Georg Philipp Telemann was one of history’s most prolific composers. He wrote some 3,000 works in virtually every existing genre, and at his death, in 1767, he was widely considered the leading composer of his age. Today, though, that staggering productivity has become a red flag, the source of suspicion that any composer who wrote in such quantity must have sacrificed some quality in the process.
The reversal of fortune becomes especially stark when we compare Telemann to Bach, his rough contemporary, and particularly in the realm of sacred music. Telemann composed a musical setting of the Passion story every year he was music director of the five churches in Hamburg — 46 total, of which 22 survive. It is rare to hear any of them today (though Boston Baroque will perform his St. Luke Passion of 1744 later this season). Meanwhile the two surviving Passion settings of Bach, who was far less popular than Telemann during his lifetime, are now so ubiquitous that they have become the unofficial soundtrack for the Easter season.
Still, there are undoubted highlights in Telemann’s body of work that deserve to be heard more frequently, or just heard at all. Among those working to bring them to the public are two Boston musicians: conductor Elias Miller and keyboardist and early-music scholar Christopher Grills. This weekend they are codirecting two performances of a St. John Passion that Telemann composed in 1745, which they say constitute the North American premiere of the piece.
Grills said in an e-mail that he ran across the piece in a decidedly modern way: via a recording on YouTube. Miller said by phone that “it was really shocking to both of us that it had never been done in the States.”
Both musicians think this particular Passion setting was special to Telemann, not just something the prolific composer knocked off to fulfill a requirement. It was, importantly, the only one of the 46 Passions that he published during his lifetime. And more generally, Miller said, “I think this piece is so well written. Every aria, every chorus number, every recitative — it’s just lovely galant writing,” he said, referencing the 18th-century musical style that was less dense and more approachable than that of composers like Bach.
“I think Telemann wrote really beautiful music that could appeal to almost anyone, then and now,” Miller said. “These arias are some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. They’re much simpler than Bach, but they’re every bit as charming and witty as Mozart.”
Charming? Witty? Those are words we might expect to be applied to light work of musical entertainment, not the story of Jesus’s suffering and death. And they seem all the more foreign if one thinks of the Bach Passions, whose expressive intensity can be almost unremitting. In the Telemann, by contrast, the emotional tone is in places strangely upbeat.
Miller admits that he was “shocked when I first listened to the piece because it sounded so pretty to me. It’s so much more lighthearted and so much more jovial in places than a Bach Passion.” The remarkable thing is that “it doesn’t really lose its gravitas. It’s still able to retain its dramatic impact. And it’s kind of easier to listen to, in a way.”
The two performances of the piece are taking place under the banner of the Harvard Early Music Society. (Miller is a 2016 Harvard graduate.) But Miller and Grills have really steered the whole project themselves, from fund-raising and securing venues to printing programs and enlisting the required forces, which include a small orchestra and chorus and five vocal soloists. “We did it all ourselves without any help from Harvard or anyone else,” Miller said.
Most of the other conducting projects Miller has undertaken have been similarly self-driven, entrepreneurial undertakings, a model increasingly common among young musicians. But it’s not the model Miller knew growing up. He is the son of David Miller, who has been music director of the Albany Symphony since 1992. “He went from professional gig to professional gig,” the younger Miller said. “It’s different having to print the programs and get the tickets and put up the posters yourself. You have to like that aspect of the project.”
And yet, he continued, all that extra effort makes the successes all the more satisfying. “Obviously I would rather just study the score and conduct the music and rehearse. But at the end of the day, if you’ve taken care of every tiny little detail yourself, you feel so much ownership over the project, in every conceivable way. And if it’s successful, it’s just so much more rewarding.”
Telemann: St. John Passion of 1745
Presented by Harvard Early Music Society. Oct. 27 at 7:30 p.m. at First Church in Cambridge, Congregational. Tickets $7-$18. Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Medford. Free (donation accepted). www.bit.ly/HEMSTelemann