Georg Philipp Telemann (March 14, 1681 – June 25, 1767) was a German Baroque music composer, born in Magdeburg. Self-taught in music, he studied law at the University of Leipzig. Often described as the most prolific composer in history (at least in terms of surviving oeuvre), he was a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and a lifelong friend of George Frideric Handel. While in the present day Bach is generally thought of as the greater composer, Telemann was more widely renowned for his musical abilities during his lifetime.
Telemann traveled widely, absorbing various musical styles and incorporating them into his own compositions. He is known for writing concertos for unusual combinations of instruments, such as multiple violas or trumpets or oboes or harpsichords.
He held a series of important musical positions, culminating in that of music director of the five largest churches in Hamburg, from 1720 until his death in 1767.
Georg Philipp Telemann was born in Magdeburg, the capital of the Duchy of Magdeburg, in 1681. Telemann’s family was not particularly musical; his great-grandfather had served as Cantor at Halberstadt, but no one else in his direct family had been involved in music. Telemann’s father died in 1685, leaving his mother to raise and oversee the education of the children. They were an upper-middle-class family, and many worked in the church. Telemann began to discover music at age 10, and quickly showed talent, composing his first opera by age 12. But this talent was not approved of by his family. Fearing that her son would pursue a career in music, Telemann’s mother confiscated all of his musical instruments and in 1693 sent him to a new school in Zellerfeld (1694-1698), hoping that this change would put the boy on a more lucrative career path. However, the superintendent of this school approved of his talents, and Telemann continued to compose and expand his knowledge of music on his own. By the time he completed his studies at the Gymnasium Andreanum in Hildesheim, Telemann had learned to play the recorder, organ, violin, viola da gamba, flute, oboe, chalumeau, double bass and bass trombone, almost entirely by himself. His travels had also exposed him to newer musical styles, and the music of Johann Rosenmüller and Arcangelo Corelli became early influences.
In 1701, Telemann entered Leipzig University intending to study law, perhaps at the request of his mother. It was not long before his musical talent was discovered, however, and he was commissioned to write music for two of the city’s main churches. Soon thereafter, he founded a 40-member Collegium Musicum to give concerts of his music. The next year, Telemann became the director of Leipzig’s opera house and cantor of one of its churches. His growing prominence began to anger elder composer Johann Kuhnau, whose position as director of music for the city had been encroached upon by Telemann’s appointment as a cantor. Telemann was also using many students in his opera productions, leaving them less time to devote to participation in church music for Kuhnau. Kuhnau denounced Telemann as an “opera musician”. Even after Telemann’s departure, Kuhnau could not regain the performers he had lost to the opera.
Telemann left Leipzig in 1705 to become Kapellmeister for the court of Count Erdmann II in Sorau (now Zary, Poland). Here he acquainted himself with the French style of Lully and Campra, composing many overtures and suites in his two years at the post. An invasion of Germany by Sweden forced Count Erdmann's court to evacuate the castle. Telemann apparently visited Paris in 1707; and was later appointed as a leader of the singers at the court in Eisenach, where he met Johann Sebastian Bach. The major position of Telemann's life was his appointment in 1721 as musical director of the five main churches in Hamburg, a position he would hold for the rest of his life. Here Telemann wrote two cantatas for each Sunday, as well as other sacred music for special occasions, all while teaching singing and music theory and directing another collegium musicum, which gave weekly or bi-weekly performances. Telemann also directed the local opera house for a few years, but this proved a financial failure.