Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)

"Parisian" Quartets for Flute, Violin, Cello and Basso Continuo (1738)


Along with Prinsen (The Prince), the largest marine toad ever recorded (owned, incidentally, by Hakan Forsberg of Akers Styckebruk, Sweden, weighing in at 5 lbs. 13 1/2 oz. and measuring 15 inches from snout to vent) and fellow countryman Horst Ortmann, who spit a cherry pit 88 ft., 5 1/2" at Langenthal, Germany on Aug. 29, 1992, Georg Philipp Telemann has the dubious distinction of being included in the Guinness Book of Records as the most prolific composer of all time. He composed twelve complete sets of services (one cantata every Sunday) for a year, 78 services for special occasions, 40 operas, 600-700 orchestral suites, 44 passions, along with numerous concerti, sonatas and chamber music for various instrumental combinations. In his time, (he was a contemporary of J.S. Bach), he was regarded as Germany’s leading composer.


Unlike the Bachs, Telemann did not come from a musical family. Though of an upper middle class background, with university educations, most of his relatives, including his elder brother, entered the church. Though he showed, as might be expected, musical gifts early in life, his widowed mother and her advisors are said to have forbidden him to pursue his musical interests, taking all of his instruments away in the hope of making a theologian of him. Fortunately, the superintendant of the school he was sent to, Caspar Calvoer, was a devotee of music theory and mathematics, and allowed Georg Philipp to teach himself composition and thoroughbass (figured bass).


Telemann served as Kapellmeister in many important musical centers in Germany, including Eisenach, Frankfurt and Hamburg. While at Eisenach, he became acquainted with J.S. Bach, and stood as godfather to C.P.E. Bach. He also knew and corresponded with Handel well into old age. With the rise of J.S. Bach, so the reputation of Telemann declined. His musical fecundity came to be seen as a liability rather than an asset. Telemann’s musical aims were different than those of Johann Sebastian, and the Bach sons can be said to have followed the path of Telemann rather than their father, the path that was to lead to the "Galant" (early Classical) style. This path rejected complicated, learned contrapuntal artificiality that became known disparagingly as "Eye Music". It looked better on paper than it actually sounded. Telemann strove for a simple melodic line with clear periodic division and a transparent structure, in which the accompaniment plays a subordinate role. This self-taught composer was introducing fresh air into the Baroque style which had grown formalistic, pedantic and stuffy. (Unfortunately for J.S. Bach, in his lifetime, he was tarred with this brush. His music, in contrast to that of his sons, was thought to be outdated, old-fashioned and retro). One of the reasons for Telemann’s simplication of style, particularly in his chamber music, was that Telemann sought to avail himself of the emerging music publishing industry. Printed music in those days was in short supply and hard to come by. Telemann published his compositions so that scores would be available to both amateurs and professionals. He strove for simplicity and avoided technical difficulty so that his music would find its way into the home as well as the collegia musica. One of his innovations in the Quartets was the use of a "conversational style." He also made use of rhythmic and melodic elements derived from folk music of Germany, as well as Moravia and Poland.


The "Parisian Quartets" number twelve in all. They were published in two groups of six. The two Quartets heard today are from the second set entitled Nouveau Quartuors En Six Suites (1738). As the title indicates, they are in suites. It is interesting to note that such "suites" as composed by Bach and Handel have either the names of dances like gavotte and sarabande or tempo indications - largo, allegro for the titles of the movements. Here, Telemann uses, perhaps in keeping with the taste of the French Baroque music for more fanciful titles, such emotional or dramatic titles as Distrait, Tendrement or A discretion. The conversational style is very evident in these works, particularly in the exchanges between the flute and violin, certainly discrete and gracious, not exactly in the spirit of Guinness.

1993-94 Season, Program V, Sunday May 15, 1994

Back to "Program Notes by Joseph Way"

Back to Richard's Home Page

All original text on this page copyright 1997 by Joseph Way