AND PHILIPS

Recording technicians of the Dutch Decca Distribution posing with the modern equipment as used in the nineteen forties, the era of the 78 rpm shellac:
cutting lathes (left), microphones (at right), various amplifiers and at left a big monitoring loudspeaker system.
Picture taken from 'Radio Encyclopaedie', Amsterdam, 1949.

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.
Many Dutch musicians and orchestras recorded for Dutch Decca. At right a label from the 78 rpm era when recordings were made in the Concertgebouw long before the Philips label was founded.

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.

 
ONE MICROPHONE TECHNIQUE

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).

The microphone was placed above and in front of the orchestra, so it would capture the sound of the orchestra in a natural perspective and balance.
A different representation of the effect of the cardioid characteristic of the microphone which neglected much of the noise made by the audience.

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.)

A modern cutting lathe as was being used in the nineteen fifties. The technician follows the result of the cutting via a microscope. The vertical tube in the center of the turntable is connected to a vacuum pump in order to hold the lacquer tightly to the platter to insure a perfect cut. The white hose on the left is also connected to a vacuum pump and keeps the lacquer free from chips and curls.

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VARIOUS RELEASES

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.


In the nineteen fifties Philips also released two 10" records with highlights. One with Choruses and Chorales with reference number G 05301 R. And another with Arias and Recitatives: G 05388 R.
And there was a 7 inch 45 rpm disc - 400 176 AE.
45 RPM disc with excerpts from Mengelberg's St. Matthew Passion.

 

DIGITAL FORMATS

Because 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 Philips Miller Optical Sound Recording System became obsolete by the further development of the tape recorder which was winning in popularity. Tape was easy to work with whereas the optical system asked for a more careful handling.

If 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.
The analogue long playing records do of course represent the original recording more truthfully because of the relatively high resolution which is not limited to 16 or 24 bit, but has far more and minute dynamic steps.


LP RELEASES AND REISSUES

Mengelberg made several cuts. So the performance is 'incomplete'. He never recorded a 'complete version'. The first release was on 4 discs in a box: A 00150/ 151/152/153 L as pictured at the beginning of this page. Later the same recording was presented in a spiraled gatefold.

The labels of the release of the Palm Sunday 1939 recording in South Africa stated 'Historical Life recording' the same as on the Dutch dics!

Bach's 'Matthäus Passion' conducted by Willem Mengelberg. The famous live performance on Palm Sunday 1939 

Singers:
Karl Erb (tenor),
Willem Ravelli (bass),
Jo Vincent (soprano),
Ilona Durigo (alto),
Louis van Tulder (tenor),
Herman Schey (bas);

Instrumentalists:
Louis Zimmermann (violin),
Ferdinand Helmann (violin),
Georges Blanchard (oboe d'amore),
W. Peddemors (oboe da caccia),
Hubert Barwahser (flute),
Piet van Egmond (organ),
Johannes den Hertog (harpsichord);

Toonkunstkoor,
Boys' Choir `Zanglust' led by Willem Hespe.
(Royal) Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Original booklet of the first release.



Near the end of the nineteen fifties a new release on six sides (instead of eight) was issued on the Minigroove label with reference numbers A00320/21/22L. That was when Philips used new amplifiers which were also used for cutting the matrices of the first HiFi Stereo series. The sound of this release has less weight and less presence. Also Mengelberg's characteristic ticking was omitted.



While in England the 1953 4 record set was released as ABL3035-8, in France the first release of 'La Passion selon Saint Matthieu' had the Dutch reference numbers A 00150-00153L. The blue linen box pictured here is the French equivalent of the Dutch box set released at the end of the nineteen fifties. Record numbers are then L00320/21/22L, and the reference number of the box is L3L0004. As in the Dutch set of that time Mengelberg's characteristic ticking was omitted.

 

In the early 1960s new transfers of the tapes were made and released on PHILIPS A 02530/31/32 L / bold face logo (3 Lp in box). Although this set was still produced in the age of valve technique, the transfers are cleaner though the sound of the original 4 Lp release from 1953 shows slightly more authenticity. 


In the nineteen seventies another 3 Lp box with reference number 6747 168 was released which boasts of the more modern transistor technique and has therefore better dynamics. There is confusion however. The label indicates MONO, but the accompanying leaflet tells us that the sound was electronically manipulated to simulate stereo.


In the fall of 1953 the complete recording was released on 3 Long Playing records in the USA by Columbia, reference number SL-179.
When listening to the Columbia-set one notices that the sound is not as rich as the sound provided by the Philips-release of 1953. And Columbia omitted the ticking of the baton.


All other releases of Mengelberg performances on the Philips label - like those in the beautiful series 'Documenta Musicae' with Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and Franck, and the special boxed sets entitled 'De Mengelbergtijd' (The Mengelberg Era) and 'Onder de Stenen Lier' (Under the Stone Lyra) - were not recorded using the Philips Miller Sound Recording System but stem from performances recorded with wire recorders, acetates made by the technicians of 'AVRO Radio' (Dutch General Broadcasting Society), or stem from 78 RPM matrices.

© Rudolf A. Bruil. Original article written and published in 1995 and updated since.

Philips Documenta Musicae

Documenta Musicae Discography
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.

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Avro EIGEN OPNAME muziek

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.

As 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 - 1942-2004).

These recordings of works of Antonin Dvorak were made on the 11th of September, 1941, by AVRO Radio, no public was present.
The discs play from the inside out (center start). Regrettably the discs are damaged and can only be played partially.

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LINKS

Visit also The Bach Cantatas Website (BCW), a comprehensive site covering all aspects of J.S. Bach's cantatas and his other vocal works.

 

ALSO WORTH A VISIT:

The 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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Audio&Music Bulletin - Rudolf A. Bruil, Editor - Copyright 1995-2012 by Rudolf A. Bruil and co-authors