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  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 them.

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 anymore!"

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 "happening."

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.  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 music.

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 enough!"

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 music."


                  1.              Leonoor Wagenaar, "Mijn stimulans was mijn moeder," Het Parool 6 March 1993: 19

                  2.              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.              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,  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.  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

                  Deutsche Meister vor Bach, Organ: Kiedrich,

                                    St. Valentinus Kirche, 198         Capriccio

                  Musica Barocca Italiana per Organo   Philips

                  Noëls Françaises             Philips

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

                  Organ Works I, Garrels organ,                

                                    Grote kerk Maassluis, 1990      Novalis

                  Organ Works II, Gabler organ,

                                    Basilica Weingarten, 1988         Novalis

                  Organ Works III, Organ,

                                    Grote kerk, Leeuwarden, 1988                Novalis

                  Organ Works IV, Organ,

                                    Basilica Ottobeuren, 1990          Novalis

                  Orgelchoräle  (Preludium, etc.)

                                    Christiaan Müller organ, Waalse kerk Novalis

                                    Amsterdam, 1986

                  Orgelwerke VI, Organ,

                                    Cathedral Hertogenbosch, 1990              Novalis

Buxtehude, D. Orgelwerke        Novalis

Cornet, P.            Complete Organ Works               Astree

Couperin, Fr.    Organ masses  Philips

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

                                    Great Packington, 1988               Capriccio

Stanley 11 Voluntaries, Organ: St. Mary's

                                    Rotherhithe, London, 1988       Capriccio

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



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

                  Goldberg Variations      Erato

                  Inventions and sinfonias              Capriccio

                  Italian Concerto                Erato

Byrd, W.              Harpsichord works        Philips

Fiocco, H.           Pièces de clavecin           Astree

Fitzwilliam          Selection              Capriccio

Poulenc, F.         Concert Champêtre, with Rotterdam 

                                    Philharmonic Orchestra, J. Conlon        Erato

Scarlatti, D.        Esserdcizi            Philips

                  Sixteen Sonatas                Capriccio                              

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

Chamber music

Anthology           Bataglie e lamenti Archiv/          DGG

                  Eighteenth Century Dutch Chamber Music     Clavigram

                  Musica barocca Espanola           Philips

                  Tonos Humanos (Hesperion)  EMI

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

                                    Wiel Peeters, Richte van der Meer        Philips

Bach, J.S.            Gesänge aus Schemellis                        

                  Musikalischem Gesang-Buch/Kleine Orgelmesse

                                    with Peter Schreier, Jaap ter Linden    Philips

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

                                    with Monica Huggett   Philips

Bach, J.S.            Three Gamba Sonatas EMI

Christmas songs               Dutch Chrismas songs, with Herman van Veen

                                    and Reinhard Goebel

Couperin, Fr.    Les Aphotheoses             Astree

                  Les Nations       Astree

                  Pièces de viole Astree

Corelli, A.            Trio sonatas with Monica Huggett, Alison      

                                    Bury, 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

                                    Jaap ter Linden, Ageet Zweistra             BFO

Haydn, J.             Concertini and Divertimenti, with             

                                    Reinhard Goebel              Philips

Locatelli, P.        Flute Sonatas, with Wilbert Hazelzet  Philips

Marais, M.          Pièces de viole Astree

Soler, Padre       Six Concertos for Two Organs, with

                                    Tini Mathot        Erato                             

Vivaldi/                 Six Sonate per Violoncello e Basso, with

  Geminiani                          Heinrich Schiff, Jaap ter Linden              Philips

Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra

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

                                    Tini Mathot, Friederike Ernst, Davis Collier    Philips

                  Brandenburg Concertos, 1-6, for 1 and 2          Erato

                                    violins, with Monica Huggett, Alison Bury       Erato

                  Klavierkonzerte BWV 1052, 1057, 1059           Erato

                  Klavierkonzerte BWV 1053, 1054, 1056, 1058             Erato

                  Klavierkonzerte BWV 1063, 1055, 1064, 1044              Erato

                  Klavierkonzerte BWV 1060, 1061, 1062, 1065              Erato

                  St. Matthew Passion     Erato

                  St. John Passion               Erato

                  Four Orchestral Suites DHM

                  French Suites   DHM

Bach, C.P.E.      Four symphonies with wind instruments           Erato                                                          

                  Flute concertos, with Konrad Hunteler                Erato

                  Oboe concertos, with Ku Ebbinge        Erato

                  Concertos for Two Harpsichords           Erato

                  Concertos for Harpsichord and Pianoforte,

                                    with Tini Mathot             Erato

                  Concertos for One and Two Harpsichords       Philips

Biber, H.I.F.      Requiem               Erato

Buxtehude, D. Cantate "Membra Jesu Nostri"                 Erato

                  Eighteen Cantatas (Knabenchor Hanover and

                                    soloists)                 Erato

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

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

Händel, G.F.      Messiah                Erato

                  Four Concerti Grossi    Erato

                  Sixteen Organ Concertos            Erato

                  La Resurezzione              Erato

                  Watermusic       Erato

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

                  Three Symphonies (83, 84, 85)

                  Six Organ Concertos    Philips

                  Four Harpsichord Concertos    Philips

Mozart, W.A.   Die Zauberflöte                 Erato

                  Holland Festival (live recording)

                  Haffner Serenade            Erato

                  Symphonies, nr. 25, 29, 33        Erato

                  Symphonies, nr. 21, 23, 24, 27                 Erato

                  Symphonies, nr. 17, 18, 19, 22, 32        Erato

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

                  Requiem               Erato

                  Divertimenti  KV 136, 137, 138, 251  Erato

                  Serenata Notturna, Kl. Nachtmusik      Erato

                  Flute, Harp, Oboe Concerti       Erato

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

  Schaffrath                          Tini Mathot        Philips

Telemann, G.P.                 Tafelmusik (selections)                 Erato     Chambermusic                  Erato

Wassenaer, U.v                Concerti Armonici          Erato

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