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Conductor blocks his authorised biography

They are making a big fuss in Holland about Reinbert de Leeuw, who turned 75 this month.

The date should have been marked with the publication of a biography by Thea Derks. But the conductor, a control freak by most accounts, has blocked its publication. Derks had been given access to his archives and, he complains, found ‘documents in which people say nasty things about me.’

None so sensitive as a maestro.


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  1. Very talented man. The approach sometimes in the Netherlands, culturally is rather vertical. I am sure they will resolve at the last minute!

  2. ruben greenberg says:

    I have always found biographies and autobiographies of interpreters to be pointless and what’s more, boring: then I won this or that competition, then I played in this or that hall and played with so and so. At one point, I wanted to write a biography of Paul Sacher; certainly not a great conductor, but what interested me was the fact that he commissioned so many great works throughout the 20th century and witnessed the genesis of them.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      There already is a biography of Paul Sacher:

      I can easily think of a number of musicians’ (auto)biographies that I found very interesting and informative to read.
      For instance, Solti’s candid and very readable “Memoirs”.
      I just finished Muti’s “First The Music, Then The Words” which is a little dry (but also very concise) on the biographical side, but it offers interesting insights into Muti’s musical principles and convictions.
      I also enjoyed Michael Gielen’s autobiography “Unbedingt Musik”. Gielen may not be one of the most prominent conductors around, but his career has lasted for a long time, he has met and worked with many important musicians, his background as someone whose family had to emigrate from Germany in the 30s and who grew up in Argentina, then returned to Europe after the war is interesting in itself.
      Alexander Werner’s “Carlos Kleiber” is a highly interesting and very well researched biography of this enigmatic musician.
      Wolfgang Seifert’s “Günter Wand: So und nicht anders” also is worth reading even though Wand’s life as such wasn’t all that exciting.
      Richard Osborne’s monumental “Hebert von Karajan: A Life in Music” offers a lot of insight into the life and career of this conductor who shaped classical music in the last century more than most, and all of the above also applies to Humphrey Burton’s “Leonard Bernstein”.
      I also highly recommend Gregor Tassie’s “Yevgeny Mravinsky: The Noble Conductor” which gives you a lot of background information about this conductor which is hard to find elsewhere.
      Monika Mertel’s : “Nikolaus Harnoncourt: Vom Denken des Herzens” is an exceptionally well written biography which doesn’t focus too much on mere biographical data, but which goes deep into Harnoncourt’s musical thinking and way of looking at things.

  3. Michiel van der Kraats says:

    He is not complaining about documents in his personal archives where people say “nasty things” about him but his main complaint is that essential parts are left out of his biography or merely glossed over while other things are there in great detail. Thea Derks and Reinbert agreed his biography would only be published with his direct approval.

  4. Dennis Marks says:

    Reinbert is sui generis. Endlessly inquisitive, painstaking and with an exemplary commitment to every kind of new music. He obviously has a short fuse but he’s in good company there.

  5. Ignacio Martínez-Ybor says:

    Reinbert is a fabulous musician and brilliant conductor. Last year he conducted our New World Symphony in a magnificently lucid, romantic, clear, powerful performance of the Messiaen’s Turangalila in the somewhat intimate space of the New World Center….. It was a privilege to hear such a brilliant score for such massive forces performed full force with such immediacy. I loved it, so did the shouting, stomping, applauding audience, and so did the smiling musicians. He’s coming back to Miami this season and I have tkts for his performance though I have forgotten what he’s scheduled to conduct. As for his biography, I don’t care if he sleeps in black leather and makes love to his goldfish…….. really….. just give me music.

  6. Most biographies are written by individuals who have little to no business conveying any artistic strife the subject endured – namely critics or fans. The best bios give insight to technical aspects of the conductor and are only for a small number of readers who wish to learn from them.
    Sadly, most bios are just idle talk and calumny. The extraneous remark “…a control freak by most accounts…” would be an excellent example.

    • “…have little to no business conveying any artistic strife the subject endured.” Really, that is what you feel should be off limits to a biographer? That is fundamentally the subject of any biography of an artist. How would one write a biography of Shostakovitch or Schoenberg with this limitation? I have not yet read the recent biography of George Szell but I can guess it deals with his critics and the label “martinet” that was constantly applied to him, and a biography of Szell must deal with this to do the subject justice.

  7. Whoever your sources are “by all accounts” seem negatively biased and obviously uninformed about a very difficult situation. In any case, Reinbert de Leeuw is a great musician, inspiration on an international level, composer, pianist, and conductor. His reasons for not allowing the biography to go to print must have been sound. I am not sure of your knowledge of him, but if you did know him at all, you surely would not have called him “maestro”….

  8. Herbert Glass says:

    Herbert Glass says:
    Since the subject of Paul Sacher was raised: I interviewed him in Lucerne many years ago in conjunction with his upcoming UK (and possibly elsewhere) tour with the Oxford Chamber Orchestra conducting the three works he had commissioned from Bartók: the Music for SP&C, the Divertimento, and the Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion. Interview over, he asked (I recall a hint of menace in his question) whether he could see what I wrote prior to publication. My response was something pompous, on the order of “we true professionals don’t do that”. Whereupon one of the richest men in Europe grunted, got up and left me holding the bill for the bottle of mineral water we’d shared. Whether the tour or the recording which was to have followed ever materialized — he could easily have subsidized both — I don’t know. Perhaps you or one of your readers would. The recording would at least have been an interesting historical document.

  9. Xavier Ruggles says:
  10. It would be faire to quote De Leeuw more accurately and most of all more completely. He says that his archive “contains documents in which people say nasty things about me, but this is not the point. My fundamental objection is that I have not at all been involved in the elaboration of the content [of the book], which contains omissions and errors. [...] I cannot authorise such a book.” Source:

  11. A biography is a written life. Everything that is part of the subject’s lived life is, therefore, relevant. A book about the technique of a conductor would not be for the olla podrida, as MpR writes–but it also would not be a biography.

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