What’s on your music stand at the moment? If you’re an amateur musician who enjoys baroque music, the chances are that you’re got some Telemann somewhere in your music pile. Other baroque composers – Bach, Handel, Vivaldi or Monteverdi easily outrank Telemann on the concert platform or on the radio, but I would hazard a guess that when it comes to sheet music sales, his delightfully approachable sonatas and other small-scale works still make him a best-seller.
Although Der getreue Music-Meister bills itself as a series of music lessons, Telemann’s teaching method is to show rather than tell, as he leads his subscribers through examples of the French, Italian, English and Polish styles alongside canons, fugues and contrapuncti. There are a few examples of music by other leading composers, including a “Riddle Canon” by Bach (BWV 1074) that fits nicely with the light-hearted mood of much of the music in Telemann’s lessons, but the bulk of the collection was composed by Telemann himself. He assumes a certain level of skill in his subscribers, but the music is well within the reach of competent amateurs and, moreover, is extremely pleasing to play. Telemann made a point of learning as many instruments as he could, which means that whether he's composing for strings, woodwind or brass, he writes sympathetically and comfortably and knows how far he can push his readers technically, to be challenging but not insurmountable.
Telemann adds to the pleasure in his lessons with a number of character pieces: one of my favouites is a trio sonata in which each movement is named after a woman from classical civilisation (it’s nicknamed “The Girlfriends” by my trio-sonata companions). If you can’t quite remember who Xanthippe, Lucretia, Clelia or Corinna are, you could perhaps guess something about them from Telemann’s lively musical depictions; and there’s no doubt when it comes to the final movement for Dido, in which a lament alternates with flickering flames of semi-quavers. Or you might prefer the Gulliver Suite with its light-footed miniature Lilluputian Chaconne followed by a slow, clumping “gigue” for the Brobdingnags, and for singers there were excerpts from some of Telemann’s operas.
As well as writing enjoyable music in the guise of lessons, Telemann also composed an entire year’s cycle of church music for amateurs, the Harmonischer Gottesdienst. The 72 cantatas in the set offer music for solo voice, usually accompanied by a single instrument (flute, violin, oboe or recorder) plus continuo, and are generally made up of just two arias, with a linking recitative. The Harmonischer Gottesdienst was intended for use in private devotions, using a text that reflects on the Bible readings for that day, but it’s easy to imagine that the collection could also have been very useful for smaller parishes that lacked the musical resources of the big city churches: Telemann gives advice as to how and where larger numbers of accompanying strings could be used, and as in Der getreue Music-Meister he allows for flexibility in the choice of accompanying instruments. Although short and relatively simple, these cantatas are rich in emotional expression; they make great recital pieces, and deserve to be better known – although you may recognise the opening aria of Deine Toten werden Leben as it’s one of the very few places in Messiah where Handel borrowed from other composers.
If you want to explore more of Telemann’s music for amateur musicians, there are recordings available, but by far the best way to experience it is just to plunge in and try it yourself, playing Telemann’s music just as it was originally intended. (How’s that for historically informed performance practice!) If you’ve not tried it before, then grab any instruments you can find, call your friends, get some music, and revel in the sheer delight of just playing for its own sake, with no grades, no concerts and no performance anxiety, just the gentle guiding hand of Mr Telemann, your faithful music teacher.