Today would have been the 330th birthday of one of my favorite composers, Georg Philipp Telemann, if he hadn’t tragically passed away in 1767. What follows here is a brief history of his life which isn’t entirely a made-up lie.
Telemann was born in Magdeburg, the capital of the wild and swinging Duchy of Magdeburg, Brandenburg-Prussia, into an upper-right middle of center just-under-the-yellow-bit class family. His parents were Heinrich “The Tickler” Telemann, deacon at the Church of the Holy Spirit & Wafflehouse in Magdeburg, and Maria Haltmeier, daughter of a clergyman-turned-female impersonator (most famous for his rollicking version of O, Thar’s a Terryble Byrn in Mye Nawty Place which he’d perform while re-enacting the signing of the Treaty of Bakhchisarai in a particularly saucy fashion involving a few busty courtesans, a trained parrot and some offensively-molded birdseed sculptures).
Telemann's father died in 1685, leaving Maria to raise the children, protect them from their grandfather and his birds, and oversee their education. Telemann studied at the Altstädtisches Gymnasium and at the Domschule, where he was taught the catechism, Latin and Greek, and American History (then a very short and easy class). At age 10 he took singing lessons, studied keyboard playing, and learned some tips on how to make perfect pancakes for two weeks with a local gourmet organist. This was enough to inspire the boy to teach himself other instruments (recorder, violin and zither), start composing, and dabble in making his own syrups. His first music pieces were arias, motets, some freestyle rap and instrumental works, and at age twelve he composed his first opera, Sigismundus, a drama which told the story of a young man who was eager to see a woman naked but was thwarted by having acne and a reputation at school that he was a “total fag.” The opera was not a success.
His mother Maria, whose own mother had been raped and killed by a symphony orchestra while eating her breakfast, was not supportive of these endeavors. She confiscated all of the boy's instruments, including his prized spatula, and forbade him any musical activities; yet Telemann continued composing, in secret, with occasional breaks for… well, he was twelve – you know what else he was doing secretly.
In late 1693 or early 1694 his mother sent him to a school in Zellerfeld, hoping that this would convince her son to choose a more respectable career, like alchemy or Jew burning. However, the superintendent of the school, Caspar Calvoer, recognized Telemann's talents and introduced him to musical theory and egg poaching. Telemann continued composing and playing various instruments, taught himself thoroughbass and regularly supplied music for the church choir, the town musicians, and contestants on the highly popular Lower Saxony Idol.
Casper Calvoer, who went through six bottles of shampoo a week
In 1697 Telemann left for Hildesheim, where he entered the famous Gymnasium Andreanum (across the street from Pinkberry). The young composer frequently traveled to courts at Hanover and Brunswick where he could hear and study the latest musical styles and enjoy regional versions of home-fries. Composers such as Antonio Caldara, Arcangelo Corelli, and Johann Rosenmuller were early influences. Telemann taught himself flute, oboe, chalumeau, viola da gamba, double bass, and bass trombone, which accounts for his being the only virgin amongst his peers.
After graduating, Telemann went to Leipzig in late 1701 to become a student at the appropriately named Leipzig University, where he intended to study law – the obvious thing to do after devoting every waking moment to learning music. In his 1718 autobiography, entitled Mommee Dyrest, Telemann explained that this decision was taken because of his mother's urging. However, a setting of Psalm 6 by him was found by his “roommate” [wink, wink] at the university. The work was subsequently performed and so impressed those who heard it that the Mayor of Leipzig himself approached Telemann and commissioned him to regularly compose works for the city's two main churches/crêperies.
1701–1706: Career in Leipzig and Sorau
Once he established himself as a professional musician in Leipzig, Telemann became increasingly active in organizing the city's musical life. From the start, he relied heavily on employing young, pretty women – the very first ensemble he founded debuted in his bedroom and, while attended only by the composer, was given enthusiastic reviews.
In 1702 Telemann became director of the Oper und das Frühstück auf der Brühlschen. Between 1702 and 1705 Telemann composed at least eight operas, four of which went to the Leipzig opera house and four to the Weissenfels court. At least two of these went viral – which, in the era of Plague, wasn’t a good thing like it is now. During his time at Leipzig, he was influenced by the music of George Frideric Handel, whom he met at a buggy-whip party in 1701.
"Wanna see my breast? I wanna hear you say it...!"
George Frideric Handel, musical genius and pervy flasher
During 1703, Telemann bought some groceries and set to re-organizing his cupboards, in what scholars have come to call “the year of little consequence”.
In 1704 Telemann received an invitation to become Kapellmeister und Frühstück Koch for the court of Count Erdmann II of Promnitz at Sorau. This new position allowed him to study contemporary French music and kissing, which was particularly popular at the court, and when the court spent six months in Pleß (now Pszczyna), Telemann had an opportunity to hear and study Polish and Moravian folk music, which fascinated and inspired him, though not as much as the kissing. In performing his duties at the court, Telemann was as prolific as in Leipzig, composing at least 200 overtures, by his own recollection, and other works, such as the mega-hit Pochspiel Face. Unfortunately, the Great Northern War put an end to both Telemann's career and breakfast at Sorau. In late January or early February 1706 he was forced to flee without even his bacon, eggs, or tiny glass of orange juice from the invading troops of the Swedish King, Charles XII. He spent some time in Frankfurt an der Oder before returning to Sorau in the summer, by then incredibly hungry.
1707–1721: Eisenach and Frankfurt
The details of how Telemann obtained his next position are unknown, because the composer had, around this time, succumbed to the trend of writing his diary using Hollandaise sauce instead of ink. All accounts were thusly lost when, one morning, Telemann literally ate his words. What we do know is that around 1707–1708 he entered the service of Duke Johann Wilhelm of Saxe-Eisenach, becoming Konzert-und-Pfannkuchenmeister on 24 December 1708. Thus began one of the most productive periods in Telemann's life. During his tenure at Eisenach he composed a wealth of instrumental music (sonatas and concertos), and numerous sacred works, which included four or five complete annual cycles of church cantatas, 50 German and Italian cantatas, stuffed his own sausages, and wrote some 20 serenatas.
Not really Duke Johann Wilhelm of Saxe-Eisenach,
but aren't you sick of seeing fat men in giant wigs?
In 1709 he made a short trip to Sorau to pick up some doughnuts and marry Amalie Louise Juliane Eberlin, lady-in-waiting to the Countess of Promnitz and daughter of the musician Daniel Eberlin. They went back to Eisenach, where in January 1711 Amalie Louise gave birth to a screaming, two-headed goat whose blood could melt iron, raising suspicions that she’d been dabbling in witchcraft. When thusly accused, Amalie Louise vehemently denied any involvement in magic, and in protest turned all those who challenged her into bullfrogs. She died soon afterwards after catching a cold and being burned at the stake. Telemann's marriage had lasted only for 15 months. “14 months too long!” he was overheard as saying. The event had a profound effect on the composer; he later recounted experiencing a religious awakening, and published Poetic Thoughts & Recipes on the death of his first wife in 1711.
By the end of that year he was frustrated with court life and its crowded kitchen and started seeking another appointment. He declined an offer from the Dresden court, since he wanted to work with greater artistic freedom and be allowed to pursue lunch and perhaps even dinner prep. Sometime between late December 1711 and early January 1712 he applied for the newly vacant Frankfurt post of Kapell-und-Spätzlemeister at the Barfüsserkirche. The application was successful and Telemann arrived to Frankfurt on 18 March, 1712 (around 6:30).
Telemann's new duties were similar to those he had in Leipzig. He provided various music and appetizers for two churches, Barfüsserkirche and Katharinenkirche (composing, among other pieces, more annual cycles of cantatas), as well as for civic ceremonies; he also revived the city's collegium musicum all-you-can-eat buffet. After May 1712 Telemann also served as administrator and treasurer of the Haus Braunfels, administrator of a charitable foundation, and organizer of a “medical” tobacco collegium.
On 28 August, 1714 he married his second wife, Maria Catharina Textor. The couple had nine children, but the marriage would later prove disastrous for Telemann – perhaps, though this is speculation, because having nine kids is f**king stressful.
1721–1736: Early years in Hamburg
On 10 July, 1721 Telemann was invited to work in Hamburg as Kantor of the Johanneum Lateinschule und Salatbar and musical director of the city's five largest churches, succeeding Joachim “Pox-breath” Gerstenbüttel. The composer accepted, and would remain in Hamburg for the rest of his life. (“How could I leave a city with such delicious ground beef sandwiches?” he wrote in his memoirs.)
The years spent in the city were the most productive period of his life. Initially, however, Telemann encountered a number of problems: some church officials found opera and collegium musicum performances to be objectionable (for “inciting lasciviousness and over-eating”), and the city printer was displeased with Telemann publishing printed texts and drawings of "boobies and dicks" for his yearly Passions. The former matter was resolved quickly, but Telemann's exclusive right to publish his own work was only recognized in full in 1757. Telemann's opera productions were not particularly popular, and eventually the opera house had to be closed down in 1738 to make way for a used horse-drawn carriage lot.
It is probably these difficulties that prompted Telemann to apply, already in 1722, for the post of Thomaskantor-und-Konditor in Leipzig. Of the six musicians who applied, he was the favored candidate, even winning the approval of the city's council. Telemann declined the position, but only after using the offer as leverage to secure a pay raise for his position in Hamburg. When Telemann declined the job, it was offered to Christoph Graupner, who also declined it, as he was too busy building a giant robot-unicorn which would dominate the world with its fire-shooting horn and detachable ice hooves and make him High King of the Universe.* This paved the way for Johann Sebastian “the baby-maker” Bach, who went on to occupy the position for the rest of his life, despite painful cramping.
Graupner's horrific vision of world domination
Telemann returned to Hamburg, but would still supplement his income by taking up additional jobs: in 1723–1726 he served as Kapellmeister von Haus aus to the Bayreuth court, and between 1725 and 1730 he acted as corresponding agent to the court at Eisenach, supplying news from northern Europe and, begrudgingly, occasional hand-jobs.
In Hamburg, Telemann started publishing his literary works: poems, texts for vocal music, sonnets, limericks, poems on the deaths of friends and colleagues, crossword puzzles, and erotic connect-the-dots pictures. From 1725 he actively published his music as well, engraving and advertising the editions himself. More than 40 volumes of music appeared between 1725 and 1740 and these were widely distributed across Europe, thanks to Telemann's numerous contacts in various countries and his vast followers on Twitter.
All this publishing activity was in part driven by the need for money. Telemann's wife, Maria Catherina, amassed a very large gambling debt, 4400 Reichsthaler, which amounted to more than Telemann's annual income. The marriage had been troubled by the early 1720’s, as Maria Catherina was publicly rumored to be having an affair with the entire Swedish military. Telemann's friends in Hamburg organized a collection to save the composer's finances, and eventually he was saved from bankruptcy. By 1736, Maria had left Telemann's home for smokes, never to return. (She outlived her husband by some eight years – the provocative dress she wore to his funeral inspired the then-young Joan Rivers to pursue a career in fashion critique.)
1736–1767: Later years in Hamburg
In late September or early October 1737, Telemann took an extended leave from Hamburg and went to Paris. There he countered various unauthorized publications of his music and recipes by obtaining his own publishing privilege. He immediately published several works, most importantly the Nouveaux quatuors, which were enthusiastically received by the court and the city musicians. Telemann returned to Hamburg by the end of May 1738. Around 1740 his musical output fell sharply, even though he continued fulfilling his duties as Hamburg music director. He became more interested in desserts and completed a treatise on the subject, Neue System Zuckerguss (published 1752). He also took up gardening and cultivating rare plants**, a popular Hamburg hobby which was shared by Handel. Telemann still followed European musical life, however; throughout the 1740’s and the 1750’s he exchanged letters – both consonants and vowels – and compositions with younger composers such as C.P.E. Bach, Franz Benda, Johann Friedrich Agricola, among others. (And yes, the occasional hand-job.)
After Telemann's eldest son Andreas died in 1755, he assumed the responsibility of raising Andreas' son Georg Michael Telemann, who eventually became a composer, his most famous piece being the ballad Aye, Want Thy Sects.
In his later years, Telemann's eyesight began to deteriorate, and he was increasingly troubled by health problems and small print. This led to a further decline in his output. Still, around 1762, he was still capable of composing music of highest quality, and continued to write until his death on the evening of 25 June 1767. The cause of death was a “chest ailment,” perhaps due to a prototype robot horn having been mysteriously plunged into his lungs. He was buried on 29 June in the Johannisfriedhof. He was succeeded at his Hamburg post by Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, who by all accounts was not an equal in the art of sauces, but whose hand-jobs were the stuff of legend.
*Graupner was unsuccessful.
**Baroque code for reefer.