If you grew up playing classical music, I’d wager that you played something by Georg Philipp Telemann. The odds would be in my favor—he composed about 3000 works over his lifetime (more than Bach and Handel, combined). Granted, he had a very long career to do so, having been a child prodigy on several instruments and going on to live a very long and productive life. Vivaldi turned out a huge number of compositions, but Telemann truly worked like an incredible machine (for you, Gert).
Interestingly, Telemann’s parents were set against his having any career in music, notwithstanding his obvious gifts—Telemann was an accomplished musician on several instruments by the age of 10 and had even composed an opera by 13. No music for you! His parents sent him to Leipzig to study law instead. But greatness has a way of sneaking out and one of his compositions was performed locally, was a hit, and he was off and running in what was decidedly the antithesis of a legal career.
Teleman’s music was wildly popular during his lifetime and he was considered the superior composer to J.S. Bach. Why? I don’t think that’s much of a mystery. Bach was, outside of a few major choral works, an instrumentalist. In contrast, Telemann composed over 100 operas and opera was the ticket to fame and fortune as a composer in the 18th century. Perhaps given the speed of their composition, Telemann’s tunes tend to be friendly to the ear, with their simple melodies and basic rhythms, while Bach’s best works are so complex that musicologists have not fully plumbed their depths some 200 years later. Just look at the Billboard Top 10 for all of the 1970s—nearly entirely prog rock free. Complex music is great, but not for the masses. As a critic back in Telemann’s day remarked:
“In particular I hear people praise Mr. Telemann because he knows how to suit the taste of all amateurs. He sometimes uses the Italian, sometimes the French, and very often also a mixture of styles when setting his pieces. He avoids all excessive difficulties which could please masters only, and he always prefers tunes of the pleasant variety to far-fetched ones, even if those are more artistic. And what could be more sensible?
So why isn’t Telemann more popular today? One critic summed it up nicely:
Telemann’s limitations are apparent when he is juxtaposed with Handel, who could dramatically really take the roof off and who could also find the inner essence of the human voice, and Bach who, like Shakespeare, through a near alchemy of sound and meaning could consistently define and further what it means to be human.
His contemporaries, however, strongly disagreed: Both Bach and Handel admired Telemann’s music. Telemann was godfather to Bach’s second son C.P.E. Bach (a noted proto-Classical or Rococo composer in his own right) and kept up a running correspondence with Handel, who incorporated many of Telemann’s tunes into his own compositions. Handel not only remarked on his friend’s gift for melody, but the facility of his compositions—he once remarked that Telemann could compose a work in the time an ordinary man could write a letter.
So, who is right, the modern critic or Telemann’s contemporaries? Let’s begin to answer that with Die Donner-Ode, written when Telemann was 75 and, late in life, had turned to oratorio as his preferred musical form. This work was written to commemorate the earthquake in Lisbon in 1755, which reportedly killed some 60,000 people. Commemorating a contemporaneous tragic event would lead to some of the greatest works in musical history—for example, Shostakovich’s Stalingrad and Babi Yar symphonies, Britten’s War Requiem and Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls (all to come in due time). While I am not sure if this is the case, I believe that tradition began here with Telemann. If that is right, he is, in my view, deserving of a place among the very greatest composers of all time. Regardless, the music speaks for itself.
Georg Philipp Telemann, Die Donner-Ode: