At the age of 78 Georg Philipp Telemann wrote his resurrection oratorio for Hamburg. In it he was able to draw on the full experience of his long composing career. A magnificent alternative for Passiontide concerts.
On 23 April 1760 the Hamburg press announced that in Georg Philipp Telemann’s Drillhaus concert on 28 April, as well as the famous Donner-Ode TVWV 6:3a (Part 1) an “Oster=Stück” (Easter work), a new composition would be heard: Christi Auferstehung bis zu dessen Himmelfahrt, nach einer neuen Poesie. (The Resurrection of Christ leading up to his Ascension to heaven, based on new poetry.) This was to be the oratorio Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu, with “new poetry” by Karl Wilhelm Ramler (1725–1798), Telemann’s preferred poet in his old age. Ramler, who worked as a teacher at the Berlin cadet school, was described with justification by Arnold Schering as the “most celebrated oratorio poet of this time”. Before setting this newly-written libretto, Telemann had previously set two texts by Ramler to music: the Passion oratorio Der Tod Jesu TVWV 5:6 (1755, also set by Carl Heinrich Graun at the same time) and the Christmas cantata Die Hirten bey der Krippe zu Bethlehem TVWV 1:797 (1759). After works about Jesus’s death and Passion, a new work now followed about his resurrection and ascension. Whereas the first-named libretti were written for other composers, Ramler wrote the third work in his cycle specially for Telemann. Later it was set by other composers including Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Friedrich Agricola. Ramler himself reported somewhat casually about the genesis of the poem in a letter on 24 February 1760 to Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim: “… I have given a solemn promise to complete something by Easter with which an aged musician will sing his demise. Herr Telemann, an aged man of 78, wants to sing his swansong, and I am to provide him with the words for it.” But Ramler was mistaken if he thought this was to be Telemann’s “swansong”: important and surprisingly modern works such as Der Tag des Gerichts TVWV 6:8 were still to follow in the coming years. These included the dramatic cantata Ino TVWV 20:41 and the idyll Der Mai TVWV 20:40 to poetry by Ramler.
In Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu the events narrated in the Bible are divided into seven sections comprising recitative-aria-chorus/chorale or recitative-aria. Telemann begins the work with a dark, sarabande-like introduction, followed by urgent choruses (such as the shattering choral fugue at the beginning, and the magnificent psalm chorus complex at the conclusion), pictorial accompagnati and large-scale da capo arias with alternating obbligato instruments (with clearly contrasting central sections). The two duets should be singled out; one of these is in the conventional form of a French ouverture, but the other (Vater deiner schwachen Kinder) strikes a highly sensitive note which even reduced Telemann’s contemporaries to tears.
In his late works, mainly intended for the concert hall, Telemann consciously experimented with the modern poetry of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachariae and Ramler. They offered him inspiration to create an entirely unique musical style which is also manifested in this oratorio. It originates from a fusing of older forms and styles with modern-sounding motifs and harmonies responding directly to every detail of the ‘sensitive’ poetry. In the work, Telemann attached high importance to interpreting the poetic model with appropriate emotions and reflecting the declamatory and agogic patterns precisely. The orchestral writing, finely worked and thoughtfully scored, never obscures the words. In the closely-woven, yet at the same time elegantly-worked composition, a characteristic stylistic world develops which cannot be described as anything other than typical Telemann.
Telemann’s oratorio Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu is one of his most interesting, perhaps even his best vocal works, one which contains much of interest for choirs. Here the composer’s stylistic adaptability, which continued into his old age, is shown in exemplary fashion. The often-quoted writer Christian Gottfried Krause is probably not to be contradicted when he wrote concerning this “unforgettable” music, that Telemann “demonstrated in his 80th year that he can do anything […]!”
(from [t]akte 1/2017)