Georg Philipp Telemann | Biography

Biography

Telemann was one of the foremost German composers of the first half of the eighteenth century and an important figure in the transition between the late Baroque and early Classical idioms. Constantly moving with the times, his works embraced a wide variety of vocal and instrumental genres, marrying Italian, French and Polish styles into one that was essentially German. Raised in a devout Lutheran family, Telemann received singing and keyboard lessons but was largely self-taught musically. In 1701 he entered Leipzig University to study law but music proved the stronger attraction. He undertook to compose fortnightly for Leipzig’s two principal churches, established a student ‘Collegium Musicum’ for public concert-giving, and worked as musical director for the Opernhaus auf dem Brühl and as organist/choirmaster at the Neukirche.     Telemann’s 1705 appointment as Kapellmeister for Count Erdmann II of Promnitz at Sorau opened his ears to works by French composers such as Lully and Campra, and, when the court moved to Pless, to Polish and South Moravian folk music. He entered the service of Duke Johann Wilhelm of Saxe-Eisenach around 1708, ultimately becoming Kapellmeister. Tragedy struck in 1711 with the death of his wife, following the birth of their first child. He moved to Frankfurt early in the following year as director of music and Kapellmeister to the Barfüsserkirche and Katharinenkirche, for which he composed at least five cantata cycles. He also organised weekly concerts at the Collegium Musicum. He remarried in 1714, but the relationship foundered. In July 1721 Telemann was appointed Kantor of the Johanneum Lateinschule in the prosperous city of Hamburg and became musical director of that city’s five largest churches. He composed cantatas for the churches and for various civic ceremonies, an annual Passion and music for military celebrations. He participated in concerts and spearheaded the activities of the Collegium Musicum. In 1722 he was the leading candidate for the position of Kantor of the Leipzig Thomanerchor, but Hamburg retained him by increasing his stipend and appointing him musical director of the Gänsemarktoper theatre. Telemann took advantage of this new role by staging 12 operas, including Pimpinone (1725). He also published various works under his own imprint. While in Paris between 1737 and 1738 he performed at the ‘Concert Spirituel’ concert series. He was granted publishing privileges, issuing several works including his Nouveaux quatuors TWV43. Hisoutput waned somewhat between about 1740 and 1755, although he completed one of his planned series of theoretical treatises, Neues musikalisches System (1752). Thereafter he enjoyed an Indian summer of composition, writing some remarkable oratorios. Telemann’s mastery of the ‘mixed style’ is demonstrated in his orchestral Ouvertures/Suites, about 140 of which have survived. Modelled on Lully’s suites, Telemann’s works in this genre are often more expansively and colourfully realised, some including solo parts for wind or string instruments. He approached Italian concerto models with equal freddom. His 21 surviving violin concertos comprise three or four movements, often with dance-influenced finales. His ensemble concertos effectively implement the ritornello principle and are more expansive and thematically unified. Some embrace various national idioms, others anticipate the ‘galant’ style of the roccoco period. Telemann’s first two sets of six sonatas for violin and continuo (1715, 1718) were modelled largely on those by Corelli. Of his four later sets, the most significant are his 12 Sonate metodiche op.13 for violin/flute and continuo (1728–32), with their suggested embellishments of some slow movements. His unaccompanied works comprise flute fantasias (1732–3), a viola da gamba sonata (1728) and 12 Fantasias for violin (1735), the last six of which also look towards the ‘galant’ style. Some of his chamber pieces are for flexible forces, notably his Six quatuors ou trios (1733), and his landmark quartets for three melody instruments and continuo combine wind and stringed instruments with textural ingenuity, particularly his Nouveaux quatuors (1738). His keyboard works embrace fantasias, chorale preludes, suites, dances and fugues. Telemann’s sacred vocal music includes at least 20 annual church cycles, more than half of which have survived, 46 liturgical Passion settings, of which 23 remain, and about 1,700 cantatas, more than three-quarters of which survive, embracing occasions such as weddings, funerals and other church events. He also composed numerous oratorios, masses, motets, psalm settings, a Magnificat and a Sanctus. Building on late seventeenth century central German traditions, Telemann sought variety of structure and style in his cantatas, most of which were given titles. The Französischer Jahrgang (1714–15) exploits many French style traits, while the Sicilianischer Jahrgang (1719–20) incorporates Italianate cantabile qualities and pastoral idioms. Most of his liturgical Passions combine the Evangelist’s biblical narration, chorales and poetic interpolations such as arias, recitatives and choruses drawn from operatic and oratorio traditions. They are generally smaller-scale than those composed to freely written librettos such as the Brockes-Passion and Der Tod Jesu (‘The Death of Jesus’). Telemann’s surviving Kapitänsmusiken, comprising ten oratorios (but only nine complete sacred oratorio and secular serenade pairs), are for solo voices, chorus and orchestra and incorporate characters that are almost exclusively allegorical. His concert oratorios are especially progressive, Der Tag des Gerichts (‘The Day of Judgment’) uses accompanied recitative and descriptive writing to striking dramatic effect. Telemann may have written at least 50 operas. Evidence exists for 29, though only nine of these have survived intact. Six have comic plots or sub-plots concerning issues of social class – a contemporary fascination in mercantile Hamburg – particularly Emma und Eginhard (1728). Of the surviving serious operas Orpheus (1726) combines national idioms and language in a polyglot libretto, mixing German traditions with those of the French tragédie lyrique and Italian opera seria. His secular cantatas and serenatas range widely in subject, style and scale. Most of his cantatas are for solo voice and small instrumental ensembles and are modest in scope but his Die Tageszeiten (‘The Seasons’, 1757) is a cycle of four solo cantatas, each for a different voice. Telemann also composed numerous song collections, setting quality texts with musical sensibility, His establishment with JV Görner of the first German music periodical, Der getreue Musikmeister (‘The True Music Master’) was influential in the expansion of domestic music making. The popularity of Telemann’s music declined rapidly in the 19th century. Interest was rekindled through Bach scholarship, establishing a more accurate appreciation of Telemann’s stature and influence and the immense appeal of a distinctive, adventurous and confident musical personality.