JS Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann were born four years apart. Telemann was the older of the two and the better known in their day. They were friends, and their lives intersected at many points. In 1722, Telemann was offered a position at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, but declined it. This position was given instead to JS Bach, who worked at the church until his death.
Telemann and JS Bach were both quite prolific, both hard working, both masters at the craft of composition. By the time they died, Bach in 1750 and Telemann in 1767, the musical world had left them far behind. The Classical period had dawned, and it seemed as though the two would fade into obscurity along with all the trappings of the Baroque period. Bach’s music survived mostly in copies passed among composers and students of counterpoint (Mozart was a fan). Telemann’s works remained respected until rumbles in the 19th century began to dismiss the composer, partially because he had written so much. As Bach’s star began to rise with the revival led by Felix Mendelssohn, Telemann began to fade. In the wake of Bach’s new popularity, Telemann’s music was compared unfavorably to that of his friend and contemporary. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the world began to reevaluate Telemann’s place in music history.
Although Bach and Telemann lived at the same time, wrote in similar genres, and even knew each other, their musical styles are distinct. It doesn’t make sense to compare the two because there are plenty of significant differences. Telemann, for example, was better traveled, and his style shows influences of French, Italian, German and Polish music. These varied influences don’t necessarily make Telemann the “better” composer. Likewise, Bach’s ubiquity in popular culture does not mean he is more deserving of remembrance. These two individuals made important contributions to the music of the Baroque period Telemann’s Trio Sonata No. 12 in E-flat major begins the evening. This one of many works collected and published as Musical Exercises or Essercizii Musici. Telemann’s Quartetto in D major is an early sort of chamber music. The remaining works on the program are excellent examples of the Baroque concerto.
Both Bach works have multiple soloists. The concept of conversational or competing forces within an orchestra was something that fascinated many Baroque composers. The concerto explored the relationship of solo instruments to the larger group. The concerto grosso (like Bach’s) features a small group of soloists, a concertino and a ripieno. The composer is free to write more virtuosic material for the soloist(s) while the ripieno and basso continuo provide accompaniment. A conversational give-and-take is built into the structure of many concertos though the use of a ritornello. The first and final movements of many concertos feature ritornello form.
In this form, the entire ensemble begins the movement of the concerto by playing a musical passage that will return throughout the movement. This returning idea is called the ritornello (from the Italian “to return”). In between sections of the ritornello—usually played by everyone—the soloist or concertino group explores more difficult musical ideas. The alternating sections of soloist and orchestra provide interesting contrasts between simple and complex, soft and loud, accompaniment and virtuosity.
Bach’s Concerto in C minor for Violin and Oboe is adapted from a concerto for two harpsichords. Further analysis of the concerto’s musical characteristics—the fact that the solo parts exactly fit the range of the violin and the oboe—has led to the widespread belief that the work was originally a double concerto for violin and oboe, in which form it is performed here.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 is one of Bach’s most well-known examples of the concerto grosso. The concertino consists of trumpet, flute, oboe and violin. Bach’s models for choosing instruments of such disparate timbres were certainly different from other German composers like Telemann and GH Stölzel. Interestingly, this piece seems to be the only one of the set of six Brandenburg Concertos written with a specific player in mind. Johann Ludwig Schreiber was a trumpet player at Cöthen, where Bach was working at the time, and he must have had considerable skill to play the part that Bach planned for him. All of the instruments in the concertino have challenging parts, but the trumpet’s part is particularly noticeable, both because of the timbre of the instrument and the high range. The finale of this concerto is absolutely brilliant, one of the most beautiful movements Bach ever wrote and certainly a monument to the High Baroque style. It is a fitting ending to an evening that celebrates the contributions of two of the Baroque’s most important figures.