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Friday 14 March 2014

Happy Telemann's Birthday!

The story of Händel and Telemann

On this date in 1681, Georg Philipp Telemann was born in Magdeburg. Not only was Telemann the most famous composer in Germany during the first half of the eighteenth century, but he was also a close friend of both Georg Friedrich Händel and Johann Sebastian Bach. Since Händel was my own composition teacher and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (Telemann’s godson) one of my musical mentors, Telemann holds a special place for me in the composers’ pantheon.  

I had the (at first, dubious) pleasure of meeting Telemann personally in October 1752, when I arrived in Hamburg from London at the age of seventeen, my first trip abroad. He was a wizened and gruff old man, who contradicted everything I said, at least until he read the letter of introduction I had brought from Händel. After that, Telemann’s demeanour towards me changed completely, and he even agreed to arrange my first public concert in Germany, risking trouble with the local religious authorities for allowing a woman to appear on stage.  

Besides helping me launch my career as a professional harpsichordist on the Continent, Telemann had also done something else, decades earlier, which ultimately proved even more important. Through his understanding and love for a friend who happened to be different, he encouraged that man to accept his difference and not condemn himself for it. Of course, the friend in question was Händel, and the lesson he had learned from Telemann was in turn given to me at a very critical time in my life.

This is the story of the friendship between the two composers, as told to me by Händel at his house in Brook Street, London, on the 13th of December 1750. I had gone to see him in an emotionally distraught state, having once again killed a human after losing control of my lycanthropic nature. Naturally I didn’t go into the details, but did imply that she had been my lover. He made certain correct assumptions about my sexual preference and decided to make a startling (and, in those days, dangerous) confession of his own.
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“Learning to accept one’s own difference is not easy,” said Mr Handel. “I would like to tell you something about myself, a story which I have never before revealed to another living soul. Not that I am ashamed, mind you – not any more at least – but because most of our contemporaries would not understand, and my position in society would be jeopardised were this to become common knowledge. I think that you of all people will appreciate it, and perhaps you will think differently about yourself when you have heard my story.
“When I was sixteen years of age and still living at my mother’s house in Halle, I encountered a young man who was destined for great things, as I perceived the moment we first met. He was passing through on his way to Leipzig, where he was to study law, but like myself he was a musician. We spent many hours together, often deep into the night, playing music and discussing all manner of things. This young man was struggling with a fundamental question about his life: should he obey his mother’s wishes and become a jurist, or follow his heart and devote himself entirely to his music.
“For my part, the struggle was even greater, for – contrary to all the teachings of the church and against the will of God, or so I thought then – I found myself lusting after this young man, and it was not long before my lust had turned into ardent love. For nearly two years, we visited each other very often, exchanging our music and comparing various composers’ tricks, or simply enjoying our company together. Every moment of separation from him was agonising to me. In all that time, however, I had not dared reveal my feelings to him. I felt myself wicked and cursed by God for loving another man. You know his name, for I have mentioned him before: Telemann.
“Not long after my eighteenth birthday, I resolved to remove to Hamburg, where there was a flourishing opera company, to try my fortune as a composer. Before leaving for the North, however, I visited Telemann to say farewell. At our final meeting, I could contain myself no longer, and threw myself at his feet weeping. When he asked the cause of my distress, I confessed my love for him and asked his forgiveness that I should be so wicked. Telemann bade me rise and embraced me. Then he looked me directly in the eye with a gaze that penetrated my very soul, and said the following:
“‘Friedrich, I have sensed your love since the beginning, and I love you as well, just as deeply, though not in the same way. Our natures are different in this respect, but that does not make you evil or depraved. How can love ever be wicked? How could God condemn you for loving? You are a good and fine man, and you will surely bring great beauty to the world. You must never think badly of yourself, for in doing so, you question God’s purpose in creating you this way. Only by accepting yourself fully can you achieve your true potential. Allow the love in your heart – whether for man, woman, or God himself – to pour forth in your music. With your immense talent, the music from your pen will inspire listeners for generations to come, long after we are both turned to dust.’
“In his eyes was such affection that I was again moved to tears, and he wept along with me. In the nearly fifty years which have passed since then, Telemann and I have met again on numerous occasions, whenever my travels on the Continent permitted, and our love for each other – different though it may be – has not changed in all this time. He is, and will always be, my greatest friend. If I have achieved even a measure of the greatness which Telemann had predicted for me, it is surely because I followed his advice and learned to accept myself as I am, and to search for the beauty within me which he saw.
“My dear Andronica, I give you now that same advice as was given in my youth by Telemann. You also have the potential for greatness, but you can achieve it only by acknowledging your own nature.  Whatever you may have done, you must forgive yourself for it. You must steadfastly believe in your own innate goodness, and draw strength from that. Nothing else you have learned from me will avail you more than this simple lesson.” 
* * *
What Händel said that day proved to be the most valuable lesson of my life, and it was the key to overcoming the guilt and horror which I initially associated with my lycanthropic nature. I came to accept myself as I am, to honour the wolf-woman instead of fearing her. At the same time, I vowed to take responsibility for her actions she is not a monster, but a part of myself. So I learned how to control my transformations and to shift at will, no longer dependent on the monthly cycle. It was only after I had accomplished this that I learned how the Sisterhood of the Wolf had been testing my strength and integrity, to see if I could survive alone in the world. Without the wise council of my old friend Händel, I would never have passed that test.

When I first told the story of Händel and Telemann to my human friend Brian, who is himself a scholar of eighteenth-century music, he was quite sceptical at first. Then he did some research into the matter and discovered a passage in Telemanns 1740 autobiography, confirming that the two men visited each other frequently soon after their first meeting in 1701. Händels letter to Telemann from 14 December 1750 (the day after his confession to me) also attests to a long and close relationship. Finally, the debate regarding Händels sexuality is presented in: Ellen Harris, Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas, Harvard University Press, 2001; and also Gary C. Thomas, “‘Was George Frideric Handel Gay?’: On Closet Questions and Cultural Politics” in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, edited by Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas, 155-203. New York: Routledge, 1994.
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Händel's story, and much more concerning my relationship with him, are found in Night Music, volume one of Memoirs of an Eighteenth-Century Werewolf.  In volume two, coming soon, the composer Telemann also appears as an important figure.

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