One of the most common purposes for which composers wrote in the Baroque era was as background accompaniment for banquets. This Tafelmusik (“table music”) could be vocal or instrumental, and tended to be light and engaging. Telemann’s Musique de table, published in Hamburg in 1733, represents the epitome of the genre and was likely also a labor of love for the composer. Even as early as 1702 when he organized a collegium musicum while studying jurisprudence at the University of Leipzig, Telemann’s driving ambition was to get as many people as possible to make and hear music.
Telemann had been in Hamburg twelve years when he published Tafelmusik. Early in his tenure his eager participation in all aspects of the city’s musical life caused some concern. His official duties included providing music for church and civic occasions, directing music at five churches, and serving as music teacher at the Johanneum school. Yet he was also the musical director of the Hamburg Opera from 1721 to 1738. His collegium musicum gave public concerts. Some church leaders resisted these extracurricular activities: they associated opera music with immorality and objected to mixing sacred and secular music in public concerts. In 1722 the city council entertained but tabled a motion that would have forbidden Telemann to participate in public opera or theater performances. In the same year Telemann was offered the post of Kantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, but turned it down after Hamburg increased his stipend. The post went to J. S. Bach, who named Telemann as godfather to his son C. P. E. Bach.
Having solidified his position in Hamburg, Telemann built a pioneering career. He was extremely prolific, with more than 3000 compositions in addition to theoretical treatises and published poems. He began publishing his own music in 1725, doing the engraving, advertising, and subscription management himself. Being self-taught, he reached out to amateurs and students: he made his publications widely available, provided cantatas in reduced scoring, suggested alternate instrumentation for chamber compositions, and avoided excessive technical difficulty. His music was also popular among the best performers of the time. Beginning in 1728 he published the first German-language music periodical, Der getreuer Musikmeister (“The Faithful Music Master”). The biweekly issues consisted of four pages of music, a “lesson” for amateurs to play and study at home. He was widely known internationally; of the 206 subscriptions to Tafelmusik, fifty-two came from outside Germany. Handel placed an order from London, then borrowed a number of Telemann’s themes for use in his own compositions.
However, Telemann was routinely dismissed in later years as a composer whose music was too light — fashionable and entertaining but lacking depth. This criticism may reveal more about nineteenth-century German aesthetics than about Telemann, but it also points to one of his greatest strengths: producing music that is widely accessible and appealing but not simplis- tic or watered down. However, his music also has hallmarks of German style: “learned” counterpoint, folk idioms, expressive and sophisticated harrmonies.
Each of the three sets or “productions” of Telemann’s Tafelmusik includes an overture and suite, a quartet, a concerto, a trio sonata, a solo sonata, and a “Conclusion” for the full ensemble. This concert presents the second Production. Telemann’s zeal for reaching popular audiences is reflected throughout, especially in the principle of contrast, which seizes and holds listeners’ atten-tion from the first phrase to the last.
The contemporary theorist Johann Adolf Scheibe claimed that Telemann popularized the French orchestral suite in Germany, and this suite does have some of the characteristics of that genre, which evolved from seventeenth-century French courtly ballet performances.
The Overture’s slow introduction with dotted rhythms (long- short) is suitably grand for a royal entrance, a fast and lively fugue-like section follows, and the ensuing Airs have the rhythms and characters of courtly dances, with a rollicking gigue as the final movement. Yet the driving principle of this “suite” is not dance styles but the concerto principle, contrast in as many forms as possible: between soloists and orchestra, major and minor, loud and soft, strings and winds. In fact, this work is as much a concerto grosso, like several of Bach’s roughly contemporaneous Brandenburg Concertos, as it is a suite. Now that the ensemble has been introduced, the works that follow break it into smaller groups, as if a movie camera has panned the banquet hall and then moved in to focus on individual conversations, one at a time.
Telemann’s quartets for three solo instruments with continuo (either harpsichord alone or with a bass-line instrument, usually cello) are some of his most creative chamber works, although the genre was not common with other composers. Like those from his Quadri (1730) and Nouveaux quatuors (1738), the quartets in each production of Tafelmusik feature a rich interplay of timbres and textures.
Telemann scored this Quartet in D Minor for two flutes plus recorder, cello, or bassoon, giving several alternatives to make the music as accessible as possible. In this concert, the bassoon plays the third solo part, creating a charming dialogue with the two flutes. As all three parts imitate and answer one another, the flutes often flow in parallel thirds and suspensions reminiscent of Corelli’s trio sonatas.
The Concerto in F Major follows Italian ritornello form: in the two fast movements, returning themes or ritornelli contrast with more virtuosic passages showcasing the solo violins. In the triple-meter Largo, bookends played by the whole ensemble frame a freer middle section in which the lyricism of the soloists shines with only minimal orchestral support, as in an accompanied operatic recitative.
The Trio in E Minor again spotlights imitation and dialogue between solo voices.
The Sonata in A Major distills the interplay and dialogue of the ensemble in the previous works into the intimate scoring of one soloist and continuo.
The Conclusion reassembles the full ensemble for a group photo after all the small-group candid shots.