Mr. Haitink (pronounced High-tink) built his reputation in his hometown of Amsterdam as the longtime conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which he first led as a last-minute replacement in 1956. He later spent a quarter century at the Concertgebouw, which became known for its clear, focused string sound and its supremely balanced ensemble approach.
Called “the last true gentleman of the podium” by Chicago Tribune music writer John von Rhein, Mr. Haitink had a simple, unfussy manner, with none of the histrionic gestures or leaps of other conductors.
He did most his work in the rehearsal hall, using a few gentle suggestions, such as telling a violinist that a note should be “more velvety. Like you are stroking a cat — unless you are allergic to cats.” More often, he conveyed his musical ideas through his hands, eyes and facial expressions.
“You can say all sorts of stupid things,” Mr. Haitink told the Guardian newspaper in 2000, “but it is the music-making with your hands, with your face, with your musical personality, that is the important part. I always say to a young conductor that when you are at a performance you can’t talk any more to the orchestra, you have to show them what you mean.”
While leading the Concertgebouw, Mr. Haitink also became the principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1967 to 1979, forging a connection with British musicians and audiences that lasted the rest of his life.
Early in his career, he focused on the symphonic repertoire, developing a particular expertise in the works of Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler and, later, Dmitri Shostakovich. Beginning in the 1970s, he began to conduct operas, as well, eventually becoming the music director of England’s Glyndebourne Opera from 1977 to 1988 and the Royal Opera House at London’s Covent Garden from 1987 to 2002.
Mr. Haitink was a guest conductor of many top European orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra. Beginning in 1994, he led what is now the European Union Youth Orchestra for several years, and he later spent two years with a 400-year-old orchestra in Dresden, Germany.
He was the principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1995 to 2004, then in his late 70s served as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 2006 to 2010, during the period between music directors Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti.
Whether he was conducting a Shostakovich symphony or an opera by Mozart or Richard Wagner, Mr. Haitink examined the musical score almost as if it were a literary work or a religious text. He sought to become, as much as possible, a pure vessel for the composer’s intent.
“He is no star in the common sense of the word,” Clemens Hellberg, a violinist in the Vienna Philharmonic, told the New York Times in 2002. “He is not a type of conqueror. He is a servant of the masterpiece.”
Mr. Haitink made more than 450 recordings during his career, including the complete symphonies — sometimes more than once — of Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Brahms, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Shostakovich, Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. While relatively few of his recordings or concerts could be called electrifying or boldly innovative, they were widely praised for their precision, depth of feeling and sheer orchestral beauty.
“Haitink’s performances,” music critic Andrew Clements wrote in the Guardian in 2002, “have always been a reflection of the man himself: direct, unshowy and profoundly truthful.”
Bernard Johan Herman Haitink was born March 4, 1929, in Amsterdam. His father worked for the Dutch government, eventually becoming director of the country’s electricity commission. His mother, who was half Jewish, worked for Alliance Française, a French cultural organization.
Mr. Haitink said he was a mediocre student in everything but music. He attended Concertgebouw concerts as a child and began to study the violin at 9.
His family lived under German occupation during World War II, but his mother’s Jewish origins were kept secret. His father, however, was arrested after a pro-Nazi bookstore in Amsterdam was bombed.
For weeks, the family had no word of him, until he sent a letter asking his son if he had received the score for Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio,” which contains a moving section about political prisoners called the “Prisoners’ Chorus.”
“We had never discussed any score but it was his code for saying that he was in the same situation as the prisoners in ‘Fidelio,’ ” Mr. Haitink later said.
When his father was released after almost four months, he was so emaciated that his son didn’t recognize him. Food shortages forced the family to eat tulip bulbs to survive.
At 17, Mr. Haitink entered a music conservatory in Amsterdam, studying violin and conducting. After serving two years in the Dutch military, he joined an orchestra. Sensing that he needed “a broader instrument” than the violin, he studied conducting in the mid-1950s.
He was an assistant conductor for radio orchestras before stepping in for an ill Carlo Maria Giulini at the Concertgebouw in 1956. Mr. Haitink began to get guest-conducting jobs and made his U.S. debut in 1958 as a substitute conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He became the co-principal conductor of the Concertgebouw in 1961 and its full-time leader three years later.
Mr. Haitink had little patience for the political and fundraising side of the music business and resigned from his post at the Concertgebouw in 1988 because of disagreements with the orchestra’s management and funding cuts from the Dutch government. He temporarily quit as music director of the Royal Opera House in 1998 to protest a proposed one-year shutdown while the company refurbished its hall.
The same year, Mr. Haitink had emergency heart surgery, but after nine months he returned to conducting with renewed vigor and reflectiveness.
“I think maybe conducting is not something for young people,” he said in 2004. “I started far too young with a world-famous orchestra. I still have sleepless nights about it sometimes — how was it possible that I could do this and that without any musical or human experience? It is a miracle that I survived.”
His marriages to Marjolein Snijder, Saskia Boon and Kirsti Goedhart ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 27 years, Patricia Bloomfield, a lawyer and onetime violist; five children from his first marriage; and several grandchildren.
Mr. Haitink returned to the podium frequently and gave his final performances, with the Vienna Philharmonic, in 2019. He had homes in London, France and Switzerland, where he often led master classes for young conductors.
To find the balance between form and emotion in music, Mr. Haitink offered a cryptic formula: “Think with the heart. Feel with the brain.”
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