A prolific composer.
“How could I possibly remember all that I have written for string or wind instruments” noted Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) in his third autobiography, published in 1740. Mere pleasantry? Perhaps. But to this day it is still difficult to compile a comprehensive works list for this prolific composer. Telemann wrote at least 135 concertos: more than sixty for solo instrument and at least forty for two solo instruments. Of the total number, the composer wrote twenty or so for transverse flute and about a dozen for the recorder.
The recorder has been a very popular instrument since the beginning of the Renaissance. Indeed the oldest extant instrumental examples date from the end of the 14th century. Despite a wide variety of makers, Renaissance recorders are remarkably homogenous in shape. Made of a single piece (or sometimes two pieces), the instrument can be easily identified by its cylindrical form, large finger holes and flared bottom end.
From the beginning of the 16th century, the recorder was part of an assortment of instruments, including the chalumeau, cornetto, trumpet, sackbut and krummhorn, that had to be mastered by the professional wind player. During the period wind musicians, usually organized into guilds, were hired by and worked for city states.
With the rise in humanist thinking came the practice of music as a required accomplishment for persons of quality. The invention of music printing in the first years of the 16th century lead to the accessibility and dissemination of a rich vocal and instrumental repertoire. Furthermore the production of a large number of method books for a variety of instruments made the acquisition of basic musical skills affordable to individuals beyond the noble class. Some of these latter tomes even revealed performance secrets hitherto closely guarded by professional musicians. Thus an immense market of amateur musicians began to develop.
The advent of the Baroque style placed new musical demands on instrument makers now charged with finding solutions to the growing technical inadequacies of older instruments. During the Baroque period wind and woodwind instruments underwent the biggest number of technical changes.
Specialists now consider that the first Baroque recorders likely came from France; made by the workshops of the Hotteterre, a celebrated family of makers and musicians. The few surviving documents from the period, which must be treated with caution, more precisely attribute improvements made to the instrument of around 1670 to Jean-François Hotteterre (active 1628-1692).
The Baroque recorder is comprised of three sections: the mouth piece, the central body and a small adjustable bottom section with a single hole. The finger hole bores are slightly conical, which improves the quality of sound and clarity of action in the higher register.
Throughout the 17th and well into the 18th century, the recorder remained popular with amateur musicians to whom the majority of publications of solo chamber and even concertos were dedicated. As for the professional musicians, all orchestral oboists were required to play recorder.
The oldest illustrations of the transverse flute appear in illuminations and ivories dating from the 10th and 11th centuries. Like the Renaissance recorder, the flute was made in one or two sections with cylindrical finger holes. Unlike other wind instrument of the period which shared a common fingering system, however, that of the flute was unique. Contrary to the almost immediate popularity of the recorder, it was not until 1530 that the flute began to gain favour among amateur musicians.
As with the recorder and the oboe, it was the Hotteterre family that developed (around 1670-1680) a new type of flute comprised of three sections with conically bored finger holes. A key mechanism attached to the underside of the instrument facilitated the playing of D sharp (for the flute in D). Around 1720 another modification appeared: the central body with six holes was divided into two pieces with three holes each. The upper part could be changed with another piece of variable length (called the corps de rechange) which permitted the raising or lowering the base key of the instrument. In the Baroque period tuning varied not only from country to country but also from one city to another and even among instrumental groups playing within the same city. It is not surprising therefore to find that the base keys of surviving period instruments range from A=350 Hz to A=500 Hz.
From 1710-1720, as the taste of the amateur began to change, the transverse flute became more and more popular. Despite the fact that recorder method books continued to be published until 1780, composers of the new galant and classical styles favoured the flute. The immense prestige which Frederick the Great (1712-1786), an accomplished player, brought to the flute undoubtedly helped to highlight the instrument’s new-found appeal.
During the decade 1710-1720, use of the French transverse flute became wide spread in Germany. The two Concerti Grossi on tonight’s programme, written in 1712 and 1721 respectively, serve to illustrate the fact that Telemann was among the first German musicians to compose for the instrument.
The Concerto in B Flat for two recorders dates from the same period. A recorder player himself Telemann treats the instrument in a virtuoso manner. He playfully explores all of the technical and expressive possibilities of the recorder and even dares to explore its upper range. The Concerto in F Major also provides a fine example of virtuoso writing.
Fond of playing with the juxtaposition of sonorities, Telemann appears to take pleasure in exploring various compositional devices in his concertos for two solo instruments. He either treats instruments of the same family in dialogue fashion or he uses surprising combinations of sonorities as in the Concerto in E Minor for transverse flute and recorder or the Concerto in A Minor for recorder and viola da gamba (composed around 1725-1735).
In the Concerti grossi in B Minor and E Minor two transverse flutes and a violin (or bassoon) — the three solo instruments — form the concertino group, which at the time usually consisted only of string instruments.
Telemann eschews the three movement (fast-slow-fast) form of the Vivaldian concerto in favour of the four section model (slow-fast-slow-fast) of the sonata da chiesa. The music is a fusion of the elegant and lucid French style with the lively virtuostic Italian style to which Telemann adds a touch of his own favourite — popular Polish music.
If Telemann’s style appears eclectic it is perhaps because he was trying to appeal to a broad spectrum of musical tastes ranging from those of the established aristocracy to those of the up-and-coming bourgeoisie. Even today there is a little something to please everyone in Telemann’s music.