Georg Philipp Telemann

by Anja Weinberger

Georg Philipp Telemann – a jack-of-all-trades in the baroque

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681 – 1767) was, like Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Händel, a German composer of the baroque era. And although he enjoyed international fame like hardly anyone else in the last third of his life, was able to live very well from his work and gave the music world groundbreaking new impulses, today he stands in the shadow of his two colleagues mentioned above. What a pity! In order to get to know this baroque self-made man and multitasker better, we will now set off together.

Telemann came from an educated Magdeburg pastor family. In contrast to his colleagues Handel and Bach, he could not hope for any support from his parents in his musical ambitions. On the contrary, in order to save his son from “social decline” he was forbidden to engage in music. But nothing helped. Georg Philipp was simply crazy about music as a child.

He sucked up what came his way and taught himself several instruments. Quasi “on the side” and with very good marks he attended the school at Magdeburg Cathedral and the grammar school in the old town. Already there he wrote verses in French and Latin (later in life he learned fluent Italian and English). And finally – around the age of ten – he began to compose small pieces.

He received singing lessons from cantor Benedikt Christiani, who, after a few weeks, let him teach the upper classes himself when he was prevented from doing so. Apart from a two-week (!!) instruction in piano playing, he received no further music lessons. Hard to believe, right?!

At the age of only 12 he finally composed his first opera – Sigismundus. And his meanwhile widowed mother seemed to have completely despaired of it. She confiscated his instruments and decided to remove him from this “bad influence”. So he was sent to the school in Zellerfeld (today Clausthal – Zellerfeld) at the age of twelve, hoping to bring him to his senses.

But fate was kind to music history and to Telemann. For the superintendent there, Caspar Calvör, immediately recognized Georg Philipp’s outstanding talents and supported him in all respects. It is actually astonishing that the mother knew nothing of Calvör’s presence, or did not realise that this contact would have the opposite effect to what she had hoped for. Calvör was known far beyond the borders of his town as a theologian and universal scholar. He therefore encouraged the young Telemann not to neglect school and to continue to pursue his musical interests.

From then on, he composed motets for the church choir there almost weekly and also wrote arias and other occasional music, which he tried to sell via the Zellerfeld Stadtpfeifer.

Three years later, at the age of 16, he changed to the grammar school in the much larger city of Hildesheim. Again he was lucky and immediately received support from the headmaster of the grammar school and the church music director. Here too he continued to learn instruments autodidactically and was finally able to play the organ, gamba, violin, double bass, shawm, recorder and transverse flute, trombone, cyther and piano. A remarkably long list.

And finally, the school days were over. In 1701 he enrolled at the University of Leipzig, where, to his mother’s delight, he only wanted to study law. The only thing we lack – and probably also he – is the belief that this really will happen. Even the choice of the city, which at the time was regarded as the bourgeois metropolis of modern music, points to what is now to come.

By chance, one of Telemann’s cantatas fell into the hands of a music-loving fellow student, who then performed it in St. Thomas Church – the audience was thrilled. The mayor asked for more, and so the Jura-music balance shifted quite quickly. The starting signal for a brilliant career as a musician could be heard at that moment.

Meanwhile he also had contact with George Frideric Handel, who was only four years younger. With him he undertook a journey to Berlin in 1702. There they heard, among other things, the premiere of Bononcini’s “Polifemo”, at that time a resounding success. Telemann and Händel were to remain friends for the rest of their lives and were to value their work highly.

Back in Leipzig he now composed two commissioned cantatas a month for the Thomaskantorei and founded an orchestra, the Telemannisches Collegium musicum (This was later directed by J.S. Bach and had a great influence on Leipzig’s musical life. Incidentally, Bach also frequently made copies of Telemann’s works in later years – people liked each other!) After only one year in the city, he also conducted performances of the opera house, played the basso continuo himself and sang occasionally.

The legendary quarrel with Kuhnau, at that time municipal music director and Thomaskantor, was actually not surprising. He felt that his conservative honour had been violated by Telemann’s very active, progressive, cheerful and colourful music-making and composing. Especially since Telemann was suggested to the ailing Kuhnau as a possible successor (Kuhnau, however, remained alive and in office for a long time – his successor was Johann Sebastian Bach only in 1722).

Now, in 1704, at the age of 23, Telemann became music director of the Neukirche, then the University Church of Leipzig. However, all this was of no use to the city. Telemann wanted to grow, he wanted to listen to foreign music and meet colleagues.

And so he finally chose the court of Count Erdmann II of Promnitz in Sorau/Lausitz as the centre of his life only one year later.

Already in his youth Telemann felt attracted above all by French music. It was in Leipzig that he first met the French members of the Dresden court orchestra. And here in Sorau he was able to study the Count’s rich musical treasure, which he had brought back from his trip to Paris. Even works by Lully were among them, whom Telemann particularly appreciated.

He built up the court music and composed numerous overture suites. And from here he travelled to Poland and Moravia. The folk music there inspired him and left deep traces in his compositions.

In keeping with the spirit of the times, he blended the best of the music of all countries and thus early on shaped a very individual style – the “Telemannic” or “blended taste”.


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However, as early as 1706 he had to move on for political reasons – the Swedish army threatened Sorau. And so he was brought to Eisenach as concertmaster and cantor at the court of Duke Johann Wilhelm. The Duke appointed him as his secretary, a high distinction at the time.

In October 1709 Telemann married Amalie Eberlin, a daughter of the Nuremberg composer Daniel Eberlin. They met each other because she was lady-in-waiting to the Countess von Promnitz. The couple had only been lucky for a very short time, because Amalie died when her first daughter was born in January 1711.

Telemann tried to meet the grief over the death of his wife with new musical challenges.

He applied for a job in Frankfurt and soon moved to the city on the Main as municipal music director and church kapellmeister. There he completed the years of cantatas he had begun in Eisenach, composed oratorios and chamber music, organized weekly concerts and published his own works. He had long been known far beyond the city limits.

He also remarried in 1714. The chosen one was Maria Catharina Textor, a member of the upper middle class – unfortunately this second marriage was not to be a happy one. With an annual income of 1600 gulden, Telemann was one of the best-paid citizens of Frankfurt.

In 1721 he finally went to Hamburg, settled there and worked in the large city churches. His main creative period, which lasted over 40 years, could begin! It was here that “Der getreue Musikmeister” and “Tafelmusik” were created, it was here that he published his teaching writings and it was from here that he was finally able to fulfil his great wishes and travel to Paris, where he finally achieved international fame. But one after the other!

The first year in Hamburg was not at all to Telemann’s taste. He felt that he was not adequately rewarded, especially financially, and that his work and freedom of decision was restricted by the College of the Superiors, an association of three community elders from each of the main churches in Hamburg. Only when he applied for the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig after Kuhnau’s death, was unanimously elected there and submitted his application for dismissal in Hamburg were his working conditions optimised by the council. So he stayed in the Hanseatic city and Bach could become Thomaskantor in Leipzig.

In the same year, Telemann took over the direction of the opera house in addition to his work in the five large city churches and in 1723 he was also appointed “Kapellmeister von Haus aus Haus” for the Margrave of Bayreuth. From then on he supplied him with a fixed number of operas and chamber music every year. From 1725 to 1730 he served the Duke of Saxony-Eisenach as an agent and reported on news.

One can only state Telemann must have been a bundle of energy to accomplish all this. In addition, he was very widely networked and his music, but also his opinion on contemporary trends were in great demand.

In 1728 he then founded the “Faithful Music Master” with Johann Valentin Görner, a music journal which was intended to promote music-making at home and also contained compositional examples by other musicians such as Zelenka and Keiser.

His interest in unusual instrumentations was already noticeable here. An example of this is the Sonata for Violoncello and Basso continuo – until then the violoncello had not been used as a melodic instrument in chamber music. But also the “Canonical Duets” and the “Duets without Bass” belong to these new forms.


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Then the “Methodical Sonatas” were written – until today quasi a textbook for the use of (French) essential manners and (Italian) arbitrary changes. Telemann had the slow movements printed once ornamented and once unornamented, in order to guide the music lover “to growing insight”. Telemann’s “Methodical Sonatas” represent the most comprehensive sounding theory of affects ever written.

And in 1733 the “Musique de Table” was created – a collection of instrumental works for various instrumentations and one of the last examples of courtly table music. The composer also wanted his probably most famous work to be understood as a pedagogical teaching piece. For the most important instrumental genres are presented with virtuosity and versatility. Above all his trio sonatas were highly praised by his contemporaries, especially because he was at home in the most diverse styles.

The “Tafelmusik” considered here he wrote mainly for wealthy music lovers, and among the more than 200 subscribers were Handel and Quantz in addition to many names from abroad.

It can also be seen that Telemann “invented” new forms in table music. In the large quartet in E minor, for example, the violoncello leads a life of its own, detached from the basso continuo, and becomes a melodic instrument in its own right. With this great and complex work, written almost entirely in the gallant French style, Telemann finally consolidated his fame throughout Europe.

However, family and married life was not as successful as working life. Meanwhile the family was very large and Maria Catharina was apparently not up to the task. She lost a lot of money in gambling and cheated on her husband. In 1735, after 21 laborious years of marriage, they divorced. Not only the financial consequences were unpleasant.

In the early and mid 1930s Telemann developed a special interest in the individual instrument.

In addition to the 12 Fantasies for solo violin, he also wrote 12 Fantasies for solo flute and 36 for harpsichord. The lost believed manuscripts of the 12 Fantasias for solo viol were fortunately rediscovered in a private household in 2015. Why this interest? Never before has a composer – apart from Bach for the organ – thought so extensively and thoroughly about making music on a single instrument.

Works have been created in which an original, natural will to make music would like to break new ground. Apart from this, these three collections are also didactically conceived, wandering through the circle of fifths and serving a maximum of musical individuality. All contemporary styles, forms and keys can be found, and even the most diverse forms of articulation are covered.

At the highest instrumental level, a complex polyphony is also to be presented at times in flute, violin and gamba. The player must use all his abilities – or even develop them – to make these works audible and understandable.


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In 1737 the long famous composer was able to fulfil a long cherished wish. He travelled to Paris at the invitation of flautist Blavet, violinist Guignon and gambist Forqueray.

His “Parisian Quartets” were written especially for this meeting. All quartet movements were given two different basso continuo voices – one for the viola da gamba and one for the newer, up-and-coming violoncello. Another very typical example of Telemann’s practical approach to music-making.

He also wrote a “Grand Motet” which was performed spiritually in the then very elite Concert – several times in a row to enable all those interested to marvel at the work.

Telemann was the first foreigner to be granted this honour.

In the following years Telemann composed relatively little.

Three major oratorios were still being written and one or two sacred and secular works. He devoted himself with great dedication to the collection of rare plants. Handel and Pisendel returned the favour by sending rare seeds for works they had received. But he also made contact with famous botanists of his time.

From 1755 his health deteriorated, and his grandson Georg Michael had to help him write more and more often, because his eyesight was now also weakening. His sense of humour and his innovative power remained with him until the end of his life.

He composed his last work, the “St. Mark Passion” in 1767 and died on 25 June of this year at the age of 86.

His successor in office was his godson Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.


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Telemann’s unusual way of composing is not so easy for us post-humans to appreciate. After all, music by Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi or even modern film composers like Hans Florian Zimmer has long since entered our minds. At that time, however, this fable with sounds, the emotional “head cinema” was still unknown. Telemann was unequalled in this.

And he proved flexibility throughout his life, he composed according to changing fashions – for home use as well as for the big stage. The number of works he composed exceeds that of Handel and Bach combined.

The folk music of many countries flowed into his works and he made a bow from the music of the Baroque or the sensitive style of the Rococo to the Viennese Classicism. He appreciated unusual instrumental combinations and helped the harpsichord and the cello in particular to gain more independence outside the basso continuo function.

These characteristics and compositional preferences fell victim to the “cult of genius” in the 19th century at the latest. For there the lonely and primarily misunderstood master was glorified. Lust for life and audience attention, on the other hand, were viewed with scepticism. Telemann’s star sank for the time being…

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