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Forgotten Conductors - Eduard van Beinum

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This entry is one of a series in which orchestral conductors of a past era, famous in their own time but largely unknown to a modern generation, are remembered as the musical celebrities they truly were.

Eduard van Beinum (1900 - 1959)

The product of a musical family, at the age of 14, Eduard van Beinum was taken by his mother to a concert where he saw the great Willem Mengelberg conducting the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. This made such an impression on the young man that his future career was cast at that one moment. He told his mother: 'One day you will see me conduct this orchestra' – he truly meant it and believed it.

Beinum was born 3 September, 1900 in the Dutch town of Arnhem. By the age of 16 he was playing the viola in the Arnhem Orchestra, in which his father was a double-bass player. He graduated from the Amsterdam Conservatory with honours, the piano being his principal instrument, and was soon performing throughout Holland. But his heart was still set on conducting and in 1927 he successfully applied for the post of conductor of the Haarlem Orchestral Society, in which position over the next four years, he honed his craft, learning both the standard repertoire and the new Dutch music. His skills as both a performer and a conductor became known throughout Holland, and on 30 June, 1929 he appeared as a guest conductor with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, thereby fulfilling the prediction made to his mother as a teenager. In 1931, he was appointed as second conductor to that orchestra alongside the man who had been his early inspiration, Willem Mengelberg, and in 1938, as its second Principal Conductor, an appointment designed to keep him with the Concertgebouw despite the offers coming from other Dutch orchestras.

The years of the Second World War were difficult for van Beinum. Unlike Mengelberg, who appeared to be far more collaborative with the Nazis, he kept a low profile and avoided conflict with the authorities, whilst at the same time offering passive resistance where possible. After the war, Mengelberg was exiled for six years but died shortly before he would have been allowed to return to his homeland.

In 1945 van Beinum became sole Principal Conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, a position he retained for the remainder of his life, and soon toured the United States with them. Having made his London debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946, between 1949 and 1951, he was their Principal Conductor, only the second since the orchestra was founded in 1932 by Sir Thomas Beecham. From 1956 he guest conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra for a couple of months each year, and in 1957 he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the Salzberg Festival.

On 13 April, 1959, having suffered throughout the 1950s from recurrent ill-health brought on by a heart condition, whilst preparing the Concertgebouw for a performance of Brahms First Symphony, Eduard van Beinum tragically suffered a heart attack and died at the rostrum.

As a musician, van Beinum was not a flamboyant character, being concerned primarily with producing performances that were as faithful as possible to the composers' directions. A man of the orchestra, he treated his musicians with great love and respect, to which they responded with dedication and commitment. Although familiar with the complete repertoire, he was particularly noted for the works of Debussy and Ravel, as well as the symphonies of Bruckner. Throughout his life he was a great champion of new Dutch music. His sensitivity as an accompanist to concerto soloists was consummate. On his death, leadership of the Concertgebouw Orchestra passed to Bernard Haitink.

Beinum's recordings, of which he made many, are reasonably well represented in the catalogue, including an 11 CD set of radio broadcasts dating between 1935 and 1958. His disc of Debussy's La Mer, was the Concertgebouw Orchestra's first stereo recording.

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