Telemann is known to have composed approximately 125 orchestral suites, 125 concertos (for one to four soloists or without soloists), several dozen other orchestral works and sonatas in five to seven parts, nearly 40 quartets, 130 trios, 87 solos, 80 works for one to four instruments without bass and 145 pieces for keyboard (excluding two collections containing 50 menuets apiece). This list indicates not only the considerable size of Telemann’s instrumental output, but its generic diversity. In publishing his instrumental works Telemann concentrated on the smaller scorings appropriate for domestic music-making: only ten orchestral suites and three concertos appeared in print, compared to half of the trios and quartets and the majority of the solos and unaccompanied works. Although it is certain that almost all of Telemann’s instrumental music was composed before 1740, the near total absence of autograph manuscripts has until recently hindered the establishment of a more precise chronology for the works surviving in manuscript sources.
There is probably some truth to Scheibe’s claim that Telemann popularized the French-style orchestral suite in Germany. Fasch recalled that Telemann’s suites were already well known in Leipzig by 1707, and some of the surviving works are undoubtedly products of the Leipzig, Sorau and Eisenach years. French influence is evident not only in the suites’ style, scoring and structure, but also in their frequent use of programmatic titles for entire works or individual movements (for example ‘Hamburger Ebb und Fluht’, ‘Burlesque de Quixotte’). Among the programmatic movements are representations of emotional states, mythological and other personages, nations, natural phenomena and historical epochs; dramatic scene types, such as the sommeil and tempête; and even an account of the Parisian stock market crash of 1720 (twv55:B11, ‘La Bourse’). Perhaps none of these subjects finds more vivid musical expression that the ‘concertizing frogs and crows’ of twv55F:11, depicted ingeniously and amusingly through oboes, bassoons and horns. In several works, the titles of the stylized dance movements following the overture provide a continuous narrative. Many of Telemann’s suites can be considered ‘Concertouverturen’ (Scheibe) by virtue of their concertante parts for wind or string instruments. A subset of such works features one or more concertante instruments taking a leading role throughout (as in the well-known suite in A major for recorder and strings, twv55:a2); these concerto-suite hybrids may be the earliest of their type. The idea of blurring distinctions between the two genres is taken to an extreme in the suite from the second ‘Production’ of the Musique de table (1733). Here an oboe, a trumpet and two violins function as soloists in the overture and the following ‘airs’, most of which are in fact concerto movements.
Telemann’s concertos represent virtually a history of the genre in Germany during the first half of the 18th century. The earliest surviving works (including several concertos for violin, two violins or oboe, and perhaps some of the ripieno concertos and the concertos for six instruments and continuo) date from Telemann’s Eisenach period, and their style suggests that they were written before his contact with Vivaldi’s concertos. Fast movements in the Eisenach concertos often feature sonata-like imitative or antiphonal textures which, along with a restricted motivic palette, tend to minimize the distinction between solo and tutti. Early ritornello structures resemble those found in roughly contemporary works by Torelli and Albinoni, but during the 1710s Vivaldian ritornello form gradually became an important structural principle for both fast and slow movements. Compared with the Eisenach concertos, those written in Frankfurt and Hamburg show a greater diversity in the choice of solo instruments, larger overall dimensions, stronger articulation of the tutti–solo opposition, and richer motivic and rhythmic content. Throughout his career, Telemann favoured a four-movement plan, often with a dance-based finale in binary or rondeau form. Among the most significant works from before 1720 are the concertos ‘alla francese’ for pairs of treble instruments, which strongly ‘smell of France’, and the oboe concertos, notable for their effective solo writing, harmonic and textural boldness, and instrumental recitatives. Many concertos from the later 1720s and 30s, such as the concerto for flute, oboe d’amore and viola d’amore, twv53:E1, the concerto for two flutes, violin and cello, twv54:D1, and the three works published in the Musique de table, are remarkable above all for their formal complexity and imaginative use of instrumental colour. Telemann’s comment in the 1718 autobiography that he was no great lover of concertos should probably be interpreted as a distaste for the ostentatious display of virtuosity in some Italian concertos; indeed, virtuosity for its own sake seems to have interested him far less than innovations in scoring, style and structure. His claim that he ‘clothed’ the Polish style ‘in an Italian dress’ is borne out by numerous concerto and sonata movements with the rhythmic and melodic characteristics of the polonaise or mazurka (for example, the finales to the E minor concerto for flute and recorder, twv52:e1, and the A minor concerto for recorder and viola da gamba, twv52:a1).
A similarly broad range of styles and approaches to form characterize Telemann’s sonatas, which Quantz and Scheibe considered paradigmatic. The earliest works, again probably written at Eisenach, show the clear influence of Corelli and the post-Lullian generation of French composers, while works such as the trio for two violins and continuo in the Musique de table anticipate the mid-century Empfindsamkeit. The mixed taste, entailing alternations between Italian, French and Polish styles from movement to movement or within a single movement, appears by the Six trio (1718), and the galant style is already strongly evident in the 12 solos and 12 trios of the Essercizii musici (1740, but apparently written in the 1720s). In the Sonates corellisantes (1735) the mixed taste encompasses a blending of two italianate styles, the old (Corellian) and the new (galant). Telemann’s scorings are often strikingly original: the Six quatuors ou trios (1733) are effective as either quartets or trios, and the obbligato keyboard trios of the Essercizii musici and the Six concerts et six suites (1734) are among the earliest such works. He may also have been the originator, in Germany, of what Scheibe called the ‘Sonate auf Concertenart’, a sonata (usually in trio or quartet scoring) adopting certain stylistic and structural features of the concerto. Perhaps Telemann’s most original contribution to the history of chamber music came in his quartets for three melody instruments and continuo. These works feature colourful instrumentations (usually a mixture of strings and winds), intricate motivic interplay and kaleidoscopic shifts of texture among the upper parts. With the publication of the Quadri (1730) and Nouveaux quatuors (1738), the genre reached its peak. The fantasies for unaccompanied flute (1732–3) and violin (1735), as well as the sonata for unaccompanied viola da gamba (1728), demonstrate Telemann’s mastery of compound melodic lines and idiomatic writing, while the several sets of duets are models of two-part counterpoint. Telemann’s keyboard music is most notable for its progressiveness: the fantasies (1732–3) employ incipient sonata forms, and the Fugues légères (1738–9), described by Telemann as ‘Galanterien-Fugen’, incorporate fugal textures into the galant style.