By Linda de Vries
On this date in 1681 Georg Philipp Telemann was born in Magdaburg, Prussia, four years earlier than Sebastian. Also on this date in 1727 Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, discussed yesterday, was baptized.
It is Telemann, though, that provides our Bach Bagatelle for this date: Bach and the Band II.
Georg Philipp Telemann, hand-colored aquatint by Valentin Daniel Preisler,
after a lost painting by Louis Michael Schneider, 1750.
Telemann was born into a family of clergymen—his father and his maternal grandfather were Lutheran ministers. Only distant relatives of his parents were musicians: his mother’s nephew and his paternal great-grandfather.
His father died when he was four years old, and his mother and her family were opposed to a career in music. Nevertheless, Telemann began singing and keyboard lessons at age ten, and soon began composing and teaching himself other instruments. His mother confiscated his instruments when he was 12, but he continued composing in secret. Others encouraged his talent, though, and he was soon composing music for church and town.
In 1697 he entered the renowned Gymnasium Andreanum in HildesheimHildesheim, where his musical talents were also recognized. Upon graduation and at his mother’s urging (his 1718 autobiography) or his desire (his 1740 autobiography) Telemann matriculated at the University of Leipzig.
He had not, however, given up his interest in music. On his way to Leipzig in 1701 he stopped in Halle to visit George Frideric Handel, who became a life-long friend. A university degree was not to be. His roommate discovered a musical setting of Psalm 6 in his luggage, and its performance led the mayor Leipzig to commission works for the city’s two main churches.
Telemann’s career flourished in Leipzig, where he also provided music for the New Church, became director of the opera house, and, in 1702, reconstituted the collegium musicum, an amateur group of university students that had originally been founded in 1688 by Johann Kuhnau, the Cantor of St. Thomas Church. Sebastian later became director of this same group, which performed at Café Zimmermann, Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffeehouse.
Aside: on April 4, 2014, Horizon Music Group will perform, as part of the Whittier Bach Festival, two secular cantatas Sebastian composed for this venue. The Chapel will be converted into a coffee house for the night.
His relationship with Kuhnau became strained when the Cantor accused Telemann of stealing away students from his choir and focusing too heavily on opera. Telemann left in 1705 to become Capellmeister for the court of Count Erdmann II of Promnitz at Sorau, today in Poland. Here he studied the very popular French music of Lully and developed an interest in Moravian folk music.
His sojourn here was cut short by the Great Northern War, in which a coalition of Russia, Denmark, Norway, Saxony, Poland, and Lithuania challenged Swedish dominance of northern Europe. When Swedish troops invaded, Telemann fled.After a visit to Paris in 1707, he became first Conzertmeister then Capellmeister to Duke Johann Wilhelm of Saxe-Eisenach, the home of the Bachs. This stay, lasting until 1712, was one of the most productive periods of his life.
In Eisenach Telemann suffered a great sadness. He had married Amalie Louise Juliana Eberlin, lady-in-waiting to the Countess of Promnitz in Sorau, who gave birth in 1711, but died soon afterward. The marriage lasted 15 months. Telemann published in that same year Poetic Thoughts on her death, recounting later that this had triggered a religious awakening in him.
As were many musicians of the period, Telemann was torn between being a court musician or a city musician. On March 18, 1712 he took a city position, becoming Capellmeister at the Barefoot Church in Frankfurt and providing music for two churches, civic ceremonies, and the collegium musicum of Frankfurt, the Frauenstein. He also contracted to send music to Eisenach regularly and became Capellmeister to the Prince at Bayreuth.
His friendship with Sebastian continued. On March 10, 1714 Telemann served as godfather to C.P.E. Bach at the church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Weimar.
In Frankfurt he married his second wife, Maria Catharina Textor. The couple had nine children (none became musicians), but the marriage was a disaster. Maria had extra-marital affairs, ran up a huge gambling debt, and finally left him in 1736.
In 1721 he moved to Hamburg to become Cantor of the Johanneum Latin School and musical director of the five largest churches in the city. He also headed another collegium musicum and served as director of the opera house.
As was often the case with musicians who worked for town councils, Telemann confronted conflict. The city leaders objected to his opera productions as “inciting lasciviousness,” and the town printer objected to his publishing. Nevertheless, Telemann remained in Hamburg for the rest of his life, although he moonlighted with work in both Eisenach and Bayreuth. In 1757 he finally won the right to publish his own music.
Scholars speculate that these nuisances led him to apply for the position of Cantor at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig in 1722. He won the post, but used the offer to bargain for higher pay in Hamburg and so remained there. The second choice also declined, and the position was taken by Sebastian Bach, who lived out his life in Leipzig.
As director of the Hamburg opera Telemann also produced the London operas of his friend Handel until the opera house was forced to close in 1738. The two men shared the hobby of gardening, a popular activity in Hamburg at the time. In 1750 Handel sent him from London “a crate of flowers, which experts assure me are very choice and of admirable rarity.”
Telemann died of a “chest ailment” on July 25, 1767 His godson, C.P.E. Bach, succeeded him in his post at Hamburg.
The Guinness Book of Records lists Telemann as the most prolific composer of all time—over 3,000 works. During his lifetime and until the end of the century he was highly regarded by critics and public alike. He was reported to be a pleasant and likable person as well. He was favorably compared to his friends Handel and the Bachs and his music was in demand throughout Europe.
Sadly, his reputation waned in the 19th century. After the Bach revival Telemann’s works were considered inferior to those of his friend. This attitude prevailed until the early decades of the 20th century, when Telemann’s works were revived, culminating in the Bärenreiter critical edition of the 1950s.
Today, Telemann is recognized as one of the driving forces in the late Baroque and early Classical styles. He was the foremost exponent of the German mixed style, a fusion of German, French, Italian, and Polish styles. He was the chief proponent of the enormously popular orchestral suite, with its overture and series of dance movements. Always at the forefront of change, later in life he even adopted aspects of the galant style. He was the first to secure publication rights for his music. He was an important influence on Sebastian and his two eldest sons.