Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)

Twelve FANTASIAS for solo violin (1735)

A violinist writes…

I was wrong-footed by the Covid lockdown of 2020.  With a great deal of spare time and no pressing performance engagements, I started looking for a project that might turn this unexpected situation to my advantage.  At first the answer was horticulture, but when I tired of working in my garden, I began to ponder a more artistic challenge.

As with many violinists, a copy of the Telemann fantasias had resided on my shelves for years.  This thin volume had been opened from time to time and the twelve short works played through – but then abandoned with a feeling of frustration that these immensely appealing and characterful pieces weren’t nearly as easy as they ought to be.

As I pondered my big lockdown project, I reached for these fantasias again as part of my early- morning practice.  While playing them, I was certain I could make mental space to contemplate the big endeavour – whatever that might be.  Once again, I told myself that the fantasias would be light relief.  None of the individual pieces even needed a page to be turned.  However, as the days of the lockdown ticked over, I discovered once again that things were not so simple.  Perhaps, my big project was actually staring right back at me? Possibly even with something of a knowing smirk.

As I looked more closely at the fantasias, I shared my deepening enthusiasm for these works with violinist colleagues.  I discovered that my feelings of frustration, slight embarrassment even, were reciprocated.  ‘Much harder than they look…’ was the general consensus.  It seemed that a hesitancy to perform the Telemann fantasias was something of a guilty secret amongst my tribe of fellow fiddlers.

How so? Well, despite their many differences, Telemann and Bach were exact contemporaries and therefore one cannot really prevent oneself from comparing these Fantasias to JS Bach’s monumental solo violin works.  With Bach, the effort involved in performing these masterworks matches the essence of the music.  Long and lonely hours of self-examination are what it takes to delve into their message – which is… one of long hours of lonely self-examination.

I had started playing the Bach sonatas and partitas as a twelve-year-old and had only reached the stage of playing all of them to any degree of technical proficiency and artistic understanding forty years later.  But crucially, I’d always understood that that would be the deal.  These pieces are the towering pinnacle of the violin repertoire.  You can spend a lifetime playing them and never master them.

And here perhaps is why the Telemann fantasias have never been central to every violinist’s repertoire.  The achievement of playing them to a level of ease – one that allows anything like a full characterisation – requires an attitude of lightness from the performer.  And that is difficult to bring off because the fantasias range over a huge variety of styles and idioms.  It can be arduous to make things sound effortless.  I was at times reminded of the great actor Edmund Kean’s last words, which were reputed to have been “Dying is easy.  It’s comedy that’s hard.”

The spirit of the fantasias is essentially happy and sociable.  They are dying to be released from the printed page and be played to an audience.  We are a million miles away from Bach’s massive, introverted, and spiritualised conversation with God.  (The two men were friends, and we can be fairly sure that they corresponded in addition to their few documented meetings.  But as to whether Telemann knew of Bach’s opus for solo violin when writing his own, we can only speculate.  If he did know Bach’s sonatas and partitas, Telemann’s fantasias must rank as one of the most deft replies to an apparently unanswerable statement.)

Here we are amongst friends – in the Salon, at Court, down the pub, in the fields even, and with the odd bit of elegant counterpoint in the study – but always with a knowing and fun-loving intelligence that skilfully covers its own tracks.  One has the feeling that nothing is beyond being imagined for a solo violin here: an overture, a concerto, a recitative and aria and any number of dances - be they undertaken in muddy clogs or elegant court slippers.  Telemann introduces us to a cast of much-loved friends - taking us by the hand and leading us as he does across half the world - from the Ottoman Empire to the shires of England.

Time and proportion are everything when holding an audience with such slender means; the comic and pathetic are magnified by being presented with such apparently effortless sleight of hand.  (The usually brief final movements are particularly brilliant in their introduction of rustic elements and especially memorable in the way that they snap shut or fade away.)

The music also never says anything more than is necessary – the intelligence of the argument is so beautifully constructed and so flattering to the listener that the needed markers are touched and left, never underscored, except sometimes for comic effect. 

There is remarkable proportioning too in the fact that each piece is printed on one piece of paper of exactly the same size and made to fit - whatever the number and character of the movements.  Some of the movements are indeed ridiculously tiny and yet they always deliver exactly what is required of them.  They look out on the world’s humanity and embrace a seemingly limitless cast of characters with a wise and penetrating wit and with the utmost economy of means: a sheet of paper and a single violin.

© Thomas Bowes 2021

During his tenure as city music director in Frankfurt am Main (1712–21), Telemann began publishing music at his own expense.  This venture was no doubt a response to the dearth of music publishers in German-speaking lands at the time, and it represented a financial roll of the dice, since there was no guarantee that the composer’s initial outlay of time and money would be rewarded with strong sales.  The advantage was that Telemann could closely control the marketing and distribution of his products.  In order to limit material and labour expenses, he published only instrumental chamber music in economical scorings: two collections of sonatas for violin and continuo (1715 and 1718), one of suites for oboe and continuo (1716), and one of trio sonatas for various melody instruments with continuo (1718).  He also published a set of concertos by the recently deceased Prince Johann Ernst of Sachsen-Weimar (1718), a talented amateur musician who was also the dedicatee of Telemann’s first opus.  (The prince’s concertos appear not to have sold very well, at least to judge by the high number of unsold copies.) For all these publications, Telemann hired a professional typesetter or music engraver to produce the physical copies.

Soon after making a lateral move to Hamburg in 1721, Telemann embarked on a far more ambitious publishing programme.  This was facilitated by the city’s mercantile spirit and motivated by the composer’s desire to provide consumers with music that educated and entertained even as it filled practical needs in churches, private homes, public concerts, and courts.  At a certain point, Telemann was also sorely in need of the extra income his publishing business provided, for his family was expanding and his wife had run up substantial debts.

He did not start modestly, debuting in 1725–26 with an entire annual cycle of seventy-two church cantatas issued serially – the first of four cycles he would eventually publish, in addition to the arias from a fifth.  In order to entice subscribers, Telemann offered a substantial discount to those who paid for publications in advance of their appearance.  This helped him to recover some of his up-front expenses and to better calculate the size of the initial print run (probably just a few hundred copies).  As he had done in Frankfurt, Telemann hired a professional printer to typeset the music for his first Hamburg publications.  But he quickly realized that he could both save money and improve the appearance of his products by engraving the music on copper or pewter plates himself.  This he did to reasonably good effect until closing up his self-publishing business in 1740.  By this time, he had issued over forty separate publications of his own music, an impressive and unprecedented feat.

As a series within this series, Telemann published seventy-two fantasias for solo instrument: three dozen for keyboard and a dozen each for flute, violin, and viola da gamba.  The flute fantasias appeared first (1731), followed by the keyboard fantasias (1732–33) and those for violin and viola da gamba (both 1735).  Like the flute and viola da gamba pieces, the violin fantasias recorded here have come down to us via a single eighteenth-century source – in this case not Telemann’s own publication, but a manuscript copy made from it by an unknown scribe.  We also have the printed title page, which describes the music as “Fantasie per il Violino, senza Basso.” It is a sobering thought indeed that all this great music might have been lost to history were it not for a few fortunate survivals.

The six fantasia sets differ from one another not only through instrumentation, but also through their unique arrangements of keys.  For example, keys of the flute fantasias ascend from work to work, whereas the violin fantasias divide into four groups of three, each following a major-major-minor key sequence.  The latter set may also be divided into two groups of six, following Telemann’s description of it as “12 fantasias for the violin without bass, of which six include fugues and six are galanteries.” In addition to including fugal movements or sections, fantasias of the first group simulate counterpoint by requiring the violinist to play more chordally than in the other fantasias.  The “galanterie” fantasias are evidently so named because of their fashionable music, but this is to some extent true of all twelve works.

It is interesting to consider which models, if any, Telemann may have had in mind while composing this extraordinary music.  He may have known some late seventeenth-century works for unaccompanied violin, most notably Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s unpublished violin passacaglia (ca. 1676) and Johann Paul von Westhoff’s published suites (1683 and 1696).  Telemann himself had published the last movement of his friend Johann Georg Pisendel’s unaccompanied violin sonata in a 1729 issue of his short-lived music journal, Der getreue Music-Meister (The Faithful Music Master).  And he could also have known the unaccompanied violin music of another friend, Johann Sebastian Bach, whose sonatas and partitas were composed by 1720.  But none of these earlier works explores the idea of improvisation to the same degree as Telemann’s fantasias, suggesting that he may also have drawn on a long tradition of extemporized violin music.

Like much of Telemann’s music, the violin fantasias are accessible to accomplished amateurs while posing a moderate challenge to professionals – a fine line that the composer was particularly adept at treading.  Apart from their technical demands, the fantasias require of the player not only an alertness and sensitivity to various styles, but also a strong imagination.  Telemann evidently regarded the fantasia as a musical category in which almost anything could happen.  Its freedom from the kind of expectations that players and listeners brought to other types of pieces (for example, the more familiar sonata or suite) allowed him to assert his compositional fantasy by shifting frequently between contrasting modes of musical expression.  At one moment, the violinist might solo in a concerto; at another, work out a learned fugue; and at a third, play a rustic dance tune.  In fact, the broad emotional range of the fantasias as a group can scarcely be exaggerated.

Most of the pieces adhere to the basic formal pattern that Telemann had established in his flute fantasias: two movements of contrasting character followed by a dance-like conclusion.  However, the first and eleventh fantasias take a page from the keyboard works in reprising their fast movements.  Some of the opening slow movements have a strong prelude character (for example, Nos.  2 and 12), while others have a distinctly vocal quality (Nos.  1 and 7).  Fugues may appear as first or second movements, while sonata-like fast movements are found in second position (Nos.  8 and 9).  The collection’s eclecticism is loudly proclaimed in the first fantasia, where a singing slow movement leads to a concerto allegro in which the violinist assumes the dual roles of soloist and orchestra (Telemann was especially fond of transferring the form and style of the concerto to implausibly small scorings).  By contrast, the fifth fantasia begins in a more off-the-cuff manner, with capricious alternations between improvisatory figuration and a buttoned-down fugue, which soon dissolves into less formal music. 

The fantasias’ concluding dances sweep away any serious pretensions of the preceding movements.  Most common is the rhythmically flowing giga (Nos.  2, 4, 9, and 10).  But other courtly dances appear, too, such as the minuet (No.  3) and gavotte (No.  7), both delightfully quirky.  Three more dances (Nos.  8, 11, and 12) sound more like fiddle tunes that might be danced to in a rural tavern.  The resulting shifts between courtly and rustic idioms is entirely characteristic of Telemann, who found almost equal value in both.  In this respect it is telling that the violin fantasias, like their predecessors for flute, conclude with an especially earthy dance – the musical last word going to the country rather than to the city.

© Steven Zohn 2021