Ton Koopman : A story of a mother's love and devotion

March 18, 2003

Introduction and note on sources

Ton Koopman has visited Vancouver, Canada many times in his
worldwide travels. There he has played numerous concerts and taught summer
courses for the Early Music Vancouver Academy, where a happy combination of
dedicated faculty and talented students come together each year to study early
music. Last summer, I joined Ton and his wife Tini Mathot for an outdoor
luncheon on the "Robsonstrasse" in downtown Vancouver. Warm sun and
good Italian wine elicited the idea of writing a tribute to Ton in the 50th
year of his birth. This project was completed with the help of Elsbeth
Grunsbergen, secretary of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. She graciously sent
many materials and photographs, including an intriguing article which appeared
in the Dutch journal Het Parool. It was entitled, "Ton Koopman: Mijn
stimulands was mijn moeder" ("My Mother was my Inspiration").
This fascinating story was translated by Jose Verstappen, manager of Early
Music Vancouver.

Few artists are so genuinely personable as Ton Koopman. He
is always in good humor, whether teaching a master class on Sweelinck or
exploring the nuances of continuo playing. Fun loving as well as hard working, he is in equally good humor when going for an excursion on an old-fashioned steam train or taking his children for an airplane ride.

These qualities of excitement, energy and zest for life, are
immediately apparent in his recordings. Under the surface of his passionate and
intense performances lies a diligent and thorough scholarship. He offers a
contemporary interpretation of the baroque tradition and a preference for
improvisation and varied  dynamics.
Just recently, I compared the Koopman recording of the Bach Mass in B minor
with one of the best and most recent modern recordings with large orchestra and
chorus. There was no question that the large scaled forces of the modern
recording captured the magnificence and majesty of the work. But the Koopman recording was the incisive and invigorating one. The choice is the listener's.

Here, then is the story of Ton Koopman's early musical
education and the personal sacrifices that helped to make such a career possible.

Ton Koopman is one of the most daring and imaginative
musicians in the world of early music. He has come a long way from his
childhood in a grocery store to being an internationally-renowned
harpsichordist, organist and conductor. Born in 1944 in Zwolle, Ton Koopman has
achieved  worldwide acclaim for his
scholarship and performance of early 
music. Prestigious awards and prizes have been bestowed upon him style="mso-spacerun: yes">  from Holland to Japan, and he
graciously says that he owes it all 
to his mother's love and devotion.

He recalls his mother sitting behind the counter of the
family grocery store for hours on end--because she was afflicted with multiple
sclerosis and could move only with great difficulty. He remembers that she had
to lean against a wall to walk from one room to another, but while she sat
behind the counter of the store, she was regarded by friends and neighbors as a
valuable resource--an educated and insightful person who could offer advice to

She loved art; her father had painted statues in churches.
She married an amateur musician; Ton's father played in jazz bands and longed
to become a professional. But the means were never there--it was just a dream.

His mother dreamed too, but for her son. By the time he was
six, he was already reading music and singing in the choir of their church. For
him, the organist was the most interesting person in the whole world. Why? He
could play with his feet! And the music was so grand. As a lad, he thought: The
louder the better! From these beginnings, he was in love with the organ. By the
time he was twelve, he was playing in a chapel. By the age of 15, he was the
church organist in Almelo, a little village nearby.

His passion has always been organ and harpsichord music.
Piano lessons encouraged his musicianship, but he never cared for the sound, as
he did the organ and harpsichord. He was so captivated with the tone of the
harpsichord that he put thumbtacks in the heads of the piano hammers to make it
sound like a harpsichord! He actually learned that trick in Zwolle, where the
musicians of a small impoverished church performed the St. Matthew Passion, but
didn't have the money to rent a harpsichord. So they "prepared" a
piano, instead. Whenever Ton could find a "real" harpsichord, he lost
no time in playing it.

He tells the story of these years:

We were not well-to-do. There was not a lot of money and
with seven children and a sick mother, it was difficult to keep our heads above
water. Despite all that, my mother stood behind me. Her parish church gave her
some money for necessities, and without anyone knowing, she quietly saved this
money until she could buy me a cheap piano. Twenty-five guilders! Nowadays,
that isn't much! With twenty-five guilders she bought me a piano! My father
thought it was all nonsense.

As luck would have it, he found two harpsichords in the
village--one in the home of the town baker and the other at the tax collector's
house. He was allowed to practice these instruments and he progressed very
rapidly. He thought that his father envied his inclination towards music, because he would always remain an amateur in his jazz band. The great stimulus to his musical education was his mother--and the organist of his church.

His choirmaster insisted that he go to gymnasium and prepare
for university and classical studies. His father thought that university was
not for the son of a grocer. Ton said, "Thank God, what the church decreed
was the law--even for my father!"

These early experiences gave rise to a theme that was to
have many variations as Ton matured in his musical studies. Always the
underdog--"the odd duck," as he puts it, he had to surmount many
obstacles to stay in the world of music. While in school, he was grateful that
his best friend was a poet, "because I was not such an odd-man-out

School wasn't easy for him. Since he did not come from the
family of a doctor or lawyer, he had fewer economic and social advantages.
Homework was difficult, and he had to repeat a year. His father wanted him to
quit, but he was invariably rescued by the parish organist.

In the last year of school he learned that he had received a
scholarship for the continuation of his studies. His father wanted him to study
law, so that he could make a good living. How his story sounds like that of so
many musicians! But he wanted more than anything to study at the conservatory
in Amsterdam.

Ton was accepted for study of the organ. To his great
disappointment, he was accepted only as a preliminary student in harpsichord.
The professor of that department--the legendary Gustav Leonhardt--felt that he
played "like an organist." He thought, "Will I ever be able to
get him over that feeling--to convince him that I can play beautifully?"
His studies all ended well, because he won the "Prix d'Excellence" on
both instruments!

Koopman's life was not all organ and harpsichord practice at
the conservatory in Amsterdam. While he was a student he discovered the world
of chamber music and started an ensemble called Musica da Camera. He finished
his studies in 1970 and that same year he began his first baroque orchestra,
Musica Antiqua.

He was fascinated by baroque music. His interest went no
further, because after the 18th century, no music was written for the
harpsichord! And his heart was in baroque music for the organ as well. He felt
that he had been "predestined for old instruments." He was consumed
with the idea of finding out how early music would have sounded at the time it
was composed.

At the beginning, he felt like he was "banging his head
against a wall." He got nowhere with fellow musicians because they had to
retrain. They started out by trying to translate the sound image of early music
to modern instruments. He realized that they would have to switch to playing
the early instruments and this idea was not generally appreciated!

His friends, cellist Jaap ter Linden and oboist Ku Ebbinge,
were convinced that his ideas would not work. Ku was particularly nervous.
"Every time, Ku would chew the whole reed of his oboe to pieces! And then
he had to play the rest of the concert with a mangled reed. He tells how Lucy
van Dael (now a baroque violinist) had to start from scratch to learn a new
technique. Koopman says, "Now they are all big names--famous in the world
of early music--but then, they did not thank me for that!"

He pioneered in early music performance out of his own
conviction that he was right. "The reviews were not always favorable,
because we were not always on top of our instruments. Even so, we were
convinced that there was no doubt that we were right!" The critics often
complained that they were not among the best musicians. As they look back, they
feel at home on early instruments. 
They feel that they have created the right environment for this music.

There were other "complications" in these
times--in the 60's. Koopman and his band were considered "young
punks" in the world of classical music. Their agent had a hard time
selling their recordings because they were often radical or different from the
accepted norms. And his photograph showed that his hair was extremely long--of
course that trait did not last! They wore outrageous clothes, took part in
alternative concerts for anti-Vietnam crusades, and played
"crossover" concerts with jazz and pop musicians.

A milestone for Ton was his collaboration with Philip
Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale, a chamber choir in Ghent, Belgium. For
Koopman, it was a wonderful time. The Collegium Vocale is now a famous choir,
but he recounts the events at that time:

We were all "underdogs." We slept on the floor in
sleeping bags, and got into all kinds of situations. I smoked cigars, so the
sopranos all started smoking cigars! I think their parents thought that we were
a bad influence from Amsterdam. In Belgium, we played the St. John Passion. We
were all dressed in jeans, and the choir was swinging.

Local newspapers protested. Some of the Protestant press
thought that these were "unchristian" performances. Koopman affirms
that these were not "churchlike" performances at all.

But it was beautiful! In the Waalsekerk we had 1,300 people
come to hear the music. It was just packed, and it was a real

It was at this concert that he noticed in the back row, his
teacher, Gustav Leonhardt. "Yes! Then I was proud!"

His first solo recording was a breakthrough, with a Prix
d'excellence in harpsichord. It was for Herman van Veen's Harlequin record
label. From this beginning, grew a long and impressive discography. His wife,
Tini Mathow (who plays harpsichord and fortepiano), became his personal
recording engineer and editor. Koopman says,

She is incredibly good at everything she does. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  She says, "Here, you are rushing,
there it's too loud." She is invaluable!

These first performances grew into international
enterprises. The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra was born of the need to work on a
worldwide basis to achieve real professionalism in the recording and
performance of early music. In 1979, Koopman went to the BBC in England to
listen to tapes. He spent days just listening to violinists. This intense
search led him to Monica Huggett, who was one of the top artists in the newly
emerging field of baroque violin. With her involvement in the Amsterdam Baroque
Orchestra, a marriage was sealed between the Dutch and English players of early

Koopman has never had a single lesson in conducting
technique, yet the music flows from his performances by sheer energy and
involvement. Quite often he is at the harpsichord, playing continuo in a
masterful and highly ornamented style. (A quip goes that Koopman ornaments the
ornaments.) He says, "My gestures are different from those of other
conductors, but my experience is that it doesn't really matter. I just try to
be clear and precise. I've learned most from the reactions of musicians, when
they say, "What, exactly, does this mean?" or "You're not clear

He feels that it is a matter of body language. Then he says,
"In this authentic movement, practically no one has ever studied
conducting!" Yet today, there is talk of Koopman conducting the
Concertgebouw--he has come so far! He exults,

We are no longer considered something like 'Jehovah's
Witnesses!' Our interpretations have now been commonly accepted, even
appreciated. From the "underdog" who was fighting the establishment,
I have now become a "grown-up dog!" But it has been a revolution,
after all, that we caused. In the past, we were proud when we could sell 1,000
copies of a record; now we say, "What!  Only 20,000!" and we start to get worried.

Koopman believes that proof of the impact of authentic
performance of early music is found in the retreat of most symphony orchestras
to the music of Mozart and beyond. He says, "The battle for the baroque
has been won--with old instruments!" Yet, with this victory, he feels that
he has achieved a more comprehensive view of music that can now embrace the
modern instruments.

For years, I've shouted from the rooftops that I would never
be able to work with a modern orchestra--because with modern instruments, I
couldn't get what I considered a good result. I felt that the purpose of
modernization of the instruments was to make them louder--to increase their
volume as the music required. And in that process, they lost many important
parts of their character. I've now started a retreat from that position. For
example, the St. Matthew Passion can sound very baroque, using modern
instruments. That is because now I know what the original sonorities were like.
Now I start from a different corner and then I adjust my steering-It is really
a confrontation of two worlds--my study of baroque influences and experience of
modern symphonic music.

Ton Koopman affirms that the authentic style of old music
should not be pursued just for effect. He believes that "The composer
should be the winner" in the struggle for authenticity. He says, "For
me, the guiding principal should be the performance of beautiful and moving


                  1. style='mso-tab-count:1'>              Leonoor
Wagenaar, "Mijn stimulans was mijn moeder," Het Parool 6 March 1993:

                  2. style='mso-tab-count:1'>              The
author wishes to thank Ms. Elsbeth Gransbergen, secretary of The Amsterdam Baroque
Orchestra and Susan Endrizzi of California Artists Management for references to
publications,  compositions,
discography and other descriptive materials.

                  3. style='mso-tab-count:1'>              Translations
from the Dutch language were made by Jose Verstappen, manager of Early Music Vancouver,
Vancouver, BC Canada.

A quick look at Ton Koopman's achievements

Ton Koopman has been awarded the Prix d'Excellence twice for
his performances on both organ and harpsichord.   His first orchestra was Musica Antiqua Amsterdam, style="mso-spacerun: yes">  and he has also founded the Amsterdam
Baroque Orchestra and the Amsterdam Baroque Choir.

He has received the 3M-award (1989) for his contribution to
ancient music; Crystal award (1992) of the Symphony Hall, Osaka, Japan; and the
Edison award (1993) for his recording of the Haydn Paris Symphonies with the
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra.

He received the Golden Record for his Saint Matthew Passion
with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and the Choir of the Netherlands Bach
Society, for the sale of over 15,000 copies. He was awarded the Prix de
L'Academie du Disque Lyrique, for same recording of the Saint Matthew Passion.

He is Professor of Harpischord at the Royal Conservatory in
The Hague, and Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music, London.

In September 1994, Ton Koopman was appointed principal
conductor of the Radio Chamber Orchestra in Holland.

Ton Koopman--Articles, Essays and Compositions

Verslag over de orgelmeesters (Report on organmasters).
November, 1970.

Praktijk van het continuospel (Practice of continuo
playing). Mens en Melodie. January, 1971.

Verslag van een Barokserie (Report on baroque concert
series). Preludium, November, 1972.

Een monument voor het orgel (Book review on "A monument
for the organ"). NRC Handelsblad (Cultural Supplement), April, 1976.

Harpsichord building in Holland. Early Music. October, 1976.

Continuospel in heden en verleden.  Hereniging voor Huismuziek. February and May, 1976.

"My Ladye Nevell's Booke" in old fingering. The
English Harpsichord Magazine.  
October, 1977.

Verklarende tekst van klavecimbelwerken van J.P. Sweelinck
(Introductory text on cembalo works of J.P. Sweelinck, also released as liner
notes). October, 1977.

Ton Koopman over continuospel  (Ton Koopman on continuo playing). Ficta 2 (Buenos Aires),
October, 1977.

Continuospel op orgelpositief (Continuo playing on a chamber
organ). Adem. October, 1978.

Vivaldi, 1678-1978. Preludium. September, 1978.

Barokinstrument en hun taal (Baroque instruments in their
language). Bachfestival Den Haag. September, 1979.

Kerstplaat met Herman van Veen  (Christmas record with Herman van Veen). Harlekijnnieuws
(Harlequin News). December, 1979.

On Paolo Quagliati. Il carro en la sfera. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  February, 1980.

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, 1562-1621. Ons Amsterdam (Our
Amsterdam). February, 1980.

Vivaldi, Veneti en zijn muzie (Vivaldi, the Venetian and his
music). Edited two chapters for Alan Kendall, February, 1980.

Ideeën over de huidige uitvoeringspraktijk van de
muziek van J.S. Bach (Ideas about current performance practice on the # music
of J.S. Bach). Uniepers, Amsterdam, 1985.

Barokmuziek, theorie en praktijk (Baroque music, theory and
practice).  Bohn, Scheltema en
Holkema, Utrecht, 1985.

The Harpsichord in Dutch Art before 1800. Walburg Pers, BV,
Zutphen, 1987.

Dietrich Buxtehude organworks, a practical help. The Musical
Times. November, 1990.

Book review: Bach Interpretation by John Butt (Cambridge
Univ. Press, 1990). The Musical Times. December, 1990.

Compositions and arrangements

Christmas songs. Harlekijn Westbroek.

Battle songs. Uniepers.

Gedenckklank. Uniepers.

Handel Organ Concertos. Breitkopf & Härtel,
Wiesbaden (First two volumes in print.)

P. Cornet. In preparation.

A.L. Couperin. In preparation.

Ton Koopman--selected discography


Anthologies        Buxheimer
Orgelbuch                  Astree

Meister vor Bach, Organ: Kiedrich,

Valentinus Kirche, 198         Capriccio

Barocca Italiana per Organo   Philips

Françaises             Philips

Bach, J.S.            Organ
Works, 1-4          Archiv/DGG

Works I, Garrels organ,                

kerk Maassluis, 1990      Novalis

Works II, Gabler organ,

Weingarten, 1988         Novalis

Works III, Organ,

kerk, Leeuwarden, 1988                Novalis

Works IV, Organ,

Ottobeuren, 1990          Novalis

                  Orgelchoräle style="mso-spacerun: yes">  (Preludium, etc.)

Müller organ, Waalse kerk Novalis


VI, Organ,

Hertogenbosch, 1990              Novalis

Buxtehude, D. Orgelwerke style='mso-tab-count:1'>        Novalis

Cornet, P.            Complete
Organ Works               Astree

Couperin, Fr.    Organ
masses  Philips

Händel, G.F.      Six
Fugues, Organ, St. James

Packington, 1988               Capriccio

Stanley 11 Voluntaries,
Organ: St. Mary's

London, 1988       Capriccio

Sweelinck, J.P.                  Complete
Organ and Harpsichord Works         Philips



Bach, J.S.            Das
Wholtemperierte Klavier I + II      Erato

Variations      Erato

and sinfonias              Capriccio

Concerto                Erato

Byrd, W.              Harpsichord
works        Philips

Fiocco, H.           Pièces
de clavecin           Astree

Fitzwilliam          Selection style='mso-tab-count:1'>              Capriccio

Poulenc, F.         Concert
Champêtre, with Rotterdam 

Orchestra, J. Conlon        Erato

Scarlatti, D.        Esserdcizi style='mso-tab-count:1'>            Philips

Sonatas                Capriccio style="mso-spacerun:

Sweelinck, J.P.                  Complete
organ/harpsichord works     Philips

Chamber music

Anthology           Bataglie
e lamenti Archiv/          DGG

Century Dutch Chamber Music     Clavigram

barocca Espanola           Philips

Humanos (Hesperion)  EMI

Bach, C.P.E.      Three
quartets, with Wilbert Hazelzet,                

Peeters, Richte van der Meer        Philips

Bach, J.S.            Gesänge
aus Schemellis            

Gesang-Buch/Kleine Orgelmesse

Peter Schreier, Jaap ter Linden    Philips

Bach. J.S.            Six
Sonatas for violina and harpsichord,               

Monica Huggett   Philips

Bach, J.S.            Three
Gamba Sonatas EMI

Christmas songs               Dutch
Chrismas songs, with Herman van Veen

Reinhard Goebel

Couperin, Fr.    Les
Aphotheoses             Astree

Nations       Astree

de viole Astree

Corelli, A.            Trio
sonatas with Monica Huggett, Alison      

Jaap ter Linden, Hopkinson Smith           Philips

Forqueray, A.   Pièces
de viole I               Astree

Frescobaldi, G.                  Arie
e canzone Philips

Hallendaal, P.   'Cello
solos with a thorough bass, with

ter Linden, Ageet Zweistra             BFO

Haydn, J.             Concertini
and Divertimenti, with             

Goebel              Philips

Locatelli, P.        Flute
Sonatas, with Wilbert Hazelzet  Philips

Marais, M.          Pièces
de viole Astree

Soler, Padre       Six
Concertos for Two Organs, with

Mathot        Erato style="mso-spacerun:

Vivaldi/                 Six
Sonate per Violoncello e Basso, with

  Geminiani style='mso-tab-count:2'>                          Heinrich
Schiff, Jaap ter Linden              Philips

Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra

Bach, J.S.            Concertos
for 2,3 and 4 harpsichords, with

Mathot, Friederike Ernst, Davis Collier    Philips

Concertos, 1-6, for 1 and 2          Erato

with Monica Huggett, Alison Bury       Erato

BWV 1052, 1057, 1059           Erato

BWV 1053, 1054, 1056, 1058             Erato

BWV 1063, 1055, 1064, 1044              Erato

BWV 1060, 1061, 1062, 1065              Erato

Matthew Passion     Erato

John Passion               Erato

Orchestral Suites DHM

Suites   DHM

Bach, C.P.E.      Four
symphonies with wind instruments           Erato style="mso-spacerun:

concertos, with Konrad Hunteler                Erato

concertos, with Ku Ebbinge        Erato

for Two Harpsichords           Erato

for Harpsichord and Pianoforte,

Tini Mathot             Erato

for One and Two Harpsichords       Philips

Biber, H.I.F.      Requiem style='mso-tab-count:1'>               Erato

Buxtehude, D. Cantate
"Membra Jesu Nostri"                 Erato

Cantatas (Knabenchor Hanover and

                                    soloists) style='mso-tab-count:1'>                 Erato

Charpentier, M.                Seven
Motets for double choir and orchestra Erato

Fesch, W. de     Concertos
(Monica Huggett, Wilbert Hazelzet)              Philips

Händel, G.F.      Messiah style='mso-tab-count:1'>                Erato

Concerti Grossi    Erato

Organ Concertos            Erato

Resurezzione              Erato

                  Watermusic style='mso-tab-count:1'>       Erato

Haydn, J.             Three
Symphonies (44, 45, 49)               Erato

Symphonies (83, 84, 85)

Organ Concertos    Philips

Harpsichord Concertos    Philips

Mozart, W.A.   Die
Zauberflöte                 Erato

Festival (live recording)

Serenade            Erato

nr. 25, 29, 33        Erato

nr. 21, 23, 24, 27                 Erato

nr. 17, 18, 19, 22, 32        Erato

nr. 31, 34, 35, 36, 38, 41                 Erato

                  Requiem style='mso-tab-count:1'>               Erato

                  Divertimenti style="mso-spacerun: yes">  KV 136, 137, 138, 251 style='mso-tab-count:1'>  Erato

Notturna, Kl. Nachtmusik      Erato

Harp, Oboe Concerti       Erato

Reichart, J.F./   Concertos for Two Harpsichords, with

  Schaffrath style='mso-tab-count:2'>                          Tini
Mathot        Philips

Telemann, G.P.                 Tafelmusik
(selections)                 Erato style='mso-tab-count:1'>     Chambermusic style='mso-tab-count:1'>                  Erato

Wassenaer, U.v                Concerti
Armonici          Erato