Last Sunday, Camerata Child’s Play India conducted by Prof. Santiago Lusardi Girelli played a concert at Santa Cruz church. One highlight of the programme was Georg Philipp Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G major (TWV 51: G9), with visiting musician from Spain, Pablo Trave Gonzalez as soloist. I try to avoid making absolute statements, but I can certainly vouch for the fact that during the years I’ve been in Goa, we’ve not so far had a viola concerto performed here before. So this in itself made this performance quite special.
This concerto is one of Telemann’s most famous of his surviving concertos, and still performed quite regularly for its beauty. It is also perhaps the first viola concerto ever composed (written around 1716-21 while Telemann was in Frankfurt as its music director) and the sole Baroque concerto for the instrument in the popular repertoire. It is thought to have been first performed in Frankfurt for one of the concerts held by the Frauenstein Association, an early form of philharmonic society that sponsored “weekly great concertos”, a subscription series of orchestral concerts.
It is precisely because of concerts such as these that Telemann resorted to writing concertos of any kind. In his autobiography of 1718, he actually confesses to being unmoved by the form: “I must own that since the concerto form was never close to my heart it was indifferent to me whether I wrote a great many or not”. Despite this assertion, he went on to write over a hundred concerti for solo instruments as well as other combinations. He is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the most prolific composer in history, at least in terms of surviving oeuvre. He wrote 20 complete Lutheran church year cantata cycles, which amounts to around 1700 cantatas! And he wrote over 50 operas or secular cantatas, 125 orchestral suites, 125 concertos, 40 quartets, 130 trios and much, much more.
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was born four years before J. S. Bach, Handel and Scarlatti, and outlived them all; Bach by seventeen years, and Handel and Scarlatti by eight and ten respectively. He knew Johann Sebastian Bach well enough to stand as godfather to one of his sons, and lent his middle name to the child: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. And he also was more than a passing acquaintance to Handel.
In his day, Telemann was regarded as the greatest musician in northern Europe, and commanded much more respect than even J. S. Bach, incredible as it might seem to us today. In fact, the prestigious post of Director of Music in the principal churches in Leipzig, where Bach produced so much of his sublime sacred music from 1723 until his demise in 1750, was only offered to him because Telemann turned it down in favour of the much better post of cantor of the major churches of Hamburg. Interest in Telemann’s music then receded until a revival of interest in Baroque music in the latter half of the 20th century.
In the same autobiography of 1718, Telemann also writes some of his own humorous verse, among which are the lines: “Give each instrument/what is suitable for it/So he who plays will do so with joy/ and you will take pleasure in listening to it…”
Telemann’s formative years in his birthplace Magdeburg Germany were spent learning to play various instruments. His intention was to familiarise himself with the basic techniques and sonorities of as many instruments as possible, rather than to become a virtuoso player. This knowledge was what he needed as a composer. His viola concerto displays a marvellous grasp of the unique, rich dark chocolately deep-throated timbre of the instrument.
The purported ‘weakness’ of the viola as an instrument that has led to much less music written for it as compared to its string cousins the violin and the cello, is also its greatest asset. The viola might not have the sweet brilliance of the violin or the low bass sonority of the cello, but its mellow tone is in a class by itself. It is conventionally used as a ‘filler’ in the orchestra, to add depth and tone colour to the harmonies of the string section. It is precisely for this that so many great composers loved and played this instrument, from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Schubert to Dvořák.
The viola concerto in G major has four movements (unlike concertos by Vivaldi and Bach, who followed the more ‘modern’ three-movement format for their concertos) in typical contrasting slow-fast-slow-fast fashion of a “church sonata” (sonata di chiesa): Largo-Allegro-Andante-Presto. The orchestral forces that support the solo viola are light: strings and continuo (2 violins, viola, cello, double bass and harpsichord). It can also be played by just a string quartet and solo viola.
The first movement Largo is slow and stately, with a beautiful expansive line for the viola in calm confident conversation with the rest of the orchestra. The second movement, Allegro, bubbles over joyfully in its syncopated, elegant melody, and is a good example of the ‘stile galante’ (galant style) that began to sweep away the high Baroque style towards the end of Telemann’s life. The Andante is in the melancholic key of E minor (the relative minor of the main or ‘tonic’ key G major) in which both the soloist and the ensemble seem to be in dialogue with each other, in search of an elusive truth. The finale, Presto, begins energetically in the ensemble, with contrapuntal cross-rhythms within its sections, and is joined in by the soloist, leading up to a robust conclusion.
(An edited version of this article was published on 24 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)