TELEMANN – Les trésors cachés

Telemann transcends

When, in 1740, the theorist and composer Johann Mattheson (1681-1764) remarked that « Lully is esteemed, Corelli should be praised, but Telemann alone transcends the fame of all », he was echoing a sentiment commonly held not only in the Magdeburg master’s native Germany but doubtless throughout most of Western Europe as well. For Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was the eclectic cosmopolitan composer par excellence, and a master of the French and Italian national styles, the two most important of his day; but even in his earliest works, he was striving for a mélange of the very best of French, Italian, German and other elements, such as those derived from folk music. The result of this process is often referred to as the ‘mixed style’ or ‘taste’: «If one has the necessary discernment to choose the best from the styles of different nations, » wrote Johann Joachim Quantz in 1752, « a mixed style results that… could well be called the German style» and « displeases in neither Italy nor France, nor in other countries». In addition, the eclectic Telemann loved to import exotic elements from folk traditions as diverse as those of Scotland and Eastern Europe. All these qualities, and particularly Telemann’s skill in composing the typical genres of overture-suite and concerto, are most familiar from the influential Hamburg publications of the 1730s, especially the Musique de table (1733), where these two crucial forms rub shoulders and exchange styles and techniques with breathtaking fluency. But many of the manuscript works that Telemann composed before leaving Frankfurt for Hamburg in 1721 are also full of vibrant, imaginative music and often provide a foretaste of the 1730s. Our program offers a selection of these ‘hidden treasures’, taken mostly from this formative period in the composer’s career. That they are indeed treasures hopefully will at once be clear to the listener; and thanks to the fact that all are available in modern editions (all but one of the works presented here were recently published for the first time), and aided by these performances, they need no longer remain ‘hidden’ from the music-loving public.

Among Telemann’s instrumental genres preserved in manuscript sources, none has benefited from recent publishing activity more then the so-called ‘orchestral’ suites in his beloved French style. In a 1717 letter to Mattheson, Telemann famously declared «I am a great partisan of French music, I confess it! », and the three ouverture-suites selected for this disk from more than a hundred such works that survive, exemplify this passion. All are loosely modelled on the plan established by the German-speaking Lulliste imitators of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87), in which a French overture (a quick and usually fugal central section introduced and often concluded by slower, majestic music in dotted rhythm) is used to introduce a string of dance-related movements, many with descriptive French titles. In his 1718 autobiography, Telemann told his readers how he studied the French style at the court of the Francophile Count Erdmann II von Promnitz of Sorau (now Żary in Poland), his employer between 1705 and 1708: «I obtained the music of Lully, Campra, and other fine composers … studied it in greater depth, and devoted myself to it completely», he wrote, «not without some success». Telemann implied that he had composed roughly two hundred Ouvertüren between 1705 and the time of writing (1718) – a figure so huge that it is now thought to include all his suite-based compositions, not just his ‘orchestral’ suites.

Our programme begins with a flourish: the Overture in D major, one of the best and most distinctive of the composer’s early overture-suites (the earliest Darmstadt parts, prepared by circa 1723, probably postdate its actual composition), is in places almost as soloistic as his group concertos. Throughout this lengthy work, Telemann juxtaposes French and Italian elements with astonishing fluency, as befits the earliest master of that most typically German of Baroque instrumental forms – the Concertouverture, or concerted suite, a hybrid sub-genre in which concerto elements are introduced into the overture and some dances of the French-style suite. Yet it was important that composers should always remember that they were writing French suites and not virtuoso Italian concertos. Describing this hybrid form in 1740s, the theorist Johann Adolph Sceibe (1708-76) therefore cautioned them to exercise care and restraint in introducing concerto elements into their suites, recommending simple antiphonal contrast and textural variety over excessive figuration and flamboyant soloistic display. Since Scheibe probably based his principles on Telemann’s models, however, it is fitting that the present work combines these styles with exemplary Gallic good order and taste.

Turning to the music itself, the subtle tension between genres and styles is immediately apparent in the Ouverture, where the opening section in typical Gallic dotted rhythms is followed not by a simple fugato, but by a fully-fledged concerto movement based on the ritornello principal. Some of the movements (especially the Menuet ll, Entrée, and Passepied ll all for « French » wind trio, and the Canaries) are in an undiluted French style; others, however, are full of surprises. For instance, the Ouverture is linked physically to the Menuet l (where violins in octaves seem almost to anticipate the sound world touched on in Mozart’s Serenata Notturna, K239) by a sustained dominant-seventh chord; a treble recorder adds brilliance to the violins in the Loure; the light, often three-part, string scoring of the Furies provides a fresh Italianate perspective on an old Lullian favourite; the massive French Chaconne explores the octave doubling of oboes and violins; and a final Air : Sérieusement-Viste combines winds and strings in rich, six-part harmony.

The next two works in our program, the Concerto in C major and the Concerto in G major, reveal a very different facet of the composer: aficionado of the Italianate concerto. Telemann was, in fact, one of the very first German composers to have tried his hand at composing Venetian-style solo concertos, following their arrival there early in the eighteenth century; but this seems to have been a major activity during his period at Eisenach (1708-12), where he was first court Konzertmeister, then Kapellmeister, to Duke Johann Wilhelm of Saxe-Eisenach. Reflecting on this period in 1718, he wrote: ‘because I relish a change, I also tried my hand at [composing] concertos. On this point I must confess that they have never really come from the heart, although I have already written a considerable quantity of them’. Notwithstanding his reservations, a firm dislike of virtuosity for its own sake, and a lifelong passion for French music, Telemann made a major contribution to the early development of the concerto in Germany.

Although they follow the composer’s favourite four-movement plan, borrowed from the instrumental sonata, rather than the more familiar three-movement Venetian one, these two concertos are in other respects very different works. The G major concerto, composed by circa 1716 and surely one of the earliest solo concertos by any German composer, so impressed Telemann’s friend J.S. Bach that he modelled the second movement of his F-minor harpsichord concerto (BWV1056) on its opening Andante. Interestingly, Telemann’s solo part (marked ‘Hautbois vel Traversiere’) was intended primarily for oboe; but a secondary manuscript copy was soon made (circa 1717-22) for flute, doubtless to please the flute-playing Crown Prince Friedrich Ludwig at the Württemberg-Stuttgart court, so the work qualifies as both an oboe and a flute concerto! Unfortunately, owing to the damaged condition of the manuscript parts, much of the basso continuo and small portions of some string parts are illegible and have had to be editorially reconstructed. But the music is well worth the effort, and among the musical highlights are the lyrical solo cantilena of the opening Andante, the idiomatic solo writing and effective dialogue in the Vivace, the dramatic recitative-like quality of the Adagio (a striking feature of numerous other early Telemann concertos), and the rich five-part textures in the finale. The C-major concerto, on the other hand, features a trio-sonata concertino redolent of the Corellian concerto grosso and looks to Rome rather than to Venice for the Italian part of its inspiration. Yet this hybrid work has a strong French accent: its use of woodwind soloists owes a major debt to Lully and his disciples, while the influence of Gallic dance-music (the first movement is in Rondeau form and the third exploits Sarabande rhythm), aided by French mood indications, is paramount. The Darmstadt parts (copied circa 1726-30, probably somewhat later than the date of composition) are entitled ‘Concerto alla Francese’, and this work belongs to that sub-genre of those concertos, which Telemann boasted in his 1718 autobiography ‘smell of France’.

We conclude our program with two sharply contrasting overture-suites. The Overture in E-minor, though the earlier and more austere of the two, actually dates from the early 1720s and therefore a comparatively late work among Telemann’s contributions to that genre. Here he returns to the older French practice of extracting the various movements from stage works, some probably taken from his own (lost) Hamburg opera, Omphale (1724). But there is a more subtle French undertone to this suite: in a coup de maître, Telemann closely models three of its movements (Bourrée, Les Jeux and Les Magiciens) on music from the much earlier, eponymous opera – Omphale (1701) – by the French composer André Cardinale Destouches (1672-1749). In Telemann’s case, imitation truly was the sincerest form of flattery, because this was not the only occasion on which the German borrowed from the Frenchman. This whole work’s somewhat sombre quality is immediately apparent from the dark-hued opening bars of the Ouverture, its four-square fugal subject harking back to his earliest essays in the French style, and persists through the composite Les Magiciens to the violinistic (and thoroughly French) tirades in the Menuet en Rondeau. Only the little G-major Pastorelle provides a rare moment of light relief, its galant simplicity assisted by a rustic drone bass.

The Overture in Eb major is one of only three surviving works from a set of six published by the composer under the title Six Ouvertures à 4 ou 6. Dessus, Hautcontre, Taille, Basse et 2 Cors ad libitum, at Hamburg in 1736, both exemplars having been lost in 1945. It is the latest composition on this disk, and displays all the maturity, motific variety, and expansive use of binary-form (there are clear signs of proto-‘sonata form’) that characterizes his dance music of the 1730s in general and the three Musique de table overture-suites in particular; but this work is conceived on a much smaller scale and eschews their stunning concertante writing. Like many of his strings-based suites, some of which may have been composed as occasional, background or ‘table music’ and executed by courtly or bourgeois orchestral or even solo players, the works in his 1736 publication are playable by a small ensemble of strings and continuo alone: the horn parts, truly ‘ad libitum’, have a colouristic rather then a soloistic role and were possibly added later. Nevertheless, their presence acknowledged the popularity of hunting among Telemann’s clientèle and, to the commercially-aware composer, was doubtless intended to boost the collection’s appeal – and his sales! In the sophisticated Ouverture, a fine, vivacious fugal section is framed by outer sections whose traditionally saccadic rhythms are softened by gentler music and an implied drone bass; a device used to good effect later in the strings-only second Menuet; and so galante are the following movements from the transparent three-part scoring of Menuet l to the sighing thirds in the Air, that even Les Gladiateurs and Les Querelleurs sound playful rather than belligerent.

© Ian Payne, MMVII Leicester, England