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Learn About the German Composer, Georg Philipp Telemann's Works and Life

Georg Philipp Telemann: Overview 

  • Born: 1681 - Magdeburg, Germany
  • Died: 1767 - Hamburg, Germany
  • Historical Period: The Baroque era
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboards, operas

Georg Telemann engraving music

Georg Philipp Telemann, a prolific Baroque composer, was born in Germany in the year 1681. He was consistent in writing music of a sacred, yet secular nature, and was widely appreciated for his ecclesiastical compositions, ranging from high-end chorus and orchestral pieces to small-scale cantatas. He breathed his last in 1767.

Georg Philipp Telemann: The Underrated German Master

Coming from a family of a Protestant minister father, Telemann received a decent academic education but was never enrolled to any musical classes of any sort. His apparent musical talents manifested early on, but his parents discouraged him from any such career path because it was not a lucrative choice at the time. Opposition also came from Puritan Lutherans but despite all such negativity, Telemann researched and studied music by himself, even doing so under the revered Kantor Benedict Christiani. 

In 1694, Telemann went to Zellerfeld, and when he turned 20 in 1701, he decided upon the law as his preferred profession at the University of Leipzig. This changed when he made the acquaintance of Georg Friedrich Handel in Halle, that made him reconsider his decision. Under him, the Collegium Musicum or the Student Musical Society started performing gracefully as an amateur orchestra at public events. He was commissioned to assist Johann Kuhnau, the Thomaskirche organist, and started off composing cantatas at a Leipzig church, attaining a celebrity status. This led to him being appointed as the Leipzig Opera director in the year 1702, writing four operas over the next three years.

The composer then went on to be appointed to a couple of princely courts. His first position was that of a Kapellmeister at Sorau in present-day Poland between 1705 and 1708. The second position came in the form of concertmaster and subsequent Kapellmeister at Eisenach in Germany, between 1708 and 1712. Telemann’s musical efforts earned him widespread recognition, resulting in him assuming the position of Director of Music at Frankfurt between 1712 and 1721, and at Hamburg between 1721 and 1767. Der geduldige Socrates (1721), an opera, was one of Telemann's prominent pieces, performed in Hamburg at the time. 

Telemann’s success in Frankfurt in the field of musical endeavors raised him to new heights of fame all over the globe. In his position as Director of Music in Hamburg, he was in charge of the Hamburg Opera, and was also a cantor and instructor at the Johanneum. Despite his prominence, he refused two important propositions to perform at the Russian court in 1729 and another, where he was asked to succeed Kuhnau at the Thomaskirche. 

In 1733, he published the Musique de table, which contained concerti, orchestral suites, sonatas, trios and quartets, and then the Der getreue Music-Meister (1728-1729), that contained 70 pieces of compositions. Other works of this period are Der harmonische Gottesdienst (1725–1726) and 36 Fantasias for Harpsichord (1732-1733). 

Telemann’s personal life included two marriages, from which, he had eight sons and three daughters. While he lost his first spouse at childbirth, his second absconded with a Swedish military officer. He penned two autobiographies in the years 1718 and 1739, and also a poem, commemorating his first wife after she died. Telemann was also a friend to Bach and served as the godfather to his son.

The 1750s saw a number of musical pieces published by Telemann, such as Die Auferstehung und Himmelfährt Jesu (1760), Das befreite Israel (1759) and Donnerode (1756). Although he went into obscurity through the 19th and the early 20th centuries, musicologists Spitta and Schweitzer praised a number of his body of works, initially thought to be Bach’s but eventually confirmed to be Telemann’s. Most of his operatic work have been lost in time, but some, like Germanicus (1704-1710), exist in partial segments of about 45 arias. 

Uns ist ein Kind geboren within the “Concertante Cycle” (1716-1717), is one of Telemann’s most vibrant musical pieces, along with the Trumpet Concerto in D major (circa 1710-1720), the latter topping the list of his most profound cantatas. In 1727, Telemann published the Canonic Sonatas, which is a group of six sonatas that requires two musicians to perform the same music a bar apart.

Telemann’s musical prowess was focused on a consistent production of work, with his compositions demonstrating a naturally occurring melody, bold harmonic rhythm and excellent orchestration. When Telemann died, the advent of the likes of Mozart and Haydn decreased his prominence and his reputation to that of a superficial composer with no real talent. Since then, we have formed a more favorable view of the gifted individual, primarily due to extensive research conducted by Romain Rolland and Max Schneider, with contemporary editions of his work appearing since the 1930s.


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