The MHS Review 393 Vol. 11 No. 15, 1987
David M. Greene
I have read, with some amusement, the Papierkrieg over the "Vivaldi glut" in the Letters column of this organ (well, harmonium at least). Is it just me (as resident exsanguine turnip), or isn't there also a Telemann glut? Considering that he holds the Guinness record for musical prolificity, there's certain grave danger of one.
As with Vivaldi, it was not always so, and many a man is now alive who can remember when Telemann records were harder to come by than the sunken treasures of the Titanic. The second edition of The Gramophone Encyclopedia of Recorded Music (1942), for example, lists the A minor Suite, two quartets, a trio sonata, two movements from the Tafelmusik, three songs, six keyboard fantasias, a single fantasia, and an unidentified aria. Schwann now lists several columns of LPs and CDs, any one of which probably contains as much music as what I have cataloged above.
I believe that there is an inherent danger in extraordinary artistic fertility: it makes one suspect of glibness and lack of seriousness of intent. Though his contemporaries considered Telemann up there with the best of them, later generations taxed him with just such sins. Just for the heck of it, I attempted a very unscientific rundown on how long such attitudes lasted. I began with two older histories, one general (Lang) and one of the period (Bukofzer). Neither gave Telemann much individual attention, being content to cite him as an also-ran with those typical of his time.
Deems Taylor's updating of The Music Lover's Encyclopedia (1939) accords Telemann eight lines which call him "prolific and facile." (Bach gets three-and-a-half pages plus a family tree; Handel gets threeand-a-half columns.) The American History and Encyclopedia of Music (1908), however, gets down to business. Acknowledging Telemann's technical knowledge, it continues " ... but his works are lacking in depth and grandeur, and his church pieces particularly seem shallow. He had a bad influence on the church music of his day .... He seems to have been affected by Italian composition, then decadent .... His writings are lacking in depth and originality." This view was echoed and embroidered as recently as 1954 by Grove V: "With all of his undoubted ability, he originated nothing, but was content to follow the tracks laid down by the old contrapuntal school of organists, whose ideas and forms he adopted without change." His fertility, contrapuntal skill, and technical mastery "were neutralized by his lack of any earnest Ideal and by a fatal facility naturally inclined to superficiality... The shallowness of the church music of the latter half of the l8th century Is distinctly traceable to Telemann's influence "
But, taking a forward leap of only 30 years to the Britannica, we find Telemann enshrined In Its "Macropedia" (reserved for the most important entries). Here we are told that, thanks largely to Max Schneider and Romain Rolland, the official view of the composer has been upgraded, and we are given such judgments as this: "He composed equally well for the church as for opera and concerts. His music was natural in melody, bold in harmonies, buoyant in rhythm, and beautifully instrumentated. Profound or witty, serious or light, It never lacked quality or variety."
And In his too-brief notes to this album, Richard Taruskln sums up Telemann's galanterie, that "quality of civility and wit, grace and everyday congeniality that was worlds away from the passionate heroics of the baroque ... Telemann wore his learning lightly, occasionally affected a pleasing melancholy but never (at least in a chamber piece) went after deep pathos, would count himself successful if his hearers smiled and said 'How pretty.' "
This release completes the Aulos Ensemble's "authentic" reading of the Essercizti musicti, a collection of 24 sonatas published in 1739, the year after Telemann's stay in Paris. Those who acquired volumes I and 2 will know what to expect; those who didn't will have to wait some time to hear Telemann better performed.