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Georg Phillip Telemann looking suave as usual. CBC Music, "Revival! The forgotten works of Georg Philipp Telemann." Accessed June 24, 2017.

Here's a little quiz:

  1. Who was widely regarded by his contemporaries as the most important German composer of the early eighteenth century ?

  2. When J.S. Bach applied to be cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, who was the council's first choice among the six applicants?

  3. Who is considered the most prolific composer in history, with over 3,000 known works to his name?

If you answered "Georg Philipp Telemann" to all of the above, you are correct! 2017 is a big anniversary year for Telemann, marking 250 years since his death on June 25, 1767. So it seems fitting to shine some light on this composer who was celebrated during his lifetime, only to be later overshadowed by the reputation of J.S. Bach. (Luckily there were no hard feelings between Bach and Telemann regarding the competition for the job in Leipzig. The two were good friends, and Bach asked Telemann to be godfather to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Telemann didn't really want the job in Leipzig anyway; he used the job offer as leverage to negotiate a higher salary from the city of Hamburg, where he was working at the time.)

Almost completely self-taught as a composer, Telemann worked in nearly every genre in existence at the time. He was also a theorist, author, and multi-instrumentalist who could play recorder, violin, keyboard instruments, flute, oboe, chalumeau, viola da gamba, double bass, and bass trombone, yet there were no musicians in his immediate family. In fact, his family was so intent upon steering him away from a career in music that while he was at university in Leipzig studying law, he tried to hide his scores from his fellow students. But, one of them found a psalm setting by Telemann hidden away somewhere, and before long it was performed at the Thomaskirche! With nothing left to hide, Telemann was hired by the city of Leipzig to write church music, founded a student collegium, and launched his career as an opera composer.

As a composer, Telemann was a trendsetter: he fused the styles of Germany, Poland, France, and Italy into his own special blend. He pioneered the idea of intellectual property by pursuing exclusive publication rights to his own music. His music was widely distributed, and composers like Handel and Bach owned copies of his works.

Telemann has always struck me as one of those good-humored people whose amount of energy surpasses the number of hours in the day, even though his personal life was far from happy. His first wife died after only a few months of marriage, and his second wife ran up gambling debts in excess of Telemann's yearly income, had an affair, and finally left him. Telemann's financial troubles were eased by friends who engaged in some early crowdfunding by organizing a collection to assist him.

Telemann remained mentally sharp into his eighties, though he suffered from worsening eyesight and weakness in his legs. After his death from a chest ailment, a Hamburg newspaper stated, “his name is his eulogy.”

Enjoy this performance of Telemann's Banquet Music, featuring Musica Antiqua Köln!