Published March 14, 2017
Ninth in our series of guest articles for Early Music Month
By Philip Serna
Lully is praised, Corelli has a name: Telemann alone is above all fame. — Johann Mattheson, 1740
Filled with worldwide celebrations, concerts, and other activities, 2017 is proving to be a landmark year for Georg Philipp Telemann — the 250th anniversary of his death. Today, however, is the day to celebrate his life with the anniversary of his birth: March 14, 1681.
Since the beginning of my long-term relationship with the viol, the presence of Telemann’s music and its influence on me have been pervasive and nearly omnipresent. As Polish culture and history grew in importance through my family life, Telemann’s connections to Poland became increasingly personal. Early in his career in 1705, Telemann was appointed Kapellmeister to the court of Count Erdmann II of Promnitz at Sorau (now Żary in modern Poland). While French and Italian composers were in vogue at court, Telemann was exposed to Polish oral musical traditions. While this appointment was to be short-lived, this influence can be felt in many of his instrumental works in which he often “clothed” the Polish style “in an Italian dress” — a claim he made in his 1718 autobiography. While Hamburg and Magdeburg are most associated with Telemann, he traveled widely to Berlin, as well as to Paris, where he absorbed French idioms exemplifying a cosmopolitan sensibility, representing a synthesis of numerous national styles.
While Telemann’s oeuvre is filled with more than 1,700 sacred and secular cantatas, hundreds of choral works, and nearly 50 operas, his output of instrumental music is nearly unparalleled, with approximately 125 orchestral suites, 125 concerti, 40 quartets, 130 trios, 145 works for keyboard, 80 works for one to four instruments, and nearly 100 solos.
Thanks to the rediscovery of his viola da gamba fantasias in 2014, his output of music, including for the viol, is unique in the mid-18th century. From his 12 ‘Paris’ quartets to his suites, sonatas, and concerti, and this expanded body of unaccompanied music, Telemann’s ability to wear so many different guises and to be such a transformative figure has never been more apparent. With 2017 being such a significant year for Telemann, it seemed fitting to want to combine several big ideas. TeleMannia grew out of an idea I had going back to 2002, when many ensembles came together around the world to perform Mozart’s Requiem as a defiant act of beauty in a world increasingly filled with hate and ugliness.
Combined with the “Bach in the Subways” model, my hope is that we can bring sublime and often underestimated works into the public consciousness to balance the ugliest parts of the human condition with the most sublime that humanity can achieve together. With a variety of ensembles and soloists across the United States and Canada — and even as far away as Russia — that have professional and amateur musicians sharing Telemann’s chamber music, viol solos, and these 1735 fantasias can only enhance the best of Early Music Month — a positive sense of community and purpose!
Phillip Serna teaches viola da gamba and double bass across the Chicago-area at Valparaiso University, North Central College, the Music Institute of Chicago, and the J.S. Bach Academy in Naperville. He is the music director of the Early Music outreach program Viols in Our Schools, and along with Enrique Vilaseco, co-sponsors Illinois’ first public-school period-instrument Baroque ensemble and viol consort at Adlai E. Stevenson High School.
During Early Music Month, Phillip can be heard performing Telemann’s complete viola da gamba fantasias (Telemannia.org — March 14 & March 21) and New Comma Baroque’s From Prussia with Love — Virtuosity at the Court of Frederick the Great (NewCommaBaroque.org — March 19).