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Telemann’s output was so vast that one may well wonder how on earth 135 pages of dictionary entries, constituting less than half of this book, could possibly suffice. Steven Zohn (Laura Carnell Professor of Music History at Temple University, Philadelphia) explains his approach in selecting these entries, admitting that he ‘can only begin to suggest something of the fullness of Telemann’s life and the richness of his musical legacy. Deciding who and what to include presented a special challenge … I have chosen ... only people with close connections to him’ (even then, not everyone), while ‘many noteworthy pieces [are discussed] in the context of published collections, coherent groups of works and genres.’ There is also room for important scholars ‘who have had an important impact on the field of Telemann studies.’ This compendium should be specially welcomed because the number of books, articles, etc on Telemann has not matched the great increase in performances and recordings of the last 50 years.

In addition to the expected entries for concerto, overture-suite, operas, oratorios, etc. there are many less predictable subjects. Funeral music is one – ‘from a modest remembrance of a pet canary to elaborate tributes for mayors and monarchs – and nearly everything in between.’ The entry for Gardening makes me wonder: how did such a superhumanly prolific composer, also active as music director, teacher, multi-instrumentalist, theoretician and pioneering self-publisher, find time for a hobby, the pursuit of his passionate interest in acquiring many rare plants from all over Europe? Admittedly, by the 1740s he was winding up his publishing business and abandoning composition in some genres, but his delight in horticulture dates from Book reviews

Looking for a new lockdown read? We review the latest books on composers and their works possibly as early as the 1720s. The doctor and geologist Karl Gottfried Zimmermann counted Telemann’s garden (‘no modest patch of greenery’ – Zohn) among the most significant in 18th-century Hamburg.

Unlike Handel’s Messiah, Telemann’s Der Messias is no oratorio but rather a setting of excerpts from a Klopstock epic poem. The intermezzo Pimpinone is an excellent example of Telemann’s ‘comedic flair’. In one aria (‘really a trio for one singer’) the title- character portrays two wives complaining about their husbands, singing the women’s parts in falsetto and narrating in his natural bass voice.

Zohn justifiably describes the secular cantata Ino as ‘one of the outstanding masterpieces of Telemann’s old age’. According to most writers Telemann composed it in 1765, when he was 84, but our meticulous author prefers the less certain ‘1765 or earlier’. (Similarly, the lazy perpetuation of ‘about 600 overture- suites’ derives, according to Zohn, from a misinterpretation of Telemann’s own words.) Any readers prompted to hear Ino for the first time should find their appreciation of Telemann delightfully enhanced. Zohn writes: ‘the concluding Tönt in meinem Lobgesang is, rather astonishingly, in the early classical style associated with Christoph Willibald Gluck and Joseph Haydn.’

The entry for Harmoniemusik reveals the possibly surprising fact that Telemann composed some of the earliest known music for wind band. Equally surprising (to me at least) is the reference to six string quintets for two violins, two violas and continuo, mentioned under ‘viola’. Telemann’s predilection for certain instruments – such as the viola, viola da gamba and oboe – is reflected in special entries. Songs is another unexpected entry, alerting the reader to some of ‘Telemann’s most original and influential works’.

Many readers may be relatively ignorant of Telemann’s keyboard music (‘one of the more dimly lit corners of his output’). Of two late publications – the six Fugues légères et petit jeux and the six Ouverturen nebst zween Folgesaäzen – Zohn writes, ‘the music of both sets is by turns profound, witty and playful – and the same might be said of Telemann’s keyboard music as a whole’. I quote these remarks to demonstrate how Zohn’s entries, far from being drily factual, are not only judicious but also characterful, often engagingly colloquial, while drawing our attention to unsuspected qualities. He also has a nice line in humour. After mention of ‘the many strange and beautiful plants’ in his garden, he writes, ‘Telemann was hardly resting on his laurels or contentedly sniffing the sweet blooms of past successes’.

The remainder of this indispensable and thoroughly recommendable book comprises a brief introduction, brilliant 15-page biographical sketch, a 50-page works list and a selective bibliography. There are 15 illustrations and no music examples.

Philip Borg-Wheeler. Read the full review on Agora Classica


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