Ton Koopman Talks to Colin Clarke

Ton Koopman performing at his 2017 Itinéraire Baroque festival

I met Ton Koopman in his lovely home near Verteillac, France. Koopman’s festival, Itinéraire Baroque, had finished the night before; arriving at the house, there was a palpably convivial atmosphere, with artists featured in the festival relaxing alongside Koopman and his friends and family. The interview itself took place in a lovely, peaceful space away from the hubbub.

I ask about the story behind this festival in the in the idyllic setting of the Dordogne and how it came about? And why this area?

“We have such beautiful places here. Twenty-one years ago we bought this house, which is actually three houses that we combined, dating back to 1500. We had the help of the architect Alain de La Ville to restore it, to keep the house in as much of its original condition as possible. We have a room to sleep which is 80 square metres, because it was originally like that. So, when we came for the first holidays and I drove around, we saw all the beautiful churches. I knew the region a little bit but I didn’t know it has so many little churches from the 12th and (at latest) 13th centuries. I found all the churches were closed, so the question was, where to find the keys? Actually, they could be found easily with a little digging. I thought, is this not the ideal place to give something back? I am living with much pleasure here, I love the surroundings and would love to do something for the region. I saw those churches and thought: what can you do? They are too small to do big concerts so I thought why not do an “Itinéraire”: that’s where the name comes from, to go from one church to another, and the musicians stay in the same place. In the beginning, we had maybe 220 people, so not so much; now we are around a thousand. So, sometimes the places are too small. For example, on the Saturday, lute and theorbo player Joachim Held was in the Château de Clauzuroux, and I said can you make it with more seats? So, this was the idea; to go to a beautiful church or space which nobody knows. Those churches were actually open until the 1960s, at which point most of the furniture was stolen. Someone made an inventory of what was there and people stole all the most important furniture, and that’s why they are closed. So, I thought, OK, let’s have the churches open again and make music there. Then it became very clear that one should finish a day like that with one important concert, so the Sunday, the second day, was added … then we thought why not start Friday, and that becomes more and more a day when there were more concerts, and then the last extension of the main festival was the Thursday evening opening concert.

“The very last extension of all was to have, in May, two days, one of children concerts where the children’s choir of the Dordogne (the Jeune Choeur de Dordogne) is singing, with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Of course, the youth choir has its own conductor, and of course I have a different idea of standard than they have, so I bring them up to another level. Most of the kids I know by name. The nice thing is that many of the kids from then became volunteers in the festival. It’s a nice community. And the festival will not become bigger because I want to have holidays as well … and I’m working quite hard on other things. Another tradition is we have meals together on Saturday and Sunday in the main festival. The owners give their gardens for nothing, and the catering is really good” [I was there, and can vouch for the excellence of both gardens and cuisine].

The last communal meal was held where the volunteers stay. The owner there is the architect who restored Koopman’s house; there is a real sense of community about the whole event.

There was quite a variety of keyboard instruments on display during the course of the festival. “All of them are mine”, Koopman explains. “At home, here and in my home in Italy, I own nine harpsichords, two organs and an original fortepiano (an original Stein – not my instrument as the piano is too modern for me).” I couldn’t resist: “wait until we get to the Stockhausen question” – I like to think he thought I was kidding.

I point out that I’m delighted that he is focusing on Telemann’s anniversary this year, the 250th anniversary of his death, and that Koopman is appearing with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, an ensemble he founded in 1979. Telemann’s output was vast: how did he manage to zoom in on the pieces he picked? And how can he raise Telemann’s status? Why is Telemann seen as “below” Handel and Bach?

“It’s the mistake of the German musicologists. Around 1900, German musicologists said ‘we cannot call everyone genius, so we have some genius composers, in Germany Schütz, Bach and Handel’ (they still took Handel as a German composer); which meant that Buxtehude and Telemann fell away. These two were “Kleinmeister”. The “Kleinmeister” got a lot of negative information, they were accused of composing too much …but the musicologists didn’t realise that Telemann could compose so much on the highest level. We never say about Bach that he composed too much but Bach has more than 1100 BWV numbers, and some of those numbers have an hour’s music or more (Goldberg VariationsClavierübungChristmas OratorioSt Matthew Passion). So, it is artificial to say that Telemann, Bach Handel, they were composers not like composers nowadays, they could work very quickly on a very high level. And maybe they could work so quickly because they were allowed to stay in their own language. Nowadays a modern composer, whenever he or she is composing an opera, or a symphony, it should be different. The judges are saying ‘It’s a bit like the other one’; before, everyone was happy with the same style, because they knew it and it was successful. For Bach, when he was young, he ‘ate’ all the influences of Albinoni, Vivaldi, Buxtehude, Graupner. That is apparently not allowed in our time. I think that’s why Handel could write an opera or an oratorio in three weeks and I think Bach wrote a cantata in two days, maybe three.”

There are many Bach cantatas that we don’t have, I point out. “There are some lost. Telemann’s cantatas are much shorter, of course. Those in Harmonisches Gottesdienst can be ten minutes, and Bach would never write that; his Cantatas are sometimes 20 minutes or more. So, we count wrongly:  if we say Telemann has 1500 cantatas, only a few are as big as the Donnerode yesterday [heard in the final concert], which is a fantastic work. And so, what we try is to have different aspects of Telemann this year. I think one time we will do the same with Vivaldi, but not have the Four Seasons; we will have other things. So, I think those people were really capable to write quickly, and well.”

And, I point out, they all borrowed a lot (I quote the Bach four-harpsichord concerto, an arrangement of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins) “Yes, a few composers said, ‘I like that very much, I take that. It is for you that I do it, you will be honoured, and you will do the same with me’. So, composers were borrowing, and for Handel there are many musicologists working on that aspect: but what Handel did with it – fantastic! When you see Telemann’s Tafelmusik No. 1, Handel had a subscription on that, and he used it. After a few bars it is completely different, and it becomes Handel. If Bach is using music by Handel or Albinoni, it is Bach. So, let’s be happy that people were so creative to do that.”

I asked Ton Koopman how did he choose which pieces to feature. How did he pick, for example, one particular Trio Sonata? “The one that was played by Inês in her concert on Saturday with the group from the Hague [Inês d’Avena of Collegium Musicum Den Haag, Trio Sonata TWV 42:a4] was the one that we were going to play, then we saw the same piece, so we found another. Some people said there was too much Telemann, but I say there can never be enough of a good composer. Just enjoy it, you might never hear it in your life again.”

Could you describe what is special about Telemann? ”I think Telemann is a cosmopolitan, he is of the World. He wrote a motet for the Concerts Spirituel in Paris, I performed it once, and he copied de Lalande. He was imitating the style for himself. The Germans knew very well what happened in Italy, in France. The French thought they were much better, the Germans of course took the best from each style. So, it is an amusing story to read that. Telemann knew the French style well, he knew the Italian style well; If you start playing or listening to Telemann, there is no doubt. I heard something blind in rehearsal and I thought that cannot be Telemann – he worked with less basso continuo, the viola is playing the bass line – so he has his own style. If you look at Vivaldi’s church music, now performed more and more (before it was only the Gloria), now people realise he was in important composer who could write well for the voice as well. As a traveller from Frankfurt-am-Main, Telemann passed through France to Italy (Frankfurt is close to the French border): he felt in France everything is fine, the houses are nice, you eat well, the wines are fine, the girls are fine, he went on to Italy and he heard Vivaldi play. He said, ‘this is ugly playing, such a horrible sound. He plays quicker than we can hear the notes.’ But the case was that the pitch in Venice is very high and the pitch in Frankfurt was French pitch, a difference of a minor third. (390 Hz vs 465/70Hz). After two weeks, Telemann falls in love with the music of Vivaldi, and orders the violin concertos. Vivaldi was a crook, but a great composer and great personality. Telemann disliked it very much, but he went back. There was something attractive. The Priest with the red hair and the girlfriends …”

I mention a sense of humour in Telemann that I don’t hear so clearly in Vivaldi or Bach. The Canary Cantata, TWV 20:41, which was performed in the opening concert on July 27: “Nobody knows who wrote the text. It is a simple story which happens at home as well. A bird is in a cage; if you forget to close the cage and the bird goes out, the cat will finally get to eat it. Telemann writes a lamento on the death of the canary. I think it is fantastic, very witty. You would not expect this from Bach, who was much more serious. They were good colleagues, so Telemann wrote, when Bach died, a poem on the death of Bach. It is touching to read that.”

I point out the balance of the programmes: the “Canary Cantata”, the cantata BWV 209, Non sa che sia dolora, the flute obbligato in the Bach cantata balancing the flute and recorder concerto, TWV 52:E1. Who did the nitty gritty of the programming? “I’m guilty of that, but I left the Saturday groups freer [L’Itinéraire itself], I like to give them a chance to show what they can do. But I keep an eye on L’Itinéraire that it is not too long as people have to travel [between venues] and it is not pleasant if people are watching their watches. In the countryside, you should cool down.

“And next year is almost done. Tomorrow we will meet more to complete it. With Robert [Robert-Nicolas Huet, Koopman’s right hand man for the festival], he is responsible for the logistics, and he does a lot more. So we are good friends, he lives here (I only sometimes live here). He takes the best care.”

Who is the featured composer for next year? “Next year there is not a real featured composer. We finish next year with Bach Suites Nos. 3 & 4 and two Brandenburgs with Concerto Amsterdam. We may not go to St Astier, of course the biggest church in the surrounding area, but some people don’t hear well.”

The Église de Saint-Astier was the venue for the closing concert. The acoustic is very interesting in that in Telemann’s Donnerode, TWV 6:3, the timpani and two bass arias worked really well, but there were times in the Bach Cantata (BWV 80) when there was lots going on and where we were sitting, in the “stalls” as it were, a lot of detail got lost. Also, the choir were opposite Koopman, but the male voices were under an overhang which acted as an acoustic trap. Did they try the different areas of the church, different setups? “At first we played on the altar, at the back, that worked although there is not too much bass, but it is possible; but the problem was that less people could hear us. Because now there are people all the way around the performers. That enables say 200 people to sit well but if you sat near the stairs you had bad luck. We got complaints from last year that the singers were not to be heard at the other side. And with trumpets there is no space. Once I tried to put the choir upstairs, where the organ is, but they don’t hear anything because the balcony was taking all the sound from downstairs. There was no way to sing in tune, there was no way to play together. Then we tried soloists there, a good idea, but the soloists had the same thing. And we cannot all fit there. So do you go back to the altar and have people around the entrance? But there is Health and Safety and that is more of an issue in France because of the attacks. The general feeling is that in Cercles [the church which was the main hub of the festival] we could have maximum 400 people, and yesterday (for the Donnerode) we had 500 people in St Astier. If we get 600 people who want to come, maybe we can do the concert twice. That’s a question of money: tomorrow we meet with the financial person and we have to calculate! Also, the acoustic with people is better – six seconds as opposed to nine of reverberation.”

I point out it’s interesting to have Telemann in the first half then Bach to finish in this final concert, even though it is a Telemann festival. “For me, Bach is Number One and always will be. I think next to him, there are only people like Josquin and Monteverdi. But in the Baroque, Bach is Number One, and it’s a Baroque festival so Bach should have the last word.”

One of the highlights was the Telemann’s Fantaisies, played on a recorder by Julien Martin with Hubert Hazelbroucq as Baroque dancer. “Telemann of course lived longer than Bach or Handel. With Bach already around 1730 suddenly the style of his sons – he said I can write in your style as well. ‘Rococo’ is going to far, but still past the Baroque into a new area and with a fantastic way of doing that.” The event was entitled La Flûte d’Harlequin, and for me it resonated across the centuries – first to Zauberflöte, thence to Stockhausen and flutist Kathinka Pasveer in Harlequin-like costume. I also refer to the Wigmore Hall concert on 26 June 2017 (the exact anniversary) when Ashley Solomon played a porcelain flute by Meissen owned by George III. A very different sound, says Koopman: “Sweet, yes?  The flutes can break of course, but for a King that’s no problem, he can order ten more. A wooden flute is made from very strong wood, they have more sound and dynamic. I have at home a collection of eighteenth-century flutes, some 36 or 37, bequeathed to me. Four flutes by Kirst, flute maker for Frederick the Great. I don’t play, so I am not dangerous. You have to be extremely careful they don’t crack.”

I move on to Koopman’s recordings of Telemann, and his performances outside of the festival. “Two years ago, I did a cycle of Lamenti for the Burgermasters of Hamburg. Like Bach and others, Telemann liked money. So he wrote Lamenti for these Burgermeisters, about 30 minutes each. We did three in an evening. Telemann remains difficult to sell, however. In a festival like this I can do it. Same with Haydn, people are afraid he will not sell. But one should take the risk. There is no plan to do Telemann now, though. The next project is Mozart’s C minor Mass, I finished it with music by Michael Haydn. Mozart heard Michael Haydn’s music. We will perform it in Europe, plus eight concerts in the US. We also did a programme around Don Quichotte with members of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra.

“Financially this is a very difficult time. The Dutch government decided that “crossover” is much better than real Baroque: so, if you play this music with a modern trumpet you get more money, for example. So before, the English were jealous of the Dutch in terms of funding; now it’s the other way around”. I say we have the same thing, though, with radio stations and compilations and how when I was working for a certain record store so many people wanted compilations but not to move to full pieces …. “and Spotify and so on … before people bought the whole St Matthew Passion, and they could listen more. Now they say I only want to hear “Erbarme dich”. They should read about it, people need to know more.” Wise words indeed.

Which leads nicely on to Koopman’s links to education. Many people performing in the festival have been pupils of Koopman’s. “They are always people I know in one way or other. Gerhard Gnann, who played portative organ at Église Saint-Pardoux de Mareuil, is a performer student of mine, a very good organist. Also, many organists are very serious people. Gnann, like me, enjoys life, and he plays like that. And sometimes there are people who I don’t know but are recommended. I knew the flute player but not the dancer, but Robert knew the dancer … next year I plan to have some Catalan music combined with folklore on the Saturday, maybe the Friday, we will see. Sometimes we can bring in a medieval aspect; sometime, perhaps, Boccherini (who died just in time for the Baroque); even Mozart or Haydn. With the Don Quichotte concert in May we played a lot of Purcell and the children loved it. In the opening concert of the festival we played only one Purcell Chaconne (the other three were done in the children’s concert, so we added the one from King Arthur).”

Is Itinéraire unique? “Not any more. Many people have taken it over the whole world. I started it but I didn’t want to think of it as my creation. It’s such a logical idea. It didn’t exist prior to this as far as I know, when we started 16 years ago here. Now I (happily) see it in many places.”

I want to ask about how Koopman approaches a piece? Autograph? First editions? “Go back to the complete recordings I did of Buxtehude. There is an edition made just before World War II only in score in old clefs; there are some editions by [Bruno] Grusnick in the Bärenreiter edition. We compared everything. We still have the photocopies and so I said why not to have them online. You can see it online at the Buxtehude Gesellschaft, which I am president of, in Lübeck. Of course, you should compare the original sources. There is a cantata, I think No. 24, where in old editions it is written “recorders, violins and continuo” plus 2/3 singers but if you look at the originals you see there are two versions. The one with recorders and cello is a different version than the one with strings and dulcian. So, you should not do it together – it is asking for trouble with intonation. And you cannot see how that is in the only version that was there. It is important to read tablatures and to see as well that the tablature in one way is extremely precise. For example over-dotting, if it is there, it is written. So, you cannot doubt. When people play Purcell, they over-dot everything, but there is no reason to do it. What we did is try to have different rhythm in the same time, which is much richer than if you do everything over-dotted. With Buxtehude it is the same, you see a tablature, it gives a very clear beginning, but not always a clear ending. Then you see for instance that in Buxtehude in the original if the violins are playing, it could be dulcian with them or it could be violone with them. But sometimes Buxtehude finishes on a note where we could have the octave lower so I say to the violone player, why not have it lower? And that worked well. You see that the singers are singing with only the organ; this you cannot see in a modern edition, you have to see the original to notice that. And you see for instance that for example in In Dulci jubilo, a very well known piece, that often the second violin plays higher than the first. We left it like that; it is nice the second going over the first, the feeling of dialogue, that the second is ‘winning’ over the first. So, things like that we corrected. Of course, we found many mistakes as the notation of the music in the seventeenth century: you write a sharp before one note, and the next note doesn’t have the sharp unless you should write it. Many people are correcting accidentals too quickly. For the harpsichord music, there is mostly only one source, but for the organ works it is a disaster. We have the early sources from the times of Buxtehude, we have those from the students of Bach, we have sources from the students of the students of Buxtehude, and we have sources from 1840. What is the truth?” (Like a Bruckner symphony, I suggest … Ton chuckles politely. I leave it there.). “So, you have to make up your mind, you have to know about notation and tradition. With Bach, you would think the students knowing Bach’s music would maybe modernise it. Agricola and Walther, students of Bach, are important to Buxtehude. For Walther, it was normal to play with hands and feet, but not so normal for Buxtehude. Many pieces by Buxtehude don’t need any pedal, or don’t need pedal in the fugues. So, I brought it back to what it was.”

This isn’t dry Historical Musicology, I comment, but there’s an element of analytical musicology involved here. It’s bringing this out into the open, making informed choices based on historical evidence but also by looking at the music itself and cross-referencing. “And also, as a player: I am careful not to make stupid decisions because I simply like something, I have too much esteem for any composer because I am not a composer. If you have no autograph, a copyist can make mistakes and changes so you have to be careful, judging it well; what’s the value of the changes? For that you need to know the music very well. I recorded four CDs of Buxtehude cantatas in the 1980’s and that was the first recording of the Membra Jesu nostri, never recorded before.

“Many composers and interpreters can hear music much better than read it. Maybe that’s not completely fair, but you have the feeling that people listen to CDs and get a good idea, and why not? But if you record something for the first time, it is a great joy and pleasure. What a beautiful piece! I am proud – I was not the first to perform it, before me, it was performed in Lübeck in 1925 and then in Vienna.

“It is good to know that the first biography of Buxtehude was written just before the First World War by a Frenchman. There were no sources, only a maximum of three cantatas had been published. He had to read from the score and he made good decisions. What he felt good, is still good. And so, I am now working with one other person to produce a new edition of this remarkable work. We know much more now, so we can use footnotes to bring it up to date. We know he was in the army in the front line in World War 1 and he had a manuscript of Buxtehude’s music with him! – happily he survived!

“As a musician, now you should always be suspicious of the edition. Musicologists make a decision on good grounds, but as a player we make different decisions. Most musicologists are reading music and playing a little on the piano. And I work with students: for the Bach Cantatas, we use a system of colours for what you find in the autograph, and what you find in parts not written by Bach, so you can see immediately. We have many discussions about why to do this or that, and it is good because it keeps you very open and awake. At the end of the day, we perform music by people much better than us; we are allowed to make a great career and earn money, with the work of somebody else. So, we should be extremely careful not to do something stupid.”

The basis, I point out, is humility. “I hate it when you see an advert for a concert and the name of the conductor is big and the composer is small. Bach should be big, and we should be small. We should be good students, we should try to understand what he wants.”

The lineage of students is really important for Koopman. And talking of futures, the final question is eventually there will be someone else in change of Itinéraire Baroque. “Right now, my aim is to do another four years, to make it 20 years for the festival, and then we will see what we do. Robert has already said that if I stop, he will stop but maybe we find someone who can take over in their way, but in a good way. But the problem is that Robert and I are the only ones not paid apart from the volunteers, so to pay a director for a festival like this is a lot of money that we could spend on the musicians. As for the volunteers, everything in France is open, so they see that I am like them, I am a volunteer and tonight [the day after the festival finished] is the volunteers’ dinner so I go there to thank them all. We volunteer because we love the music and we love to do this here. If a new director is coming, you have to pay, unless you are very lucky. So, let’s just go on …”

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