Injunction to Joy

Mention of Baroque “cantatas” or “oratorios” around the seasons of Advent and Christmas is most likely to evoke thoughts of the music of Bach or Handel. Unfortunately, the seasonal works by their less-celebrated contemporary Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767) are almost unknown, even among avid listeners to music from the early eighteenth century. Most of the music by Telemann that is played and heard today is from his large catalog of secular, instrumental music. But in his day, he was known best for his sacred choral compositions.

The son and grandson of Lutheran pastors, Telemann demonstrated early musical talent, composing his first opera at the age of 12. His mother was apparently set against his pursuing a career in music; she is said to have confiscated his violin, flute, and zither and forbade him to compose anymore, fearing that a life in music would only lead him in the ways of the ungodly. Encouraged, however, by various teachers to develop his talents, throughout his teens he enthusiastically performed and composed for church and school events.

At the age of 20 (perhaps in deference to his mother) he set off to study law at Leipzig University, stopping on the way in Halle to meet a talented teenager named Handel. After Telemann settled in at the university, a roommate spotted a musical setting of Psalm 6 among his belongings, and arranged for it to be sung at the Thomaskirche (where Bach would later enjoy the most fruitful years of his career). The mayor of Leipzig heard Telemann’s composition and was so impressed that he commissioned him to compose music fortnightly for use in the city’s churches. Studies in law were soon abandoned.


Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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