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Ton Koopman on the St. Matthew Passion

Updated: Apr 12

Ton Koopman on the St. Matthew Passion


The music of Johann Sebastian Bach - especially the Matthew Passion -- runs like a crimson thread through my career as a musician. I have performed the Matthew Passion more than any other masterwork. My first encounter with the work was about 70 years ago. I've performed it regularly since then, and it is a special event every time.

© Camile Schelstraete

It began in my hometown of Zwolle, where I sang in the extra children's choir as a boy. We had ten rehearsals to learn two chorales: the opening chorus and the closing chorus of Part I. There were around 80 of us boys, who were bullied through rehearsal with loud piano accompaniment. At the dress rehearsal (with a paying audience!), the two adult choirs (around 120 singers in total) sang and played for the first time together with the children's choir and a real symphony orchestra, in the cold Grote Kerk with the famous Schnitger organ behind us (pulling out all the stops for "Sind Blitze, sind Donner!") You couldn't really call it a real rehearsal with an orchestra and soloists. There was only one joint rehearsal with soloists and orchestra in the morning. I wouldn't dare perform the work with so little rehearsal time these days. It wasn't the first time that conductor Clemens Holthaus had done it, but it was exciting for him too.

By the way, my father asked our priest if a Catholic boy was allowed to sing in a Protestant church. Fortunately, he responded with ecumenical insight: it's the same God!

My next experience with the MP was when I was allowed to play the basso continuo on keyboard. Since there was no actual harpsichord available, thumbtacks were attached to the hammers of the Steinway grand, to create a "real harpsichord" sound! This was in the 1950s . . . I was allowed to play along with most everything. In the church the "harpsichord" couldn't be heard very well (it was far too soft), but the conductor as well as the singers and orchestral players nearby heard it.


Then, I began conducting the MP with my own Baroque orchestra. I had no formal training in conducting, it was "learning by doing." My musicians and I found the choruses and arias wonderfully beautiful, the recitatives and chorales less so – so we finished those at a brisk pace. In the 1980s I conducted it again, but a bit slower. Thus, in the Bach year of 1985 I received this extraordinary comment from a critic: The Catholic Ton Koopman has finally come to understand the essence of recitative and chorales!


CS festzevla Amsterdams Baroqueorkest Koopman-Hulst © Camile Schelstraete

Between the 1950s performances of the Matthew Passion and those with the Baroque orchestra in the 1970s and 80s there was already a large difference in terms of the size of both choir and orchestra. But in the 1990s, Joshua Rifkin advocated making everything smaller. In his opinion, J.S. Bach never had a choir. He was for a performance with a small group of singers. I disagreed and defended my position in all kinds of panels and articles. Nevertheless, Rifkin and his follower Andrew Parrott won over some, although in my view they were never on solid ground in their views.


We've only known for a little over a year how many singers J.S. Bach found appropriate for his choirs. As head of the Thomasschule, he was responsible for four choirs. He led the first and best choir himself, which enabled him to perform his own music. The other three choirs were led by assistants and had less demanding music to sing. And the fourth choir just had to be able to sing with the congregation.


Incidentally, a nice piece of evidence only appeared years later. In the 2010 Bach Yearbook, Andreas Glöckner published an extraordinary discovery that he had made in the Leipzig University Library: He had found a soprano part from the Florilegium Portense, the sheet music collection from which Bach's choirs sang many pieces, and in which all the soprano singers of Bach's choir had entered their names. Each part was sung not by just one or two singers, but by five to eight! This proves that Bach worked with a real choir and not with a small group of soloists.


I recorded the MP twice with the ABO, the first time with the Nederlandse Bachvereniging choir because we didn't have our own choir at the time, and the second time with the ABO&C. This recording was a live recording. I have also often performed the MP with modern orchestras. There are undoubtedly differences between these recordings, but they have one thing in common: the love of the music of J.S. Bach, this incredible genius. I've always strived to get as close to his music as possible, and I still try to do that today. I hope Bach would be satisfied with me as his student.

CS festzevla Amsterdams Baroqueorkest Koopman-Hulst © Camile Schelstraete

Ton Koopman (b. 1944) is an expert in early music and authentic performance practice. For decades he has performed as a harpsichordist, organist and conductor in the world's most renowned concert halls. As an organist, he played the most important historical instruments in Europe. In 1979 he founded the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (ABO), which was expanded to include the Amsterdam Baroque Choir in 1992. With his ABO&C he quickly achieved great fame and made numerous records and CD recordings. Between 1994 and 2004, Ton Koopman recorded all of Bach's cantatas with his ABO&C, followed by the complete works of his predecessor Dieterich Buxtehude. Koopman is in demand as a guest conductor with modern orchestras. He is also a gifted lecturer: he taught at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague for over 25 years, is professor emeritus at Leiden University and an honorary fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in London. Ton Koopman is President of the International Dieterich Buxtehude Society and has been President of the Bach Archive in Leipzig since 2019.


Translated from German by Clayton Parr, USA

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