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Telemann: The Marathon Man

Remarkable and curious facts on the 250th anniversary of Georg Philipp Telemann's death.

Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann spent 46 years as Director of Music of Hamburg, from his appointment in 1721 until his death in 1767. In what was almost half a century, Telemann composed literally thousands of works, putting them on in the city’s opera house and its various large churches, and thus acting as the leading light in a golden age of Hamburg music history.


Telemann ­­was born in Magdeburg in 1681. Together with George Frederick Handel (born in Halle in 1685­) and Johann Sebastian Bach (born in Eisenach in 1685), with whom he became close friends, he represents a kind of Saxon Trinity in the German Baroque tradition.

However, there were salient differences between the three composers: Handel worked principally at court and composed operas, so that his style tends to be marked by a certain pomp and pathos. Bach on the other hand wrote music »to the glory of God alone«, concentrating his attention on sacred choral works and on strict forms like the fugue.

Telemann, in clear contrast, was a man of the bourgeoisie: a versatile jack-of-all-trades who wrote for the church and the stage, for official state ceremonies as well as for private music lovers.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach

The Saxon Trinity: together with Bach and Handel, Georg Philipp Telemann was one of the most important composers of his time.


Telemann could play a wealth of different instruments, including the piano, the organ, the double bass, the flute, the oboe and the bass trombone. He wrote his first opera when he was only twelve years old.

This seems all the more remarkable when we learn that his entire musical education consisted of just two weeks of piano lessons, and that his parents took a very critical view of his ambitions. On one occasion, his mother even confiscated all his instruments.

Bowing to parental wishes, Telemann registered to study law – in Leipzig, the city of music, it goes without saying. But it wasn’t long before his flatmate stumbled on some of his psalm settings quite by chance and showed them to Bach, at that time Cantor of St Thomas’s in Leipzig; Bach in turn performed them at the next service, where the city mayor happened to be amongst the congregation, and this was Telemann’s springboard to a dazzling career as a composer.

Thomaskirche Leipzig
Thomaskirche Leipzig

Two weeks of piano lessons, and some 3,600 compositions: Telemann was supposed to study law in Leipzig, but he hadn’t been there long before his first works were being performed in the city’s main church.


With an oeuvre of more than 3,600 works to his name, Telemann was one of the most productive composers of all time. He wrote over twice as many compositions as Bach and Handel together! His position in Hamburg required him to perform new music every Sunday in one of the city’s five principal churches; the outcome was a total of some 1,750 sacred cantatas (only 200 survive from Bach’s pen) – some of them written in the space of an hour if necessary. Then there are settings of the Passion – a new one for every year in office – alternating between the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He also composed 50 operas as opposed to Handel’s 40, and over a thousand sonatas, symphonies and festive pieces for state visits or municipal anniversaries

Paradoxically, Telemann’s diligence proved his undoing after his death: in the 19th century the idea became established of the artist as a genius who wrested individual works from a struggle with Fate. Adherents of this approach were obviously suspicious of a composer as prolific as Telemann. In the meantime, scholars take a more differentiated view and recognise the high quality of his music.

Partitur von Telemanns »Hamburger Ebb' und Fluth«
  • 3,600 works in total
  • 1,750 sacred cantatas
  • 46 Passions
  • 50 operas
  • over 1,000 sonatas, symphonies and festive pieces


The metropolis of Hamburg numbered 75,000 inhabitants in Telemann’s day, but it didn’t have a real concert hall: musical performances took place in taverns or in the drill hall of the local militia. But the city did possess Germany’s first public opera house with space for no fewer than 2,000 people and all manner of spectacular stage effects.

Under Telemann’s direction the Hamburg State Opera, which was in dire financial straits, enjoyed one last heyday. He got off to a good start with a production of his own opera »The Patient Socrates«: the story goes that the great philosopher is obliged to take a second wife by a new law to encourage population growth. But it’s not long before the two ladies are at each other’s throats, doubtless delighting the audiences of the day by hurling juicy insults to and fro. In the end, Xantippe files for divorce, and peace returns to Socrates’s household.

Hamburg’s Gänsemarkt Opera was the first public theatre in the German-speaking countries, as opposed to the wealth of theatres at princely and royal courts. Telemann was director of the opera house from 1722 to 1738, and wrote a good 20 operas for it. Later, the Hamburg National Theatre was built on the site, where the playwright Lessing became the manager and dramaturg in 1767.

Karrengaul, Neidhammel, Klapperbüchse, Fledermausgesicht!

»The Patient Socrates«


One of Telemann’s duties as the city’s Director of Music was to compose and perform large-scale pieces for festive occasions. And it speaks for his ambition, his cultural and political instinct and not least his sense of patriotism that he didn’t carry out such assignments half-heartedly on the side, but took special trouble over them.

In 1745, for example, he wrote a piece for 12 trumpets, 12 horns and 3 timpani to accompany a fireworks display marking the coronation of Emperor Franz I. Local paper »Der Hamburger Relations-Courier« reported proudly that this was »fine music« that was performed on the Binnenalster lake »resplendently illuminated by several thousand lamps«.

And at the grand old age of 84, Telemann was still »delighted« to write the music for the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce. However, his age prompted him to request that the final rehearsal be held at his house in Hohe Bleichen, which »offered space for the musicians and another 18 to 20 people«.

Insatiable thirst for hyacinths and tulips, and avidity for buttercups and especially anemones


Everyone needs a hobby, and this applied to Telemann – though one can’t help but wonder where he found the time! The composer was a passionate collector of flowers and plants, and in 1742 he produced a catalogue listing a wealth of plants; we find many common-or-garden varieties here, but a number of exotic species as well.

In order to quench his »insatiable thirst for hyacinths and tulips, and avidity for buttercups and especially anemones«, Telemann systematically asked friends all over Europe to send him seeds and tubers.

And his colleague Handel actually sent him a whole box from London with an accompanying letter: »If your love of exotic plants and the like has the power to lengthen your days, I am very happy indeed to make a contribution. Connoisseurs of these plants assure me that they are well-chosen and appealing in their rarity. I am sending you the best plants to be found anywhere in England!«

If your love of exotic plants and the like has the power to lengthen your days, I am very happy indeed to make a contribution. I am sending you the best plants to be found anywhere in England!

Georg Frederick Handel


Georg Philipp Telemann

Telemann’s passion for his work and his garden may have been due in part to one or two private misfortunes. His first wife died in childbirth, while the second Mrs Telemann cheated on him with a Swedish army officer and gambled away huge amounts at the card tables; this caused the composer to leave her.

He had a particularly good relationship, on the other hand, with his grandson Georg Michael, who supported him in later years as his secretary. He was also fond of a domestic pet to whom he dedicated a piece of »Funeral Music for an Artistic Canary«, after the bird had died »to the utmost chagrin of its owner«.

Telemann himself died of pneumonia on 25 June 1767 and was buried in the cemetery of the Johanneum school on the site where the Rathausmarkt now stands. There is now a memorial plaque to this effect on the left of the entrance to the Rathaus.

Telemann’s direct musical legacy was taken up by his famous godson: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach took over not only Telemann’s second Christian name, but also inherited the office of Hamburg’s »Director musices«.

Text: Clemens Matuschek, last updated: 19 July 2017

Elbphilharmonie Magazin / Ausgabe 3

This is an article from the Elbphilharmonie Magazine (issue 3/2017, German only) which is published three times per year.

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