Angèle Dubeau, O.C., C.Q., O.M., DFA has pursued a career as a classical musician for over 40 years and has played in as many countries, always with the same passion, zest and generosity. Beyond her [...]
They spoke about it
Georg Philipp Telemann (Magdeburg, 1681 – Hamburg, 1767) is among the most prolific German composers of the 18th century. His output — which numbers almost 6,000 works of which many are unfortunately lost — consists of 12 series of cantatas for the 52 Sundays of the year, about 100 oratorios, 44 passions, more than 600 French overtures, 40 operas and numerous concerti, orchestral suites, quartets and sonatas.
This spectacular productivity can be explained in part by the composer’s long life; born four years before J.S. Bach at the height of the baroque, he died aged 86, just as Haydn was establishing the guidelines of the classical period. Telemann, who was a child prodigy, received his first music lessons early in his life.
His parents were descendants of a host of Lutheran pastors and preferred, however, that he pursue a brilliant university career. Even though he learned the violin, flute and harpsichord, he remained hostile to the idea of composition classes: “Already I had the most joyous of music trotting in my head,” he later wrote. “After a calvary of fifteen days, I left my teacher. And since then I have not learned a thing as far as music is concerned.” This categoric affirmation does not, however, paint a true picture since in the years that followed the young musician discovered both the French and Italian styles which he quickly integrated into his style.
Self-taught, Telemann composed his first opera when he was 12. Instead of helping him, this success won him the fury of his mother. “Ah, what a storm I brought upon myself with my opera! The enemies of music gathered to see my mother and convince her that I would become a charlatan, a tightrope walker… if music was not forbidden me. No sooner said than done: my instruments, my notes were taken away, and with them half my life.” In 1701, his mother, believing that a career in music lacked social prestige, enrolled him in law at Leipzig university. Telemann confounded his mother’s plans. During his five years at the university, he found time to establish a student orchestra, the Collegium musicum, to compose numerous cantatas for the Saint Thomas Church, to play the organ at the Saint Matthew Church, and yet also pass his law exams with brio. With his legal studies behind him, Telemann was finally free to devote himself to music.
Eager to experiment and to undertake new challenges, he travelled widely during the first years of his career. In 1704 he accepted the post of Kapellmeister to Count von Promnitz at Sorau. As the court loved French music, the composer discovered hordes of scores by Lully and Campra. Fascinated, Telemann wanted to master this style and composed more than 200 French overtures in less than two years. But already in 1708, he had left for the court of Eisenach where he became “master of concerts” and met Johann Sebastian Bach. The two musicians, who often played together, became great friends to the point where, in 1714, Telemann became the godfather to Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel.
It was only in 1721 that Telemann’s life became more stable. It was then that the city of Hamburg welcomed him as music director, cantor of the Johanneum and director of the Opera. Despite a crushing schedule — he had to supervise the musical activities of the city’s five great churches, compose music for grand occasions, as well as teach at two schools — he established a new Collegium musicum to play his music. He also set up a music journal, regularly sent quantities of Tafelmusik (table music) to the court of Eisenach, sent cantatas and oratorios to Frankfurt and operas to Bayreuth, notated and published his compositions.
This prodigious vitality allowed him to diffuse his works throughout Germany, then abroad. In addition, the naturalness of his music, principally designed to appeal to the tastes of the music-loving bourgeoisie who attended concerts, assured him an international reputation. He thus became the promoter of a new genre which foreshadows the language of classicism.
Twelve Fantasias for Violin without Bass
In the midst of this hectic activity in Hamburg, Telemann published in 1735 the Twelve Fantasias for Violin without Bass. The volume — a genuine synthesis of the master’s knowledge — offers a remarkable stylistic variety, exhibiting his perfect knowledge of the musical genres of the early 18th century. The Fantasias, moreover, are particular in that they are written for solo violin, something rare in baroque music, which almost always contained a continuo part.
Telemann was perhaps seduced by the solitary nature of the Suites for solo cello and the Sonatas and partitas for solo violin of his friend, J.S. Bach, and so decided to experiment with the genre himself. By omitting the basso continuo, the difficulty of writing for an instrument which can only emit a single sound at a time (or two as in the case of double strings) lies in the creation of a harmonic structure necessary to express the melody.
Telemann, an accomplished violinist, knew his instrument intimately. It explains how he managed to give the instrument such a full sound to the point that all accompaniment becomes superfluous. To achieve this, the violin simulates various musical partis according to the ancient technique called “luthé.” This technique, derived from the lute, consists of “breaking” the melody by making it alternate in different registers.
In the Seventh Fantasia, for example, three low notes interrupt the melody in the high register. The difference in sonority obtained both by the changes of string and the height of pitch thus suggests the intervention of numerous instrumental parts. Another frequently used violin technique is that of “double strings,” that is to say two strings played at the same time. Ocassionally however, as in the case of the Allegro from the Second Fantasia, the score calls for three notes to be played simultaneously, which is technically impossible (even though baroque period instruments had less convex bridges than today’s, they still do not allow three notes to be played simultaneously). In writing in such a manner, the composer wishes the instrumentalist to evoke the simultaneous nature of the sounds by playing the chords in arpeggio or by cutting short the value of certain notes so as to ensure the continuity of the principal melody.
Telemann thus uses a “latent” polyphony, leaving to the listener the task of reconstituting the voice-leading that the violin cannot create. This method of evoking these effects became popular in the baroque period. Karl Geiringer, using it as an analogy, wrote that in those days, “the walls of houses were decorated with paintings that simulated the perspectives of vast colonnades and well-ordered gardens.
These embellishments require an inner vision, just as polyphony and its implied harmonic texture require the collaboration of an inner ear.” During the years the Fantasias for Violin were composed, rigorous counterpoint was falling out of favor, and was giving way to a pre-eminence of the melodic line. It explains why the numerous imitation pieces in this volume reveal a rather free counterpoint. In the first movement of the Fifth Fantasia, the alternating Allegro and Presto well illustrate the coexistence of old and new tendencies, as virtuoso elements alternate with fugue passages.
Telemann — typical example of baroque musical cosmopolitanism — enjoyed drawing from the vast array of stylistic genres available to him. Thus, fascinated by the court composers of Louis XIV, he began his twelth Fantasia with a French overture, easily recognizable by its pointed and incisive rhythm. In the same manner he makes his Fourth Fantasia a veritable Italian concerto, with a first movement characterised by a firm rhythm, a Grave reduced to an interlude and a final gracious Allegro in triple time. In the same vein, the Sixth Fantasia structurally resembles an Italian church sonata, in the manner of Corelli, with a succession of movements following the slow-fast-slow-fast outline, in which the second movement is, as it should be, a fugue. A unique feature of the last movement is the audacious opposition of the major and minor modes, in E, which anticipates the classical style.
The evolution towards classicism is also demonstrated in the structural organization of the instrumental suites. Although the general structure of a suite is based upon the alternation of stylized dances, the structure of each of the pieces is regulated by a binary form, that is to say by a division in two parts demarcated by repeats.
A great many pieces in the Twelve Fantasias are precisely written in binary form, the principle of repeats and the division into two distinct sections assuring a great clarity in the development of ideas. Occasionally, as in the Ninth Fantasia for example, each movement utilizes, in the manner of a suite, a dance rhythm: a sicilienne, a bourée and a gigue. Due to the pre-eminence of the melodic line, to the clarity of its structures and its expressive charm, the Twelve Fantasias for Violin without Bass by Telemann are in the spirit of the galant style. Conversely the search for polyphony and the imitation of national styles bear witness to a certain attachment to the language of the baroque.
The Twelve Fantasias therefore should be seen as a pivotal work, representative of the musical transition that took place during the composer’s life. Telemann, who created such a colossal opus, was a major contributor to the changing musical language of 18th century Europe. His ease of invention and execution in part explains his spontaneous and flowing style, which opposed the ebbing complexity of the baroque, and doubtless explains the immense popularity he enjoyed during his lifetime.
Considered the foremost musician of his time, he even eclipsed Johann-Sebastian Bach, whose genius, though masterful, was too closely linked to a past art. In searching to unite all genres, Telemann contributed to the advent of an international style and so permitted the evolution of music towards classicism.
© Sylvain Caron
Translation: Richard Turp