Telemann and the Mandolin
By John Goodin

A tremendous amount of good music was composed during the Baroque era, from roughly 1650-1750. Much of this music was intended for amateur musicians with less than virtuoso skills and is great fun to play. This article hopes to introduce a few of the many pleasurable pieces composed for various instruments by George Philipp Telemann that are satisfying to play on our modern mandolin.

In their book The Early Mandolin James Tyler and Paul Sparks give an account of the history of both the mandolino and the early mandoline from the Renaissance through the early Classical period. Tyler shows how most of the earlier music, in particular Antonio Vivaldi's famous concertos, was composed for an instrument significantly different from the modern mandolin. Sparks shows how the Neapolitan mandoline developed and became quite popular, especially in Italy and France, in the mid-to-late eighteenth century.

Both Tyler and Sparks provide detailed lists of the known music published for mandolino and mandoline. In 1999 Plucked String published An Introduction to the Eighteenth Century Repertoire of the Neopolitan Mandoline by Paul Sparks which also contains vital information about this period. A few excellent recordings are available of some of this music played by superb professional artists, sometimes using modern reconstructions of baroque mandolins. However, while a few fine pieces were composed specifically for mandolino or mandoline during the baroque era, the quantity of music composed for violin, recorder, oboe or flute is vast.

Composers and musicians were very flexible in the eighteenth century. The title page of a sonata will often read "for flute, or violin, or oboe." As players of the modern mandolin we should feel completely justified in adapting some of these wonderful works to our own use and trust our own sense of what is musical as we pick and choose what pieces "work" on our instrument.

In his time George Philipp Telemann was considered the greatest composer in Germany. In our time we recognize J.S. Bach as the giant of this period and tend to think of Telemann as a lesser light. However, most modern critics agree that Telemann was a master of his craft and much of his music is still in print. Today's mandolinist has hundreds of pieces to choose from in exploring his tremendous output.

Born in Magdeburg in 1681, Telemann was something of a child prodigy but he had to overcome the opposition of his family become a musician and avoid a career as a lawyer. Around 1705 he accepted an appointment at the court of Count Erdmann II of Promnitz and traveled with him for extended periods in Poland. He became a great admirer of Polish and Moravlan folk music. Describing such music in his autobiography of 1739 he says:

"One can hardly believe what ideas such bagpipe players fiddlers have when they improvise while the dancers rest. An observant person could snap up from them in eight days enough ideas for a lifetime."

For those of us who have spent time playing fiddle tunes and contra dance music much of Telemann's writing feels quite familiar. He enjoys combining courtly melodies with more earthy tunes, often in the same movement of a piece. Telemann was committed to composing music for serious amateurs throughout his life and it's not difficult to imagine some students in Hamburg getting together for a session and playing some dance music followed by a sonata or two from the local music meister.

Having read this far you might be interested in some specific examples of Telemann 's music to tryout. The bad news is that Telemann apparently never wrote anything specifically for the mandolin. The good news is that he was one of the most prolific composers in history and there is a lot of music for violin, flute, recorder, oboe, etc. available in inexpensive, modem editions. If you have access to a good music library you can borrow much of this music for free.

The International Music Co. publishes a lot of Telemann's music in affordable ($5-$15) editions. There is a collection of 6 Sonatas for Violin and Piano (edited by Kaufmann) that contains some fine music suitable for mandolin. It's not critical that you have a keyboard player handy to enjoy the violin parts of these sonatas. In particular, Sonata IV begins with a beautiful Allemande that sounds great played really slow. This is followed by a Corrente that is comfortable. The third section is a short Sarabande but the final Allegro is a Giga that is nearly perfect for the mandolin, it starts in A minor and moves neatly to E minor for the B section. This Giga sounds really flashy at a quick tempo but is no more difficult than "Blackberry Blossom." Even without a friend on continuo this sonata is a very satisfying solo. While no. IV is my favorite in this collection all six have their charms and can provide hours of pleasure today just as they did when originally published in 1715.

If you have access to a university music library you will most likely be able to find a fine collection Douze Solos a Violin ou Traversiere which is volume 71 of a series Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era. This collection of 12 sonatas was originally published in 1734 in Hamburg and is edited by Jeanne R. Swack, a major Telemann scholar. My current favorite in this group is Solo no.7. It has an Allegro Assai with more flashy sounding bits that aren't really that hard and a closing Allegro in 9/8 that is a great workout in D minor with a powerful ending. This edition is printed with only the figured bass for accompaniment so, if you want to hear the continuo part, you'll need to have a friend who enjoys improvising their own part from the bass line like they did in the good old days. This could be a fun challenge for a guitar playing friend as well as a pianist.

These collections are just the tip of the iceberg as far as Telemann sonatas for solo instrument with continuo are concerned. There are also many trio sonatas for two solo instruments and continuo. These are usually published with a or separate bass part as well so a performance would often involve a violin and a recorder playing the solo parts being accompanied by a keyboard instrument and a cello. Even if you can't easily get a band like this together the solo parts to these sonatas are usually fun to play by themselves.

Telemann also wrote lots of music for solo instruments without continuo. There is a collection of twelve Fantasias for Flute that is easy to find at music stores. I have the Barenreiter edition ($12), which is nicely printed, but there are other versions available as well. Music for the flute from the Romantic period is often notated in the stratosphere but most Baroque flute music is written in a comfortable range. Telemann's flute music in particular falls mostly in the mandolin's first position and only occasionally goes up to the tenth or twelfth fret on the E. string. These Fantasias are all short, two page pieces; only three are in flat keys and they all end with up tempo final sections that are fun to work on. Any of these pieces would be effective solos in a community concert or, for that matter, real attention getters during a set at a folk fetival.

In 1735 Telemann published a set of twelve Fantasia for Violin Solo. My $5 International Music Co. edition was edited by Joseph Gingold and contains much difficult but rewarding contrapuntal writing similar to that found in the Bach Solo Partitas and Sonatas. These are less amateur-friendly than most of the music mentioned here but each Fantasia has three or four movements that can be worked on separately. There is an inspiring recording of this set played by the brilliant baroque violinist Andrew Manze on the Harmonia Mundi France label.

Telemann published a large number of sonatas for two instruments without continuo as well. For instance, the Sonatas without Bass for Two Flutes or Two Violins or Two Recorders published in 1727 at Hamburg are short pieces comfortable for non-virtuosi that fall easily in the mandolin's range. There are several affordable editions of music for two flutes but the titles are confusingly similar and you need to be careful not to buy the same pieces from different publishers by mistake. There is also a fun set of Seven Canonic Sonatas for Two Flutes (violins, oboes) published by, among others, Little Piper. You want to be alert to keep from losing your place when playing these with a friend.

I hope this brief overview has whetted your appetite for the music of the most famous and, by far, most prolific composer of his day. Given his lifelong commitment to the importance of amateur music-making I have to believe that Telemann would have written wonderful music specifically for our instrument if he had known of an organization like the CMSA. I hope that I have shown that there is a large amount of Telemann's music worthy of your attention and investigation and that you have the opportunity to explore some the next time you feel like stepping back into the music of the eighteenth century.

Created on ... April 14, 2005