JSB: the full works

Ton Koopman has already recorded the Passions, the orchestral works and 'The Well-Tempered Clavier'. Now he's begun complete sets of the cantatas and organ works. He's even editing a book on the composer's life. Robert Cowan meets the Dutchman whose worship of Bach stops just this side of idolatry
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The Independent Culture
Humanising icons can be a useful exercise. Take Johann Sebastian Bach, father of 20, composer of the greatest music ever written and a daily preoccupation of Bachian extraordinaire Ton Koopman, who is currently recording the complete cantatas and organ works for Warner Classics. Koopman recalls one especially revealing anecdote, which might be roughly paraphrased as follows: Bach takes a stroll through the centre of town. He has been dining with the Duke at his castle and invites controversy by smoking a pipe in the street. Earlier on, during a rehearsal with the court orchestra, he had humiliated his bassoonist by describing his tone as sounding "like an onion". The bassoonist gets drunk, summons a couple of friends, lies in wait for JSB and challenges him to a duel. The fight over, there's a trial, the bassoonist holds up his ripped jacket as evidence, and Bach emerges as Mr Macho. "It must have been quite a fight," chuckles Koopman.

Widely feted as an organist, harpsichordist, conductor and musicologist, the Dutch-born Koopman is also an impressive source of Bach stories, most of them designed to counter the received image of the Leipzig cantor as a formidable, excessively serious composer. As to recordings, Koopman has already given us the Passions, the orchestral works, The Well-Tempered Clavier and several CDs of selected organ works (some twice over), all delivered with maximum interpretative spontaneity.

Koopman has the air of a likeable "mad professor" poised on the brink of a major new discovery. And his enthusiasm is infectious. "We sometimes treat Bach as a sort of 'fifth evangelist', as 'more Christian than the Pope'," he says, "and I think that is wrong. Albert Schweitzer was largely responsible for establishing that image, and many people have followed his lead. But we shouldn't make a saint of Bach. He was a 'normal' person, with regular emotions, someone who experienced sadness and joy, had plenty of kids, lots of students, and I'm sure that it would have been very pleasant to share a glass of wine with him and his family. It's known from one or two sources that people who were passing through Leipzig would drop in at Bach's home and have a rewarding conversation with him about music and various other subjects."

Bach's life was frequently visited by tragedy. "Some of his children died young," Koopman reminds us, "and they weren't tiny babies - they were young people, two or three years old, real personalities. He also lost his first wife - and by the time he arrived home from his travels [he had been visiting Karlsbad], she had already been buried for six weeks."

Koopman insists that very little of this misfortune found its way into Bach's music. "I don't see 'disappointment' registered in any of his work," he says; "he was always a great artist, and could lose himself in his music. Some of his greatest works are incredibly dramatic - the St John Passion, for example, where the people are real, not just puppets playing their roles. Pilate and Jesus come alive; the Evangelist is really worried - and when the choir sings 'Wir haben ein Gesetz, und nach dem Gesetz soll er sterben...' [We have a law, and by our law he ought to die], these are clearly right- wing fundamentalists!"

Koopman relishes Bach the innovator. He is particularly fond of the earlier organ compositions (which include the celebrated Toccata and Fugue in D minor of Fantasia fame). "For me, they're a sort of portrait of Bach in the house where he was born, the work of a composer who wants to make a revolution in the world. We always think of Bach as the intellectual, someone who is 'difficult', who didn't accept things, and refused to make any compromises. But in the early organ works we come face to face with this young guy, this brilliant musician, who can play faster with his feet than anyone else can play with his fingers. In a way, it's almost like jazz: you can imagine people standing around, looking on admiringly, clapping their hands as he plays faster and faster."

But do the church cantatas - some 200 of them - offer as many immediate attractions for the novice listener as the early organ works do? "Definitely," says Koopman decisively. "They are rich in different styles, and reflect different aspects of Bach's character. You might think that some of the texts aren't especially eloquent, but Bach interprets them so beautifully that it hardly matters."

The church cantatas were intended primarily for performance at key events in the Christian calendar; but what about the so-called "secular" cantatas, works that range in subject matter from peasants and weddings to the new- found "vice" of coffee-drinking?

"Well, there he is extremely inventive," says Koopman excitedly. "For example, in one case, he uses music from the First Brandenburg Concerto; he takes the horns away, then adds trumpets and a whole choir. And if you thought the First Brandenburg was absolutely complete before, along comes the composer and adds to it. That's craftsmanship for you; it's also Bach saying, 'I can do that as well'."

Koopman points out that Bach, like Handel, had to fight to find the time for all the projects he needed to work on, and frequently recycled older material. He cites a particularly interesting case where there are two versions of a single chorus, the first of which fits text to music "as snugly as a hand fits a glove". It's the opening of Cantata No 214, "Tonet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!" (Sound, ye drums! Ring out, trumpets!) - one of the works included in the latest instalment (Vol 4) of Koopman's projected 20-volume complete cantata series. "Bach later re-used the same music for the opening of his Christmas Oratorio," says Koopman, "but in the original cantata version the music really illustrates the text - I mean Tonet... ihr Pauken! - and you actually hear the sound of the trumpets and drums." By contrast, the Christmas Oratorio text is a more generalised "Exult, rejoice..."

Koopman recorded both versions at roughly the same time. "Bach didn't seem too bothered if the text didn't always fit the music 100 per cent," he claims. "In these secular cantatas, he sometimes writes 'music for the millions', music that's more accessible than the 'deep' Bach - because he knew that it was for a performance out of doors. In a sense, it was Bach's answer to opera."

Joyfulness, rhythmic vitality and leaping spontaneity are essential components of Ton Koopman's Bach style. Of course, being a Bach scholar (he is co- editing Norton's multi-volume The World of the Bach Cantatas), he uses "authentic" forces and period instruments, but he prefers to approach Bach as a true musical representative of the 18th century, "with all its contrasts - to perform it as Baroque music, not only as church music. When the 18th-century composer Andre Raison wrote his organ pieces, he would say, regarding an appropriate choice of tempo, 'Just see if you can find the character of the dance, then, because you are in church, play it a tiny bit slower'. That's an interesting remark. And when Nikolaus Harnoncourt performed the St Matthew Passion for the first time, he compared the opening chorus with a 'dance of the dead'. Maybe it was a little too lively, but at that time, when the period performance movement was still very young, it was necessary to exaggerate these things in order to make a point. Happily, there is far less of a division nowadays; we've all settled on a more practical centre path"

'Bach: Complete Cantatas Vol 4' is on Warner Classics' Erato label (three CDs; 0630-15562-2)