Fantasy (noun) \ fan·ta·sy \ˈfan-tə-sē, -zē\ : a creation of the imaginative faculty whether expressed or merely conceived. That’s how the Merriam Webster Dictionary defines it. The blue sky and the bizarre shapes of clouds have always stimulated my fantasy. As an amateur meteorologist and pilot I know the types, their altitudes, how they develop, but no scientist has ever given any explanation for the shapes they take at a given moment. Complex fluid dynamics are at work, unforeseeable, changing within minutes, sometimes within seconds.
Precise composition rules
When I look at the blue sky, my mind usually drifts, hops from one thought to the other, random associations take place, unpredictable like the shape of the clouds. Compared to this, Georg Philip Telemann’s 12 Fantasias for Solo Violin (TWV 40:14-25) are masterfully conceived pieces with a strong expressive force. No randomness here, precise rules of composition related to harmony and counterpoint* govern their structure, shape and expression.
And still, when performed by Fabio Biondi, this music sounds light, effortless, flowing naturally just like chamber music composed by Telemann’s contemporaries, Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Händel, with whom Telemann regularly exchanged letters. What masters the 18th century was blessed with!
Composing ad libitum
Telemann was a self-taught violinist and this work shows the influence of Italian sonatas and concertos. His style bridges the gap between the Baroque era and the Vienna centered Classic era. He published the sonatas in 1735 in Hamburg, along with 12 Fantasias for Solo Viola da Gamba.
In 1721, Telemann had moved to Hamburg to assume the post of director of the Johanneum, a humanistic school, and musical director of the city’s five main churches. This was a prestigious post offering – theoretically – Telemann the opportunity to compose and perform at his will. However, the work load related to his teaching and church duties was beyond what he had expected. Bach would make the same experience in Leipzig, but both composers did not hesitate a second to take up additional duties and to compose ad libitum on top of that.
Incitement to lasciviousness?
A year later Telemann became the director of Hamburg’s opera, the Oper am Gänsemarkt, where he performed his own operas as well as works by Händel and Reinhard Keiser. “Telemann’s direction of the opera and collegium musicum met with strong disapproval from certain church officials, who complained in July 1722 that such performances incited lasciviousness”, says Oxford Music Online. “Their objections were not acted upon by the city council, many of whose members regularly attended Telemann’s performances. From the beginning of his Hamburg tenure Telemann sought to supplement his income by selling printed texts for his yearly Passion.
Whatever way Hamburg’s city council looked at it: Telemann was the leading German composer of his day, “prolific and independent of mind”, as the music scholar Julie Anne Sadie writes. As such he usually got what he wanted. Excellence definitely has its advantages!
© Charles Thibo