Haitink studied music at the conservatoire in Amsterdam, the town where he was born. He started his career playing the violin in orchestras. Then he learned to conduct.
He became second conductor of the Netherlands Radio Union Orchestra in 1955. He then became chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in 1957. On 7 November 1956 the famous conductor Carlo Maria Giulini was not able to conduct a concert of the Concertgebouw Orchestra so the young Bernard Haitink conducted instead. This helped him to become famous. Three years later he became a conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and he stayed with them for a quarter of a century. In 1963 he became the main conductor of that orchestra, and in 1999 they gave him the title of honorary conductor.
Haitink has also had jobs outside the Netherlands. He was principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1967 to 1979, music director at Glyndebourne Opera from 1978 to 1988 and at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden from 1987 to 2002. He also held posts with the Dresden Staatskapelle and Boston Symphony Orchestra, and conducted many other great orchestras of the world.
Haitink has conducted music by many composers from different periods. He has recorded many great works for Phillips, Decca and EMI. In 2004 his recording of Janáček’s opera Jenufa was given the Grammy Award for the best opera recording.