Who is Telemann?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 October 2019
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Born in Magdeburg, Germany in 1681, Georg Phillipp Telemann was a self-taught Baroque composer. More famous than Johann Sebastian Bach when they were both alive, Telemann was also a contemporary of Antonio Vivaldi and a friend of George Frideric Handel. Telemann is sometimes called the most prolific composer of all times, being credited with over 800 extant works. He may have written more than 3000 compositions; but many of these have been lost.

Telemann’s father died in 1685, and he was raised by his mother. By age 12, he had composed his first opera, and in response, his mother confiscated his musical instruments and sent him to a new school to try to dissuade him from a career in music. The plan backfired because Telemann’s talent was appreciated by the school superintendent, and he was allowed to continue to pursue his musical studies, albeit on his own.

Telemann proceeded on to the Gymnasium and continued his self-tuition in music, learning to play instruments in the woodwind, brass, and string family, including recorder, violin, flute, and trombone. Enrolling at Leipzig University with the intent of studying law, his services as a composer were soon commissioned for that city’s churches, and his music career began to take off.


Telemann founded a Collegium Musicum to perform his music, and the following year, be became director of the city’s opera house and a church cantor, with his success in opera causing some bitterness in Johann Kuhnau, director of music for Leipzig. Telemann moved on in 1705, taking the position of Kapellmeister in Sorau where he stayed two years and composed primarily suites and overtures. After several other moves, he was appointed as lead singer in the court of Eisenach, where he met Johann Sebastian Bach.

In 1721, Telemann was appointed to the position that he would hold for the rest of his career: he became musical director of the five main churches in the city of Hamburg. He wrote two cantatas a week and other sacred music, taught music theory and singing, directing the local collegium musicum, and—for a time—also directing the local opera house. Telemann applied for Kuhnau’s position in Leipzig when it became vacant, and was offered the position, but refused it, instead turning the offer to his advantage by using it to gain a pay raise in Hamburg.

Around 1740, Telemann’s interests turned toward theory, with a corresponding decline in his composition, but he still wrote oratorios during this period. The interest in Telemann’s work declined after his death, but a critical edition of his work in the 1950s spurred a reawakening of interest, and his works are now commonly played and recorded. Suite in A Minor for Recorder, Strings, and Basso Continuo and Viola Concerto in G Major are among his best-known works.


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