Performing Telemann on the Clavichord: Some Reflections

Adrian Lenthall

This article first appeared in The British Clavichord Society Newsletter No.69, October 2017, pp. 3 – 4.

I confess to having had mixed feelings when I was asked to take part in the Telemann 250th Anniversary Festival in Cambridge.  For me, Telemann, or his keyboard music anyway, had been like a relative of the kind you see occasionally, secretly a little vague as to the precise kinship between you (…ah yes – C.P.E. Bach’s godfather!).  But when I took the music down from the shelf with a specific goal in mind, I found that both it, and the challenges it posed, became just the sort of unexpectedly rewarding conversation that can indeed spring up at one of those dutiful gatherings.

The challenges were not of the obvious kinds. The corpus of Telemann’s available keyboard music is not dauntingly large and poses fewer technical challenges than that of his contemporaries, so that a quick survey could be undertaken:  which pieces showed promise of coming to life on the clavichord I’d be using (a copy of the diatonically fretted 1784 Hubert now in Edinburgh;  just a few decades ‘late’ for the music)?  Telemann’s keyboard music looks ‘thin’ on the page, and the performer has to consider augmenting the texture – to be their own continuo as it were.  But actually this rather suits the clavichord, and I found myself adding less as I went on, letting the colours and lines achieve more with less, even with the Ouverture which I chose (no. 1 in G minor – a piece which reminded me of the trick I privately call ‘playing loudly by playing quietly’).  The central slow movements of this set of pieces bear potentially paradoxical tempo indications (‘Larghetto e scherzando’ in this case, ‘Dolce e scherzando’ and ‘Soave e scherzando’ in others).  But Telemann proceeds to show you that, given just the right gentleness of tempo and cantabile, rhythmic and motivic playfulness really can contribute to a contrasting accumulation of emotional urgency.  These are moments that one can hear as seeds of the later sound world of godson Emanuel – and as fine clavichord music.

The best-known pieces of Telemann’s keyboard music are the Three Dozen Fantasias, and it was the middle, ‘French’, set to which I found myself and the instrument drawn back. The performance directions, forced out of any conventional Italianate rut, are intriguingly various (‘flateusement’, ‘pompeusement’, ‘melodieusement’, ‘spirituellement’ – even ‘gaillardement’), and seem to invite open-mindedness in the exploration and subtlety in the execution.  They contain a nesting of forms, with a da capo repeat of the first section after the second (but do you curtail? vary? allow retrospect to suggest fresh nuances of mood or tempo?):  a little like some rondos, but even more open and with something of the artifice of shifting stage-scenery.  Within those sections the structures are simple, with accumulations and juxtapositions.  I chose no. 8 in A and no. 5 in G minor, the first with a delicate pastorale and two country dances.  In the first of the dances Telemann’s impressive (and documented) respect for folk materials – in effect, the ethnic Other – allows a sudden shift to the subdominant quite out of keeping with urbane theory and practice.

But it is galant restraint which overwhelmingly characterises this repertoire, even in the chorale-based pieces, which are certainly suited to domestic instruments – but in which any spiritual enthusiasm is strictly moderated.  (I found the two-part setting of Vater unser in himmelreich, with its flowing lilt, conducive to the prayerful chorale as well as to the Hubert-style clavichord.)  Pieces such as the Leichte Fugen mit kleinen Stücken illustrate the situation well (and the last one made, I decided, a good finale):  what charms us in Telemann is also what we find problematic.  We can, I think, appreciate the affability and balance and ease, but, like it or not, we live in a post-holocaust, post-Freudian age when the smile of reason, by itself, no longer satisfies or indeed seems very clever.  And yet, if my own experience is representative, there is enough and more in these collections of pieces to make one’s own, and to perform rewardingly and in good conscience.

For a brief guide to Telemann’s keyboard music, see