Georg Philipp Telemann

1681 1767

Georg Philipp Telemann



The German composer Georg Philipp Telemann was one of the most innovative figures of the late Baroque era. He was a prolific writer of both secular and sacred music, and his broadminded approach to harmony and melody largely paved the way for the Classical period.

Telemann was born in the small town of Magdeburg, Germany. Although he was taught the basics of music theory through his school’s compulsory music education, he never received individual training either in performance or composition. By the age of ten Telemann had already achieved proficiency on the violin, flute, zither and multiple keyboard insturments, and by the age of twelve he had composed his first opera,Sigismundus (1693). Despite the early demonstration of impressive abilities his parents were both insistent that he follow a respectable occupation, and he was forced to enroll as a law student at the University of Leipzig in 1701.

No sooner had he arrived in Leipzig that his carefully prepared career as a lawyer began to unravel. The biggest impetus for this was a meeting withGeorge Frideric Handel, who at the time was only sixteen. The two became immediate friends, and encouraged each others’ musical pursuits. Telemann often referred to the meeting as a large turning point, saying “From my acquaintance with Handel, who was already famous, I again sucked in so much of the poison of music as nearly overset all my resolutions.”

Meanwhile, Telemann was taking full advantage of the multiple musical opportunities in the metropolis of Leipzig. Telemann quickly became employed as the organist for the Neuenkirche chapel, and he completely revamped the university’s musical society, which began to give regular public performances. He was also employed by the Leipzig Opera, becoming musical director in 1703 and composing a total of four operas specifically for the institution.

Within just a few years of arriving in Leipzig, Telemann had completely revolutionized the city’s cultural and musical life. His new-found success saw him receiving offers from all over Germany and over the next few years Telemann found himself travelling to hold positions at the princely courts in Sorau (1705-1708) and Eisenach (1708-1712). He would also spend a significant amount of time as Kapellmeister of the Church of the Barefoot Friars in Frankfurt am Main (1712-1721), before finally moving to Hamburg, where he would remain in various positions for the rest of his life. At the time one of the largest musical centers in Europe, working in Hamburg provided both a unique opportunity and a heavy workload for Telemann. He soon accepted the position of musical director of the Hamburg Opera, in addition to his existing role of providing music for all five of Hamburg’s largest churches. While living there he also still fulfilled commissions from Eisenach, Bayreuth and Frankfurt.

Telemann’s full repertoire includes 12 cantata cycles, 44 Passions, 40 operas and countless smaller works, both secular and religious. He was a particular fan of writing French-inspired overtures, saying he found the genre so fascinating that “I applied myself almost entirely to this style, so that in two years I wrote as many as two hundred overtures.” Over the course of his entire career he would end up writing more than 600. In addition to the Italian and French styles, Telemann was inspired by the unusual (for the time) genre of Polish folk music, leading him to proclaim “One would hardly believe what wonderfully bright ideas such pipers and fiddlers are apt to get when they improvise, ideas that would suffice for an entire lifetime. There is in this music a great deal of merit provided it is treated right.”

While he was enjoying immense success in the musical world, Telemann was plagued with bad luck in his personal life. His first wife, Amalie Eberlin, died in childbirth less than a year after their marriage in 1709. Telemann married again in 1714 but his second wife, Maria Katharina Textor, had a gambling addiction and would end up leaving him years later, eloping with an officer in the Swedish military and leaving him greatly in debt. Telemann was more successful in maintaining his friendships: in addition to a lifelong correspondence with Handel he also became very close toJohann Sebastian Bach , so much so that that Telemann became both the namesake and godfather to Bach’s son,Carl Philipp.

As a composer Telemann was incredibly prolific. He was known for his prodigious ability to instantly come up with eight part choral pieces, and for his chameleon-like talent for impersonating different national backgrounds and styles, something he valued more than having his own personal voice shine through every song. Telemann wrote literally thousands of compositions, many of which survived due to a publishing company which he founded himself. This wide dissemination of his music ensured not only that it would survive for hundreds of years but also that he would achieve immense fame during his lifetime. Several of his works, includingDer Getreue Musik Meister (1728) and 6 Concerts et 6 Suites(1734) became sensations all over Europe.

Unfortunately, although he was remarkably successful during his lifetime, Telemann’s reputation did not stand up well to the next 200 years, as his successors, such as Haydn andMozart, largely eclipsed his own style. One of the main lines of criticism dealt with his excessive output, claiming his works stressed quantity of quality. However, starting in the 20th century, much of the music from the late Baroque era was reevaluated, and his standing has gradually increased. Today he is viewed as one of the most important composers from the late Baroque era, and an important foundation for the Classical era that would follow.

Header image courtesy of public domain Other images courtesy of Bach Cantatas, Robert Ostermeyer Musikedition and public domain