We love to receive questions from our students. Here’s one that we just received:
I am an eighth grader and pianist. I am studying your “300 Years” course. Why is Telemann not in the Lutheran hymnal, despite his family’s ties with the Lutheran church?
What a good question, yes? So, let me share part of how I answered him.
Telemann is not renown as writer of hymn melodies. He certainly knew the hymn tradition very well, and he composed wonderful instrumental-choral settings and arrangements of many popular hymn tunes of his day. These were glorious pieces, full of his virtuosic and brilliant style. He also wrote at least eight oratorios.
But his fame rested on other types of music. For example, he wrote fantastic and highly regarded operas, some of which have stayed in the repertoire. He wrote vibrant chamber music and keyboard variations based on melodies that were popular in his day. Some of these melodies were sacred “chorale” tunes that set popular religious texts of the day.
But, because other pieces by him are far more popular, and because J.S. Bach’s name is so much more dominant in the world of sacred music, it’s pretty unusual to get to hear this sacred repertoire nowadays, at least in my experience. Still, through the internet you can access some of his chorale settings.
Keep in mind that writing hymn melodies didn’t pay too many bills. And composers do have to pay their rent! Writing big works like operas, cantatas, festival vocal and instrumental pieces for big occasions did pay the bills. And it still does today for composers.
One more thing: any hymnal you pick up today is the most recent version. Generally one can trace a hymnal back through earlier editions. The repertoire changes with each edition. So, if you take a Lutheran Hymnal, for example, you might find it interesting to go back through several earlier incarnations. The changes can be gradual or drastic.
In new editions of hymnals, in virtually every denomination I know, a lot of older hymns, great ones, beloved ones, have dropped out, while new hymns come in. So, maybe you can make a comparison between a hymnal from, say, the 1940s and a brand new edition. Keep in mind that a hymnal reflects the musical tastes of the time. Music is a living art, and things do change.
I hope this student will continue his interest in hymns and Telemann. Perhaps we will meet at a conference some time, but the lovely thing, to me, is being connected via technology to such kids who manifest enthusiasm for their studies and for the Fine Arts. It’s an honor to be part of their education.