The general presumption goes something like this: Willem Mengelberg was of German stock, was German-trained and admired all things German. He actively supported his Nazi conquerors, in return for favor and high honors.
As with most myths, there are some facts that appear to support the charges. He did indeed lead the Concertgebouw Orchestra throughout the war, right up to the liberation of Holland, at which time he precipitously departed for Switzerland. Many of his concerts were attended by uniformed Nazi officials (as were orchestral concerts all in other occupied capitals). Those officials, unasked, enrolled him in their cultural organizations, and he was photographed in the company of these same officials.
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. Just as Sir Thomas Beecham appeared to be in the presence of Hitler during his 1936 visit to Berlin (in fact a pasted-together photographic montage, Beecham being at his hotel that evening), 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. A lack of repudiation (at the time) has always been held against Mengelberg, despite the fact that when this "news" article appeared there was no longer a free press in Holland and certainly no forum in which to make any rebuttal. 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 naivete 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 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, 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. Not every country that suffered German aggression was concerned by Mengelberg's wartime activities; offers of engagements from as far away as the Soviet Union were received, but could not be accepted because the conductor's passport was held by Dutch authorities; without it he could not leave Switzerland. Had he ventured forth he would have functioned as a stateless person, but in the stubborn Dutch way he accepted what had been handed down and lived quietly until his death, a week short of his 80th birthday.
Mengelberg was not forgotten. New American classical labels such as Mercury struck deals with German labels like Telefunken for U.S. issue (on 78 rpm discs) of a few of his wartime recordings, and Telefunken eventually released some of these on early LPs under their own name. Philips also 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.
Had Mengelberg chosen to "sit out" the war, or at least restrict his activities to his home orchestra, perhaps things might have been different. Wilhelm Furtwaengler did not live much longer than Mengelberg (although, of course, he was younger, and in better health), but once the German was declared free of Nazi taint he became one of the most sought-after conductors in Europe; in fact his widow believes Furtwaengler's inability to say "no" led to overwork that contributed to his final illness. From his later studio recordings and many taped concerts grew the cult of his art that flourishes today. Mengelberg suffered heart problems during the war, but had he survived it with his reputation intact, doubtless would have been offered new recording opportunities (on tape), and with them a new public. As it is, while he has not been forgotten, Willem Mengelberg has become a specialist favorite, one whose high-powered recordings of familiar classics must be heard through 78rpm clicks or acetate crackle, or more dimly when these supposed defects are filtered. Luckily for us, techniques of 78rpm transfer have shown great improvement in the last few years, and the best reveal more than ever before of his greatness. It is to be hoped that the final judgement of history will rest on what Willem Mengelberg accomplished, not on untruth and misrepresentation.
Long may his art be preserved.
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