When I was asked to contribute a volume on Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767) to Boydell’s composer compendia series, I initially found the idea of writing such a dictionary-centred guide to research daunting. How could I adequately account for a life of nearly nine decades, a composing career of seven decades and an output encompassing well over three thousand works, all in a series of brief entries? But I quickly realized that this was an opportunity to provide students, scholars, musicians, and enthusiasts with the type of book my younger self would have welcomed – a guide that would not only make the burgeoning field of Telemann research more accessible to English speakers, but also clear new paths for learners and listeners alike.
It’s fair to say that Telemann had one of the most successful careers of any eighteenth-century composer. After overcoming maternal resistance to becoming a musician, he practically took over Leipzig’s musical life as a university student (1701–05), directing the opera company, founding a collegium musicum and overseeing music at the New Church. Two court appointments followed at Sorau and Eisenach (1705–12), during which time he held posts as concertmaster and Kapellmeister while composing all manner of vocal and instrumental works. Eventually tiring of courtly intrigue and employers who were often indifferent toward music, he became civic music director at Frankfurt am Main (1712–21) and Hamburg (1721–67), turning down a similar position at Leipzig (which eventually went to Johann Sebastian Bach) and a prestigious appointment at the Dresden court.
Over the course of his career, Telemann made significant contributions to nearly every type of music, writing works that are by turns elegant, earthy, imaginative, profound, and witty – a combination that very few composers can lay claim to. He was the leading composer of German-language opera, secular cantatas and songs (with a particular talent for comic works), practically established the church cantata as a genre, wrote some of the earliest and most innovative concertos in Germany, and was especially celebrated for his overture-suites and quartets.
After moving to Hamburg, he quickly established a publishing business to disseminate his own music across Europe, bringing out over forty collections in just fifteen years. Some of these publications were massive undertakings: two annual cycles of seventy-two church cantatas apiece, the first journal of music (with issues appearing bi-weekly for a year), a four-hour set of instrumental ‘banquet’ music, and a ‘nearly universal’ hymnal containing hundreds of melodies. More than a few of these publishing ventures were intended simultaneously to entertain and instruct by providing exemplary models for budding performers and composers.
From reading Telemann’s autobiographical essays and the many surviving letters written by and to him, one has the sense that he was plugged into his musical world like few other people of the day. Thus, a research guide devoted to him must account for his wide network of personal and professional relationships while representing his considerable musical legacy and how posterity has reacted to it. My hope is that this kind of stock taking will also help inspire new modes of appreciating Telemann’s achievements.
Listen to a Telemann playlist curated by Steven Zohn.
This guest post is written by Steven Zohn, Laura Carnell Professor of Music History at Temple University. He is the author of The Telemann Compendium (Boydell Press, 2020)