An Interview with Ton Koopman

By · Title Image Foppe Schut · Date 09/28/2017

I met the keyboard player and early music savant Ton Koopman one wan, gray morning in the northern German city of Lübeck, where he was performing in a festival dedicated to the baroque organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude. He wore a dark blue blazer, a light blue shirt, round glasses, and pants the color of reddish mud. He has bright blue eyes, but didn’t make much eye contact during our conversation. At times, he raised and dropped his foot against the dark blue carpet, to mimic the motion of playing an organ pedal.

VAN: Someone told me you used to live in a windmill.

Ton Koopman: No, no. I fight against these modern wind turbines that create electricity. They are so awful to look at. In France, where I have a house, they’re trying to plan them, and I’m quite strongly against it. We’ve been able to keep it at bay so far. It’s like solar panels—you can put them on the ground, so please don’t put them on the roofs.

Is political activism hard for you?

No. If I’m convinced of something, whether it’s music or anything else, I fight for it.

Photo Foppe Schut
Photo Foppe Schut

You’ve been speaking for years of your efforts to get Dietrich Buxtehude’s music back into the repertoire. Is it working?

We finished the recordings, so that’s good.

Besides the recordings?

It’s still not easy. German culture, in the 19th century, divided composers into important composers and not important composers, Großmeister and Kleinmeister. Buxtehude became a Kleinmeister because Bach, Handel, and Schütz were already counted. There wasn’t room for anyone else.

Do you think people still care about that division today?

It’s still easier to get people to go to a program of Bach Cantatas than a program of Buxtehude Cantatas. It’s just because they don’t know it. I think the repertoire is fantastic, the organ works are fantastic, but it’s strange that I was the first to record all the harpsichord works of Buxtehude, which is only two CDs.

When I did a recording of [Buxtehude’s Cantata] “Membra Jesu nostri” in the ‘80s, it was the first recording done since 1925. And now there are maybe 30 versions on CD. That means that many cantors and conductors have trouble reading the old clefs. If they hear it, they’ll say, “My God, let’s do it.” That’s the good thing about a recording: people can hear the result. They can disagree and say, “I’d do it completely differently,” which is fine. But you hear the quality of the music.

For me, Buxtehude should be next to Monteverdi. We call François Couperin an important composer—but for me, Couperin wrote good music and nothing more, with the exception of the Sonatas for Gamba and the “Leçon de ténèbres.” There are some composers who wrote one or two fantastic pieces, but the general level is so high with Buxtehude.

Dietrich Buxtehude, “Membra Jesu Nostri”; Ton Koopman (Conductor and Keyboards), Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir

Your version of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor has been played over 700,000 times on Spotify. Did you ever think you’d reach that many people?

That’s the maximum. I know sales of some of the works [were similar]. I remember our first St. Matthew Passion sold half a million copies. When we did it the second time, we sold a tenth of that. Which is still high, but of course the record market is difficult.

People always think I did the Toccata differently from the others on purpose. But I don’t know what the others did. If you look at the music, if you look at the indications, you come to that. I listen to colleagues in the repertoire which I don’t perform myself. But I prefer to read the music myself, play it, and try to understand it.

I just played the Toccata in D Minor two weeks ago after maybe 12 years of not playing it. I played it at a wedding. And for me it was new. I’m certain that I played it differently from how I did then. I believe that music should be alive. That’s why I believe that you should play from music, not play by heart.

Dietrich Buxtehude, “Schlagt, Künstler, die Pauken und Saiten,” from a wedding Cantata; Ton Koopman (Conductor and Keyboards), Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir

Are you interested in computers?

I don’t know anything about them. I’m like Buxtehude or Bach. But all the people around me can use computers. In my office, they’re all very good at email. When there was a Telex, we had one early on. I’m a collector of books—and now my librarian often finds things that I’m looking for on the internet.

That’s why it’s easy for me to say that I don’t know anything. I’ve never sent a text to anybody in my life.

Why not?

There are too many other things to do that I enjoy much more. So I can ask my secretary to send an email or a text. I mean, there’s so much that I don’t know that I want to know. And I have to go quick, because I’m 72.

What is your emotional state when you’re in the middle of recording massive complete works like the Bach Cantatas?

I’m always curious with Bach. People say that there are bad Cantatas, like 96 or 150. I actually think they’re good pieces, but you have to see them in context, know the references and the limits of interpretation.

The other thing with Bach is that you sometimes cross the limit, because he’s extremely difficult. I have to say, there were some tears among the musicians.

Did you cry?

No.

Were you the one who made the musicians cry?

Of course I wanted to have good results. You only get one chance to do a project like that. But I’m not a nasty guy, and I didn’t want to make them do something impossible. I do try to motivate people: “Why not try again.” And the good thing about a CD is that if it’s really an emergency, you can edit.

Was the Buxtehude project different?

I’ve always loved Buxtehude—I’ve been a church organist since I was 11 years old. I would perform Cantatas sometimes with students, just for fun, in the church. So it was always a dream of mine.

In the ‘80s, I did four LPs of Buxtehude Cantatas, some of which were quite unknown, with large ensembles. When I did them again, in the 21st century, I discovered that many of those Cantatas hadn’t been recorded in the meantime.

During the Lübeck Buxtehude Festival, you reintroduced a lost Telemann Cantata.

It hasn’t been done by anybody since Telemann. You have to create a style. The text is very strange, quite hostile to the Catholic church—the church won’t like the text. But you have to see it in context. The libretto to Mozart’s “Zauberflöte” isn’t nice to girls and black people either. That’s how people expressed themselves at that time. You can decide not to do it. But how can you replace “Zauberflöte”?

In 1704, Handel traveled to Lübeck to visit Buxtehude. This contemporaneous image shows a view of the city from the west • Photo Stiftung Händel-Haus Halle (CC)
In 1704, Handel traveled to Lübeck to visit Buxtehude. This contemporaneous image shows a view of the city from the west • Photo Stiftung Händel-Haus Halle (CC)

Do you believe in God?

I believe in God, but I’m not a churchgoer.

I don’t think Buxtehude’s music is completely pious, but there’s something of it in the air. It might not be only about God, but religion is in the air. Though the music is so macho, and sometimes it overpowers the texts.

What do you think has changed for the young generation of early music performers?

They are concerned that basically everything [about interpretation practice] is known—I think 35 percent is, but many people right now think it’s everything. They’re just interested in performing differently. Still, there’s so much to discover. Go on where your teachers left off. Follow your knowledge and see where it takes you.

You know, there was this aria from the St. Matthew Passion, “Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn’ihn,” which was discovered in Weimar. It was interesting: three people got the rights to record it, and I was one of them. No one knew what the others were doing. And the differences are remarkable, especially in the continuo. It’s worth seeing what happens when there is no tradition.

I’m still curious about improvisation. For example, were boy sopranos able to improvise well in Bach or Buxtehude’s time? We can’t work with the boys on this today, because they lose their voices very early. It used to be that boys of 16 could often still sing soprano parts.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Aria “Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn’ihn,” BWV. 1127; Lisa Larsson (Soprano), Ton Koopman (Conductor and Keyboards), Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra 

Why do you think that is?

I’m not a specialist, but I think it’s because we eat so badly. I’ll give you an example. In a Bach Cantata recording by Gustav Leonhardt, there’s a boy soprano, Sebastian Hennig, from the Hannover Knabenchor, who was the son of the conductor at that time. He started singing at 11, but it took until he was 13 or 14 until he was making music; and it was exceptional. And to think, with Bach, there was a boy who could sing soprano until he was 20.

Anyway, I asked the director of the Hannover Knabenchor why he thought his son’s voice stayed high for longer than average, and he said it was because they were on a macrobiotic diet at home. People who don’t eat as many Big Macs or are vegan…there should be research done to see if that helps.

What else are you still discovering?

Buxtehude’s “Nightwatch” Cantata has oboes. Back then, high oboes didn’t exist, so they were transposing instruments, usually around A = 415 Hz. And in that Cantata, they should be out of tune. I think they are drunk night watchers on the street, yelling at the villagers to say their prayers at 10 o’clock and go to sleep at 11. They play a chorale…and I think, with such loud and high parts, back then they probably didn’t even try to correct it.

A Prelude by Buxtehude in meantone temperament, performed by Koopman.

In different interviews, you’ve stated that you’ll “go as far” as a certain composer in music history. These have included Brahms and Schumann. Where do you stand right now?

Schumann is still the latest, with one exception: sometimes with my choir we do Brahms’s “Zigeuenerlieder.” It’s such a human, universal language, that there I don’t worry. But even Schumann is late for me. I did his Requiem a few times, and it’s moving music, but it takes me out of my comfort zone completely. And still, I asked the orchestra not to do too much vibrato.

At one point I had a contract to record the organ works of César Franck. It never happened, but it was once a dream of mine. I often have the feeling that organists play romantic music less romantically than I play baroque music. Who’s right? Maybe there’s no right or wrong? ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.