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.

Georg Philipp Telemann, by Valentin Daniel Preisler (1717-1765)
Georg Philipp Telemann, by Valentin Daniel Preisler (1717-1765)
Georg Philipp Telemann and his friends and near contemporaries, Bach and Handel, were all born within 150 miles of each other in the eastern part of Germany. Although Bach and Handel famously never met, Telemann forms a musical and personal link between them: he was a life-long friend of Handel; he was the first choice for the job of Cantor at St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig that eventually went to Bach; and he was the godfather of Bach’s most musically successful son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. This trio was born into a happy generation; the deep scars of the Thirty Years War were healing, and a newly prosperous and growing European middle class was eager for music: they went to the theatre for operas and oratorios; they listened to cantatas in church; and at home, they played and sang for their own pleasure. We remember Handel mostly for his contributions to public entertainment and Bach for his church music, and although Telemann wrote operas, concert works, cantatas and passions too, all of which were very popular in his lifetime, I would say that his greatest gift to musicians down the ages has been all the domestic music he wrote for serious music lovers.

Telemann’s most approachable music comes from Der getreue Music-Meister – “The faithful music master” – a collection written and published by Telemann for amateur musicians to perform at home. It was also an imaginative business venture, as it appeared as a musical periodical, the first of its kind, published in 25 fortnightly installments of four pages each from November 1728. Telemann was a practical-minded business man, who knew his market well, for as the title page proclaims, Der getreue Music-Meister covered “all genres of music … for different voice parts and almost all common instruments” and many pieces are designed to work on different instruments, so no matter what you and your family played, you’d probably be able to find something in the pages of Der getreue Music-Meister to suit you, and of course, to keep people hooked, some pieces were serialised across several issues.

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.