Georg Philipp Telemann

Composer Georg Philipp Telemann

One of the most celebrated and prolific composers of the German Baroque, his mastery of many styles and incredible ingenuity and inventiveness have brought him renewed popularity.

Vital Statistics
Magdeburg, March 14, 1681
Hamburg, June 25, 1767
Performed As:
Violinist, keyboardist, singer, and more.
During Lifetime:
The War of the Spanish Succession rages, and is followed by The War of Austrian Succession, during which the Kingdom of Prussia emerges as a major European power.
Biographical Outline
  • Maverick 1681-1700: Unlike many 18th-century musicians, Telemann does not come from a musical family, but a clerical one. Georg is largely self-taught, except for singing lessons as a 10-year old and keyboard studies for two weeks. By the age of 12, he has taught himself to play three other instruments and composed an opera. His mother forbids him to study music any further, but he continues secretly on his own.
  • University and first gig, 1701-1705: He studies law at Leipzig. But within a year, he becomes the director of the Leipzig opera, is composing for the two major churches in Leipzig, and soon becomes organist at the Neukirche (New Church).
  • Upwardly mobile, 1705-11: In 1705, Telemann becomes Kapellmeister to Count Erdmann II in Sorau (now in Poland), where he studies French music and begins visiting other European courts, in cities. Around 1708, he becomes Concert Master to Duke Johann Wilhelm of Saxe-Eisenach (J.S. Bach’s birthplace).
  • “Downwardly” mobile: By 1711, Telemann has tired of working in the courts, and successfully applies for the post of city director of music and Capellmeister of Frankfurt. He experiences a religious awakening.
  • Civic life, 1711-20: In Frankfurt, Telemann relishes civic music making with dedicated amateurs and professionals, reviving the Collegium musicum there for weekly public concerts. In addition he provides weekly music to the city's churches, teaches 6-8 schoolboys and supervises music instruction at the Latin School, and composes and performs music for public occasions. In 1714, he marries the 16-year-old daughter of the city clerk. They have eight sons and one daughter.
  • Publishing career: Telemann, a savvy businessman begins to publish his own work in 1715. From 1725 on, he successfully oversees every stage of publication, from engraving to printing to sales.
  • Full Slate, 1721-1738: Telemann becomes general music director for the city of Hamburg. The duties are like Frankfurt's but requiring more music. In 1722, in addition, he takes on the direction of the Collegium musicum and the Hamburg Opera at the Gänsemarkt (Goose Market), which he runs until it closes in 1737. By 1725, his marriage is in trouble and his wife runs up heavy gambling debts that he is forced to pay off. In 1737-38, Telemann spends eight months in Paris securing a 20-year publishing privilege in France, and prints more of his music.
  • Later Life, 1740-1767: In semi-retirement, Telemann devotes himself to writing theoretical treatises. He turns into an avid gardener. After the death of his son in 1755, he raises his grandson. At the age of 74 he begins to write sacred oratorios for fun. He remains mentally sharp until the end of his days.
Fun Facts
  • Not shy: We often lament how little information we have on famous composers. No problem with Telemann – he wrote three separate autobiographies in 1718, 1729, and 1740. There was also a biography written in 1744, which probably includes contributions from Telemann himself.
  • Multi-talented: Telemann had a life-long interest in poetry, and published books of poems as well as a satiric novel.
  • Professional courtesy: Telemann maintained close relationships with famous contemporaries. Telemann was the godfather to C.P.E. Bach, J.S. Bach’s most famous son. Handel and Pisendel sent him crates of exotic plants for his gardening hobby. He corresponded with C.P.E. Bach, Quantz, Benda, Graun, and Agricola.
  • Versatility: Was there an instrument that Telemann couldn’t play? Apparently not. By 1712, he advertised himself as being able to play the violin, organ, harpsichord, recorder, chalumeau (early clarinet), cello, and calchedon (lute), as well as being an accomplished baritone singer.
  • Highly rated: In 1722, Telemann was selected as the Cantor in Leipzig. Eventually, he negotiated a higher salary in Hamburg and turned down the offer. Leipzig had to settle for their third choice: J.S. Bach.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
  • Turn off the tap: Telemann is one of the most prolific composers in history. His catalogue boasts over 3,000 known works in virtually every genre (including more than 1,700 cantatas, of which we still have around 1,400). Although most of his best-known works are in the lighter, galant style, Telemann was a master of counterpoint, opera, church music, virtuoso solo writing. … You name it, he wrote it.
  • Program music: Telemann was rather inventive with his program music. Although not his most famous (or best) piece, his depiction of the 1720 Parisian stock market crash (‘La Bourse’) deserves honorable mention for creativity.
  • Where to start: Tafelmusik, is a set of concertos, all of which make it onto radio and live performance frequently. In fact, any of the concertos is a good starting point, along with the program music. The sonatas are also numerous and unfailingly good.
  • Religious music: Telemann’s setting of Der Tod Jesu (The Death of Jesus), an Easter passion piece is powerful. Choral groups may sample big and small cantatas for private and public use in the Harmonischer Gottesdienst (Music for the Lord's Service.) A secular oratorio, Die Donnerode, commemorates the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and is full of special effects as well as glorious music.
  • Opera/ Song: Of his many operas, the comic Der geduldige Socrates (The Patience of Socrates, 1721) is the one most Baroque fans have heard of – which is a long way from saying you'll find a performance of it, unless you're lucky. His serious opera, Orpheus (1726), a combinations of French tragédie en musique and Italian opera seria is also worth checking out. And Mozart wasn't the first to write a good singspiel (German musical theater show): Telemann wrote Don Quichotte (Don Quixote.) He also published lieder (folk song) collections, and was among the first to do so.
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