Telemann, Georg Philip

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Telemann, Georg Philip (1681-1767): German Composer.

Georg Philip Telemann was long considered the leading composer in Germany during the early and middle 18th century.

Born into an upper middle class family in Magdeburg, Telemann was expected to attend university and to study law. He attended two schools in Magdeburg, the Altstädtisches Gymnasium and the Domschule, where, despite having received no personal coaching, he developed proficiency on violin, flute, zither, and keyboard instruments. When he began to compose his first opera (Sigismundus) at the age of twelve, he was removed by his disapproving mother and sent to school at Zellerfeld. There, Telemann was exposed to theoretical music studies by the superintendent, Caspar Calvoer, and was encouraged by the Rektor to compose incidental songs for school dramas. In 1701 Telemann attended university in Leipzig with the intention of studying law. Soon, however, he was commissioned by the mayor to write a cantata every two weeks; by 1702 he had founded a student collegium music and became musical director of the Leipzig Opera, and in 1704 he was appointed organist at the university. In that same year, Telemann moved to Sorau as Kapellmeister to Count Promnitz. Whereas earlier visits to Hanover and Brunswick had exposed him to Italian opera, Telemann now became fascinated by French instrumental music and Polish folk music. In 1708, he moved to the court of Eisenach where he became court Konzertmeister, composing church cantatas, overtures, concertos and chamber works. In 1714, he became godfather to C.P.E. Bach, having undoubtedly met J.S. Bach at Eisenach. In 1709, Telemann married Louise Eberlin, who died in 1711 after the birth of their daughter. He married Maria Katharina Textor in 1714; they had eight sons and two daughters. In 1712, Telemann became city director of music and Kapellmeister at the Barfüsserkirche in Frankurt. In 1721, he was appointed Cantor of the Johanneum and municipal music director in Hamburg, where he stayed for the rest of his life. During that time, he overcame long-recognized prejudices against music intended for public enjoyment rather than church performance by composing both secular and religious works. He also ensured the establishment of public concerts in the city. In 1722 he became musical director of the Hamburg Opera. While performing his duties as composer and music director, he also oversaw the publication of a number of his works, and often handled the advertising and subscription solicitation himself. In 1737, he visited Paris for eight months, where performances of his works at court and in the Concert Spirituel were received with great favour. Between 1740 and 1755 Telemann turned from musical composition to attend to his interests in publication and musical theory. He returned to composition in 1755; the composition of oratorios was the primary manifestation of his creative energy until his death in June 1767.

Telemann’s contribution to the critical appreciation of music is considerable. His breaking down of the barriers between sacred and secular music allowed for a greater appreciation of opera and other secular musical entertainments. Furthermore, it emphasized the potential for a musician-composer to define his own post, rather than to conform to expected distinctions between religion, public, and court. His interest in music publishing encouraged the dissemination of music to amateur musicians, as did his reduction of his musical scores for easy performance. His lifelong interest in the amateur musician was also reflected in his writings on musical theory, and many of his song collections include directions for the writing of continuo and inner voice-parts. His interest in folk music is reflected in the melodic and rhythmic patterns of his instrumental compositions, the majority of which are collected in Musique de table (1733). His quartets are characterised by a conversational style which was to become characteristic of Classical works. While his sacred vocal works are conventional in their adherence to text and declamatory recitative, his secular songs revive a lapsed song tradition in Germany with ornamental virtuosity and folklike melodies. His 45 operas (the most famous of which is Der geduldige Socrates, 1721) do not conform to any particular national tradition, and contain conventions of Italian opera buffa as well as lengthy choruses and simple arias. Much of Telemann’s music is characterized by its ‘light’ style; the composer moved from rigid forms to a greater simplicity of melody and harmony. As a result, his music is often seen as anticipating the Classical style.

Further Reading:

Richard Petzoldt. Horace Fitzpatrick trans., Georg Philip Telemann, 1974.

Irene Morra