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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY THIRTEEN Telemann and the Ninnies

(c)taste atlas

I'm on my own now, resting under a linden tree some four of five miles west of Magdeburg and eating a picnic of local specialities: a sandwich of Boetel (salt-cured ham hock, often served with sauerkraut and pea puree) and a few Schmalzkuchen (deep-fried vanilla doughnuts).

(c)zeihei 1986

Meanwhile, the Race Marshal has roared off on her Harley to find accommodation for us in Braunschweig, some 40 km to the west. We'll be in Braunschweig until Monday and then some steep climbing in the Harz Mountains en route to Goslar. Looking back at Magdeburg, I can imagine the huge castle that Henry the Fowler built to hold the line of the Elbe against the Slavs. Linked with what was then an abbey and is now the cathedral – the combination of force and Christianity that tamed that unruly land east of the Elbe. It reminds me of the occupation of Japan after the Second World War when McArthur believed that he only had to give every Japanese a Bible to turn the former enemy onto the path of peace. And I forgot to mention yesterday that Magdeburg belonged to an Englishwoman at one point – a gift from Henry the Fowler's successor, Otto I, in 929. It was her dower, her security in the event of being widowed. According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, Queen Edith “loved the town and often resided there”. She and Otto are buried in the cathedral. As I mount my bicycle, replete, the music of that son of Magdeburg, Georg Philipp Telemann fills my headphones. By all accounts Telemann was incredibly gifted: for him, music lessons were torture and so he taught himself. He mastered a multiplicity of instruments though, on occasion, using peculiar methods to improve his playing: “I am reminded here of the strong support given to me by Mr. Hebenstreit on the violin. He must certainly be considered one of the best violin players known to me. I remember well whenever we had to play a concert together, I would lock myself in my room with the sleeve of my left arm rolled up and with this arm greased with ointment to strengthen the nerves and would try to improve my technical skill in order to try to hold my own against his superior playing ability. And lo and behold, my playing would improve considerably.” (from Telemann's Autobiography) He also taught himself composition and had composed his first opera, Sigismundus, by the age of 12 (and later became musical director of the Leipzig Opera and of Hamburg Opera). He had a glittering career as the most famous musician in Germany. He was ahead of J.S. Bach, who was made Kantor in Leipzig in 1723 only after Telemann, by then ensconced in Hamburg, turned the post down. And at Hamburg, he earned three times Bach's salary. But he and Bach stayed friends: Telemann was godfather to CPE (of Potsdam fame) – who succeeded him in Hamburg. Telemann was also friends with Handel: in 1750, Handel sent him from London "a crate of flowers, which experts assure me are very choice and of admirable rarity". And Handel subscribed to the publication of Telemann's Tafelmusik of 1733, later lifting several ideas from the Tafelmusik for his own compositions. Handel had genuine admiration for Telemann who could, he joked, “write a church piece in eight parts with the same expedition another would write a letter". Tafelmusik is probably what Telemann is best known for but I also like his Heldenmusik – there's a link below. Interestingly, a kind of Tafelmusik was revived in the early 19th century in Germany by societies of men who met to sing in four-part harmony - Liedertafel. And these days, of course, we have the Whiffenpoofs. But how are we to gauge Telemann's music? We know the admiration in which he was held by Bach and Handel, but in a 1953 letter to the Editor of Music and Letters, Thurston 'Bob' Dart expressed the view that: “Even the most enthusiastic admirer of Telemann would hardly place him on a level with Mozart and Schubert. When we can obtain cheap, complete and competent editions of the towering peaks of music - Bach, Handel, Purcell, Haydn, Palestrina and the rest - then will be the time for mapping the foothills. But we shall all lose our way if the scholarly surveyors are encouraged to busy themselves in the lowlands, which is what seems to be happening at present. Bad music has a habit of driving out good music; it was once an affectation to prize Buononcini more than Handel, but I do not see why we should encourage ninnies. That Bach transcribed one piece of Telemann's for the organ proves nothing. Must we publish the collected works of Michelangelo Rossi, G. H. Stolzel and His Grace Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, just to show that we are less tactful than Bach?” So, perhaps have a listen: Telemann's complete Tafelmusik (4 hours and 18 minutes) here: Maurice Andre playing the Heldenmusik: And, if you can bear it, the Yale Whiffenpoofs of 2016 sing The Whiffenpoof Song:

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