Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was one of the most prolific composers of all time. Some estimates exceed 3,000 individual works; others over twice as many – perhaps that number are now lost. That's not merely a function of the long life he lived either… to 86 years. It would mean in the region of one finished composition a week for Telemann's adult life. But such an achievement is more indicative of the composer's energy, creativity and dedication. All too often, though, Telemann is dismissed by both programmers and critics as an "also ran", a purveyor of a rather "regular" and undistinguished corpus of – at worst – "background" music. He is bracketed with other composers of the high and late Baroque and at the same time placed in their shadow; particularly of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi.
What has been needed for some time is a scholarly study, as rigorous and exhaustive as possible, which exposes Telemann's strengths against both a historical background and respecting carefully defined musical criteria. In Music for a Mixed Taste: Style, Genre, and Meaning in Telemann's Instrumental Works by Steven Zohn, who is Associate Professor of Music Studies at Temple University, Philadelphia, and a specialist in the German Baroque and the historical flute, we now have just such a study. It's a major contribution to our understanding of Telemann in particular, and the (German) Baroque in general; and it's recommended without reservation.
In the book Zohn restricts himself to the instrumental works of Telemann. He devotes about a quarter of its substance to the Overture-Suites, just under a fifth to the Concerti, a quarter to the Sonatas, and a third to the compositions which Telemann published himself in Hamburg. There is an extensive glossary, a hundred pages of notes, and an extremely useful bibliography as well as a complete list of all the composer's works (including his writing) with the instrumental works – dealt with in this volume – referenced according to the TWV (Telemann-Werke-Verzeichnis) system; the rest (it is to be hoped that Zohn may turn to these in a future book) alphabetically. There is a comprehensive index which covers general topics, and is particularly useful in turning up references – to discussion of "vainglory satirized", "music as rhetoric" and members of the Breitkopf (and Härtel) publishing family, for example. Over 130 musical examples serve to illustrate the trenchant and perceptive analysis of individual works, and groups of works.
Music for a Mixed Taste can now safely be considered the definitive and standard work in the field thanks to its thoroughness, accuracy and musical judgement supported by meticulous detail. And also its readability. Zohn's prose is fluid and entertaining. The breadth of his subject and the aims which Zohn has set himself require that the material be revealed in all its density and complexity. This has been done while at the same time rendering it open and accessible. Not that the book is one long annotated catalog of Telemann's achievements, although one is inevitably impressed by the sheer quality as much as the quantity of the composer's work in reading Zohn's analyses and frequent associations of his music with literature, medicine, politics, religion, and the natural world – not to mention Telemann's attachment to humor; one suspects that the latter resonates with Zohn's own.
Rather, the book also has a number of theses to argue. Firstly that Telemann's music is indisputably great – despite just such disputation, in the 200 years following his death, for a start. That it's of notable variety too: Zohn clearly believes that the time will come when Telemann's vocal works, for example, will receive analogous acceptance to that which would have seemed unlikely for some of those of Vivaldi a generation ago and of Handel a generation before that. Zohn is also at pains to describe Telemann's influence on contemporaries and composers and musicians after his death. Then that Telemann was expert at combining musical styles… the French, Italian, English, and Polish national; and mixtures of the old (late Baroque) and new (Galant): hence the title of the book. Lastly that Telemann's style polonaise generates musical and social meanings by setting off East-West, urban-rural, and serious-comic against each other. The composer's inclusion, for example, of Polish dance rhythms is not mere "borrowing".
Zohn also underscores the intensely personal style that Telemann – again, in distinction from his less well-informed reception – forged and perfected. And he suggests convincingly that Telemann was less of a transitional figure in the bridge from Baroque to Classical. More of a progressive who would likely have been such even had he not lived at a time when the scope for change offered by the Galant was as significant as it was. And an innovator in many ways: in his analyses Zohn describes not only the beauty and engaging qualities of Telemann's roughly 125 Overture-Suites, 125 Concerti, 50 sonatas in from four to seven parts, 130 trios, 90 solo pieces and 95 pieces for instruments without continuo; but also the contribution they made to the respective development of those (and parallel, related) genres.
Necessarily the genres and sub-genres in which Telemann worked are examined by Zohn in his superb descriptions of and commentary on how the composer made the contribution which he did. These are particularly successful and compelling chapters in the book. As elsewhere, the author's tone is deft without being offhand; thorough without a risk of obscurity. As he explains, some of the material in Music for a Mixed Taste did appear previously in various journals and papers. Here, though, Zohn has pulled together and rendered consistent the various ways in which he makes his cases for this reconsideration of Telemann; and the depths into which he allows them to extend.
So for perceptiveness, clarity, comprehensiveness and persuasiveness, this is a book that sets new standards for scholarship on Telemann. It has the attendant gift of also being highly approachable, and of illuminating all aspects of the composer's instrumental work. It makes a major and much needed contribution to the area. If the music of the eighteenth century holds any fascination for you, don't hesitate to buy Music for a Mixed Taste.
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Sealey