Georg Philipp Telemann: Vita e Opera del piu prolifico compositore del baroco tedesco

Cover of Gabriele Formenti Book on Telemann in Italian

Gabriele Formenti
XII+340pp. €37
ISBN 978-88-6540-267-2

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One is always rather delighted to see the spotlight turned on the composer who is (for good or bad) in the Guinness Book of Records under the heading “Most Prolific Composer”! Thus it follows, only the brave and bold dip into this monumental oeuvre and come out with a half-decent grasp of the scope and spectrum of these numerous works all neatly classified with their TVWV and TWV numbers; some are simply bedazzled by the scale of things and throw in the towel! So we salute Gabriele Formenti for even attempting this formidable and daunting task!

Perhaps moving in the inspired, insightful and studious footsteps of Steven Zohn’s most excellent 2008 “Music for a Mixed Taste”, Gabriele Formenti, (also a baroque flautist) has assembled a veritable feast of useful quotes and notable musical examples.

The Telemann autobiographic chapters are well selected and cover the salient events, with the images being well chosen to aid the reader; rather like the 1980s hardback pocket pictorial biography by Walter Siegmund-Schultze. Visually, this study is well supplied, and it must be said the extremely diligent work cross-referencing, branching out into some fascinating musical associations and cleverly made observations do yield some musicological fruits to gaze at! Especially the Bach-Telemann links, some I was not aware of. Bravo!

The exploration of Telemann’s instrumental works is overall very neatly done with some very good observations, through the various phases and blendings of the “mixed taste” and the section on Corelli’s Op. 5 is particularly fine! The highly original graph regarding the distribution of instruments found in the Getreue Music-Meister (p 169) is a very clever presentation of the information! Nice, too, to see a “real“ image of a Calchedon from a Polish museum. It is mentioned in some Telemann cantatas, and elsewhere along with mandora, pandora-type  instruments. Formenti ought to have noticed, though, that the wind quintets are now classified in TWV44, thus what used to be “La Chasse” TWV55: F9 is now TWV44:10.

Next Formenti tackles the multifarious choral works, both scared and secular, each with their own specific genres. Thanks to a variety of recording projects, the cantata cycles are slowly revealing their treasures (for example, a complete “French cycle” is underway on the cpo label). 

Considerable use might have been made of Siegbert Rampe’s 2007 book Georg Philipp Telemann und seine Zeit and even the splendid earlier book by Eckart Klessmann, which has some amazing chapters especially towards the end.

The operas are dealt with quite well, although the author seems unaware that the secular arias “of unknown origin” are, in fact, from Telemann’s Germanicus

Moving onto the Passions, which for Hamburg total 46 individual settings, with 22 extant, plus the Danziger Choral-Passion of 1754 (TVWV5:53) which used the Mathew 1750 for the overall structure of its actual sung insertions. In this section of the study, Formenti relies on Jason B. Grant’s 2005 examination of the narrative style and its changes through the following years, dividing the Passions into three groups (1722-36, 1737-54, and 1755-67). The various settings seem to have been correctly assessed and the two known times that parodies, or borrowings from a previous Passion’s layout were used, have been identified. It is hard not to stress enough the truly incredible diversity here, and the sheer drama and emotively charged pathos evoked in increasingly Enlightenment style. Some of the later Passions display astounding depictions with extremely vivid and often visceral music. Sadly, in the catalogue listings at the end of this study some dreadful errors have crept in, e.g. whilst compiling the list of Passions, and given several times: “Ein Loemmlein geht und traegt die Schuld”. Good to see the Mark 1755 counted here, a fairly recent discovery made in Krakow.

To round off the vocal section, the impressive stream of works from the later years, the truly extraordinary cluster of late passion-oratorios! When Telemann seemed to gain a tremendous second wind of creative energy, and produced some real masterpieces. It is very good to focus on the 1759 setting of Klopsctock’s Der Messias, whose poetry has such an angular, awkward rhythm and flow, that it is quite amazing that Telemann managed to extract such a clever and smooth melodiousness, delivering impactful declamatory moments. Sadly, another work from this same poet in triumphant Easter vein has been lost!

In my opinion, it was an oversight not to include anything from the deeply impressive and moving Der Tod Jeu of 1755, which – although overshadowed later by Graun’s setting – clearly shows the enlightened evolution of this genre.

Alas, I do feel duty-bound to point out some printing errors (particularly in the titles of German works – was a native speaker ever asked to proofread the volume?) but also in Italian, e. g., “Il Gardellino”. As far as that extensive catalogue goes, there are numerous oversights: cantatas published by primalamusica.com for which I supplied translations go unnoted, as do Dr Ian Payne’s excellent Severinus Press editions of literally dozens of ouverture suites and concertos. Similarly, there is no indication that some of the large-scale church cantatas are based on the second series of the Harmonischer Gottesdienst, a perfect example of Telemann making the best use of his own material (where others clearly felt able to help themselves!)

In summation, this is a most admirable, valiant attempt to encompass the vast volumes of music produced by one of the most fluent and versatile masters of the age, a protean polymath, who embraced every aspect with all his artistic abilities leaving us a prolific legacy to examine, enjoy and contemplate. Formenti is perhaps more at home in the instrumental details, and this section is filled with many interesting observations. 

All in all, despite the odd errata, this is a commendable monograph (in Italian), which may prove to be a stepping-stone for some, stimulating them to pick up an edition or recording and explore Telemann’s vast oeuvre further. 

David Bellinger

This review was rather savagely edited in the interests of space. You can read the original version HERE.