in: News & Features

January 7, 2011

Telemann’s 72 Cantatas Run Jan. 8 to Christmas

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On Saturday evening at 8 pm at the Second Church, 60 Highland St. in West Newton, the early music vocal and instrumental ensemble Exsultemus will combine forces with the instrumentalists of Newton Baroque in the first of a series of sixteen concerts presenting Georg Philipp Telemann’s 72-cantata cycle Harmonischer Gottes-Dienst. After Saturday’s New Year and Epiphany concert, the series continues on January 22 with more cantatas for Epiphany and thereafter through spring, summer, and fall, concluding on December 27 with music for Christmas. (See BMInt Upcoming Events )

Familiar to concertgoers and amateur musicians today as the prolific composer of pleasing and not-too-demanding instrumental music, Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was as much admired in his own day for his operas, passions, and sacred and secular cantatas as for his concertos and chamber music. A largely self-taught composer and performer from a young age, he held a number of important civic and court positions in Germany before settling in Hamburg as Kantor of its five principal churches. While his contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach chafed at the restrictions imposed on him by the town council and produced no more than five cycles of cantatas for the Lutheran church year during his twenty-seven-year tenure as Kantor in Leipzig, Telemann is known to have composed some thirty-one cycles. In addition he served as musical director and frequent composer for the Hamburg opera, conductor of the Collegium Musicum, and highly successful publisher and promoter of his own compositions. Contemporary theorists and critics praised Telemann’s music for just those qualities of ease and apparent artlessness — characteristics of the more forward-looking galant style — that they found lacking in the elaborate counterpoint of composers like J.S. Bach.

Of the four complete annual cycles of cantatas that Telemann published, Harmonischer Gottes-Dienst, published in 1726,  is exceptional in its restricted scoring. Each cantata, consisting usually of two arias enclosing a lengthy recitative, calls for only one solo voice, one melody instrument, and basso continuo (usually consisting of a keyboard instrument with a melody instrument reinforcing the bass line). The reduced forces made the cycle suitable for smaller church choirs and even home performance. In his cantata recitatives and arias, Telemann drew on his experience as an opera composer so as to bring out the imagery and “affect” of  the sacred texts, another ability that endeared him to contemporary critics. As Exultemus general director (and soprano soloist) Shannon Canavin puts it, “Telemann had a unique gift for sensitive yet dynamic text setting, beautiful melodies, and colorful instrumental writing, which are uniquely showcased in his imaginative vocal works.”

The idea of performing an entire cycle of cantatas at their appropriate time in the liturgical calendar  originated with Newton Baroque’s director, organist and harpsichordist Andrus Madsen, who had already presented a number of Telemann’s vocal works, including the St. John Passion of 1737.  The collaboration with Exsultemus brings together some of the Boston area’s most accomplished singers and instrumentalists in a bold endeavor that is sure to put Telemann’s too-long neglected vocal works on the musical map.

See related review here.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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