The Kennedy Center

Georg Philipp Telemann


The most prolific composer of the first half of the eighteenth century, German-born Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) wrote in all the main genres of his period: operas, cantatas, masses, Passions, orchestral and chamber music, and songs. He was at the leading edge of musical innovation throughout his career. He is said to have popularized the French-style orchestral suite in Germany. His works are known for their melodic idioms evoking German folksong or popular dance types, their rich harmony, and their elegant counterpoint. Telemann is viewed as a major link between the late Baroque and early Classical styles.
At the age of 10, Telemann took singing lessons from the town Kantor and studied keyboard playing with an organist for two weeks; he taught himself the recorder, violin, and zither, however. He learned the basics of composition solely by transcribing contemporary composers' scores and became inspired to write arias, motets, and instrumental pieces. At age 12, he wrote his first opera. This event caused his mother to ban further musical activity, as she was afraid it would interfere with his intended career in the church. However, the young Telemann secretly continued to compose and play on borrowed instruments at night or in remote spots. He later learned to play the flute, oboe, chalumeau (a type of woodwind instrument), viola da gamba, double bass, and bass trombone.
In 1701, Telemann enrolled as a law student at the University of Leipzig but soon became involved in the musical life of the city--as founder of a collegium musicum (musical society) and director of the Leipzig Opera in 1702, and as organist and music director of a church in 1704. The idea of a law career was abandoned.
Telemann moved on to the position of Kapellmeister (choirmaster) first in Eisenach, Germany and later in Frankfurt. In 1721, he accepted an invitation from city authorities in Hamburg to become Kantor and director of that city's five main churches. Telemann now began the most productive phase of his career. Every year, he had to provide two cantatas each Sunday and a new Passion cycle for Lent. Music was also required for induction ceremonies, church consecrations, and for the city's many civic celebrations. Telemann was additionally responsible for instructing schoolboys in singing, theory, and music history four days a week.
Telemann also directed the opera and the town's collegium musicum, but these duties led him to clash with certain church officials, who disapproved of this type of secular music, especially opera. In 1722, upset by this opposition, Telemann applied for the post of Kantor at St. Thomas's church in Leipzig. However, after receiving an increase in his wages at Hamburg and acceptance of his right to present opera, he withdrew the application. (The Leipzig church officials went on to eventually hire their third choice: Johann Sebastian Bach.)
As director of the Opera, Telemann put on 12 of his own works as well as others, including those of Handel. By 1738, however, attendance at the Hamburg Opera had declined, and it closed. Although Telemann continued to fulfill his official duties in the city, his musical output fell severely between 1740 and 1755. During these later years, Telemann turned his attention to writing theoretical musical treatises and seemed to have settled into semi-retirement.
However, the year 1755 marks an important turning-point. Inspired by the new generation of German poets, he began with renewed verve to compose sacred oratorios, including Der Tod Jesu ("The Death of Jesus," 1755), Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu ("The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus," 1760), and Der Tag des Gerichts ("Judgment Day," 1762).
As only one part of his large body of church music, Telemann wrote 1,700 cantatas; about 1,400 still exist. Among the most important from his last decade are Die Tageszeiten and Ino. Ino is considered the outstanding masterpiece of Telemann's later years.
Telemann may have written 50 or more operas over three decades. Documentary evidence exists for 29 such compositions, although only nine survive complete. Despite the loss of so much music, Telemann is considered, next to his contemporary Reinhard Keiser, the most important composer of German-language opera in the first half of the 18th century.
Telemann is also known to have composed about 125 orchestral suites, 125 concertos, nearly 40 quartets, and 145 pieces for keyboard. Not only was Telemann's output immense, it was amazingly diverse.
Eighteenth-century critics regarded Telemann as one of the best composers of the day. However, his posthumous reputation quickly declined. The enormity of his output and his technical fluency caused nineteenth century critics to assume composing was too easy for him and that he therefore wrote purely pleasant, superficial music. Beginning in the twentieth century, however, research has led to a more discerning evaluation of his work. Telemann has come to be appreciated for his skill in counterpoint and complex harmonization and for composing in virtually every major musical style developed during the first two-thirds of the 18th century.
Georg Telemann