A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Telemann, Georg Philipp

TELEMANN, Georg Philipp, German composer, son of a clergyman, born at Magdeburg March 14, 1681, and educated there and at Hildesheim. He received no regular musical training, but by diligently studying the scores of the great masters—he mentions in particular Lully and Campra—made himself master of the science of music. In 1700 he went to the university of Leipzig, and while carrying on studies in languages and science, became organist of the Neukirche, and founded a society among the students, called 'Collegium musicum.' In 1704 he became Capellmeister to a Prince Promnitz at Sorau, in 1708 Concertmeister, and then Capellmeister, at Eisenach, and, still retaining this post, became Musikdirector of the Church of St. Catherine, and of a society called 'Frauenstein' at Frankfort in 1711, and also Capellmeister to the Prince of Bayreuth. In 1721 he was appointed Cantor of the Johanneum, and Musikdirector of the principal church at Hamburg, posts which he retained till his death. He made good musical use of repeated tours to Berlin, and other places of musical repute, and his style was permanently affected by a visit of some length to Paris in 1737, when he became strongly imbued with French ideas and taste. He died June 25, 1767.

Telemann, like his contemporaries Matheson and Keiser, is a prominent representative of the Hamburg school in its prime during the first half of the 18th century. In his own day he was placed with Hasse and Graun as a composer of the first rank, but the verdict of posterity has been less favourable. With all his undoubted ability he originated nothing, but was content to follow the tracks laid down by the old contrapuntal school of organists, whose ideas and forms he adopted without change. His fertility was so marvellous that he could not even reckon up his own compositions; indeed it is doubtful whether he was ever equalled in this respect. He was a highly-skilled contrapuntist, and had, as might be expected from his great productiveness, a technical mastery of all the received forms of composition. Handel, who knew him well, said that he could write a motet in 8 parts as easily as any one else could write a letter, and Schumann quotes an expression of his to the effect that 'a proper composer should be able to set a placard to [1]music': but these advantages were neutralised by his lack of any earnest ideal, and by a fatal facility naturally inclined to superficiality. He was over-addicted, even for his own day, to realism; this, though occasionally effective, especially in recitatives, concentrates the attention on mere externals, and is opposed to all depth of expression, and consequently to true art. His shortcomings are most patent in his church works, which are of greater historical importance than his operas and other music. The shallowness of the church-music of the latter half of the 18th century is distinctly traceable to Telemann's influence, although that was the very branch of composition in which he seemed to have everything in his favour—position, authority, and industry. But the mixture of conventional counterpoint with Italian opera air, which constituted his style, was not calculated to conceal the absence of any true and dignified ideal of church music. And yet he composed 12 complete sets of services for the year, 44 Passions, many oratorios, innumerable cantatas and psalms, 32 services for the installation of Hamburg clergy, 33 pieces called 'Capitäns-musik,' 20 ordination and anniversary services, 12 funeral, and 14 wedding services—all consisting of many numbers each. Of his grand oratorios several were widely known and performed, even after his death, especially a 'Passion' to the well-known words of Brockes of Hamburg (1716); another, in 3 parts and 9 scenes, to words selected by himself from the Gospels (his best-known work); 'Der Tag des Gerichts'; 'Die Tageszeiten' (from Zechariah); and the 'Tod Jesu' and the 'Auferstehung Christi,' both by Ramler (1730 and 1757). To these must be added 40 operas for Hamburg, Eisenach, and Bayreuth, and an enormous mass of vocal and instrumental music of all kinds, including no less than 600 overtures in the French style. Many of his compositions were published, and he even found time to engrave several himself; Gerber ('Lexicon,' ii. 631) gives a catalogue. He also wrote an autobiography, printed in Matheson's 'Ehrenpforte' and 'Generalbass-schule' (1731, p. 168). A fine chorus for 2 choirs is given in Rochlitz's Sammlung, and Hullah's Vocal Scores. Others will be found in Winterfeld, and in a collection—'Beitrag zur Kirchenmusik'—published by Breitkopf. Organ fugues have been printed in Körner's 'Orgel Virtuos.' Very valuable examinations of his Church-Cantatas, and comparisons between them and those of Bach, will be found in Spitta's 'Bach' (Transl. i. 490 etc.)

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  1. 'Gesammelte Schriften,' ii. 235. Compare Rameau's 'Qu'on me donne la Gazette de Hollande.'