Telemann: Concerto in G major for Viola & Strings

The interactions of Corelli, Scarlatti and Handel described above give the impression of a sort of generational gap. Corelli and Scarlatti, several decades older, valued polish and refined sensibility. Handel, younger and more cosmopolitan, wanted to push the boundaries of good taste that his elders had established. To the younger generation, we can now add for discussion Georg Philipp Telemann as well as his close friend, and colleague (and during his lifetime, inferior in career and position) J.S. Bach.

But with the expansion of expressive possibilities that the younger generation brought in came new challenges. We today accept the word “baroque” unthinkingly as a descriptor for a period of music; but it was originally an insult. Jean-Jacques Rousseau summarized the term, which was already in use as an insult, in his Encyclopédie: “Baroque music is that in which the harmony is confused, and loaded with modulations and dissonances. The singing is harsh and unnatural, the intonation difficult, and the movement limited. It appears that term comes from the word ‘baroco’ used by logicians.” While Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti composed in they heyday of the style, Telemann, Bach, and Scarlatti’s composer son Domenico lived long enough to see the backlash. The backlash had a name: “galant.” The galant style was simpler, dance-able, less harmonically complex, and rejected counterpoint as the fundamental basis of musical accomplishment; which was considered stuffy, overly academic, and too difficult to compose and to listen to.

Some rejected the backlash. J.S. Bach, an inherently devout and serious man, was the acknowledged master of contrapuntal improvisation and made no attempt to make his music more appealing to those who thought it too difficult– in fact, he made the opposite effort. When Bach met Frederick the Great, who insisted on exclusively style galant music at his court, Frederick attempted to humiliate Bach by demanding fugal improvisations on an intentionally unsuitable theme with increasingly impossible numbers of voices. Two months later, Bach responded with his dedication of The Musical Offering– a collection using Frederick’s theme of some of the most astonishingly complex counterpoint ever written, which could not possibly have been less to the King’s taste.

Telemann, who was the godfather of J.S. Bach’s son and Frederick’s accommodatingly galant court keyboardist Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, was more adaptable. His Viola Concerto is the proof both of his love of the genuinely innovative, and his graceful acceptance of the kind of regressive innovation exemplified by the galant. It features four movements of melodic not overly contrapuntal music, but in terms of boundary-pushing, it must be noted that this is the first viola concerto– ever. In the context of Baroque music, where the traditional accompaniment instruments have clearly defined roles and capabilities, the choice of the viola as a solo instrument seems to also change the character of the accompaniment. The continuo accompaniment of the viola concerto is imaginative and not particularly continuous; as if the other accompaniment instruments, witnessing the elevation of the viola, can sense their own liberation on the horizon.