FOR CELLISTS: AMATEUR, ASPIRING ............... AND CURIOUS

Telemann Fantasias for Unaccompanied Cello

Compared to the violin, the Baroque repertoire for unaccompanied cello is quite limited. Fortunately, Bach left us six cello suites, but unfortunately his almost exact contempory, the magnificent and hugely prolific composer Georg Telemann (1681-1757), wrote very little for the cello as a “protagonist” instrument. He did however write twelve wonderful unaccompanied Fantasias for violin, most of which are transcribed below for cello. He also wrote another twelve sonatas for viola da gamba, discovered only in 2015 which may be for a future transcription project.

These violin Fantasias are such a pleasure to play on the cello!  Although they sound rich and interesting (and therefore “difficult”) they are actually easier to play than Bach’s cello suites, and very much easier than playing Bach’s Unaccompanied Violin music on the cello. The phrases are shorter and the music breathes more often. The long Bachian lines – and slurs – are absent. Telemann was a self-taught violinist and probably not as accomplished at the instrument as Bach was. This means that he exploits to a maximum his musical invention rather than the technical capacities of the player, and he really achieves musical miracles without needing to be a first class virtuoso. This is especially advantageous for us cellists, when playing violin music on the cello.

Telemann is a little like a cross (morph) between Bach and Vivaldi, and this wonderful mixture can be seen in these Fantasias, which seem to be divided up into two contrasting groups. In the first six Telemann shows his “Bachian” side: these sonatas are quite “Germanic” in the sense that they are strongly polyphonic, containing fugues and loads of double stops. In sonatas 7 to 12 however Telemann shows his “Vivaldiesque” side: these are in a very different, “Galante” Italian style, more melodic and flowing, with much fewer double stops. This difference is made clear in the following table. This division into two groups is curiously similar to the stylistic differences between Bach’s Sonatas (germanic) and Partitas (more “galante”) for Solo Violin.

Fantasia Nº123456
Nº Dblestops160220200250240380
Fantasia Nº789101112
Nº Dblestops202015407080

Even in the first six, in spite of all the polyphony, this music never sounds heavy or academic. The mood is still of lightness, pleasure and …… fantasy. The double stops very often use an open string, which means that not only are they easier to play but also that they really ring out vibrantly.

It is very helpful to play these pieces transposed down a fifth, in order to be able to make use of all the intended open strings and to avoid the higher fingerboard regions. This is especially important for the double-stops and chords in the first six (the polyphonic ones). For those of us who might like to have a try in the original key, the first Fantasia is shown here untransposed (just an octave down from the original). Unfortunately, when we transpose down a fifth, we go into a “flatter” key (with one more flat or one less sharp in the key signature). So, for example Fantasia Nº 1 which is originally in Bb major for the violin, is now in Eb major for the cello, which means we can no longer use the open A string. This complicates matters considerably for our left hand. Even worse is the situation of Fantasias 3 and 7 which are originally in Eb major. After transposition they are now in Ab major, which means that we are unable to make use of either of the two top open strings. For this reason, these two Fantasias have not been transcribed here for cello. Certainly with a smaller transposition into an easier key these Fantasias would be perfectly adapted to the cello also.

Whereas the Bach Cello Suites are each made up of 6 dance movements, these Fantasias consist of three (or occasionally four) movements, none of which are derived particularly from dances, in an alternation of fast and slow tempi. This gives us a total of approximately 36 movements, which is, curiously once again, the same as the total number of movements in the six Bach suites. Perhaps these Fantasias were Telemann’s answer to Bach’s solo cello and violin music? These Fantasias are however quite different in style and expressivity to the Bach Suites.

Hopefully they will be a welcome addition to the solo cello performance repertoire. But they also provide some uniquely pleasant musical study material. While the first six are magnificent for improving our comfort with double-stops and polyphonic solo playing, the last six are good for developing our flashy Baroque virtuosity in the Neck Region. These last six – the “Italian” ones – might remind us at times of Vivaldi’s sonatas. Please don’t play them with the sustained tenuto style (bowstrokes) that we use in the Romantic repertoire. This is light, gentle (but still profound), intimate music that needs a lot of air and natural resonance between the notes (see Pre-Classical Style and Interpretation).

The Fantasias never leave the Neck Region. Therefore the “Easier Versions” are made easier not by transposing down the high passages (there aren’t any) but rather by changing occasional notes, mostly to eliminate the need for the use of the (low) thumb position or to make awkward double stops more playable. Also some complex bowings and articulations are simplified. Sometimes even in the “Edited Concert Versions” some of the double stops have been alterered or revoiced for the same reason.

The original source for these transcriptions is the very early Urtext “Peters” edition of 1972. Very often the original articulations (bowings, slurs) have been modified for the “playing” editions presented here. This occurs especially in the many “sewing machine” passages (uninterrupted separate-bow fast notes). Because the cello doesn’t respond as quickly as the violin to bow changes, occasional two-note slurs have been added to avoid these fast separate-bow passages sounding scratchy, especially when there are lots of string crossings. Another systematic modification made in the playing editions is that, whereas Telemann (like Bach in his Violin Sonatas and Partitas) shows very clearly the different contrapuntal voices, here, the musical lines are usually just fused together into one to make both the reading and the layout less complex. These are “playing editions” rather than “analytical editions”.

FANTASIA Nº 1

As mentioned above, Eb major is not the best key for the cello, especially in an unaccompanied piece. Others of Telemann’s Fantasias are easier than this one but this Fantasia is nevertheless eminently playable,although at times somewhat uncomfortable, and is good practice for extensions and half-position.

The note changes made in the “Edited Concert Version” are: octave transposition (upwards) in bars 28-30 of first movement, and in the 2nd movt the revoicing of a double-stop or chord in bars 6, 9, and 38, and the addition of a double-stopped fifth on the cadential trill in bars 6, 9, 26, and 29.

There is no “Easier Version” because there are no thumb position or high passages to remove or transpose. Here, an “Easier Version” would involve simply removing double stops.

Edited Concert Version      Clean Concert Version      Literal Transcription      Original Key

FANTASIA Nº 2

No notes have been changed for the Concert Version, and only very few for the Easier Version.

Edited Concert Version       Clean Concert Version       Easier Version       Literal Transcription

FANTASIA Nº 4

Several note changes have been made here, mostly just the revoicing of some awkward double stops as in bars 16 and 33. Bars 45 and 62 have been “improved” (corrected)! In the 2nd movement a middle note has been added to the chord in bar 3 and in the last movement, bars 3 and 21 have been revoiced with octave transpositions up of the lower doublestop line. Once again an “Easier Version” would simply involve removing double stops.

Edited Concert Version        Clean Concert Edition          Literal Transcription

FANTASIA Nº 5

I almost regretted transcribing this one because of the work it needed (both as player and transcriber) to make it sound as good as it sounds on the violin. Quite a few modifications were considered necessary, especially to make some of the frequent polyphonic passages playable. In the fugue sections, in those passages where the fingering limitations of the cello have obliged us to shorten some notes, the music has been written out “as played” rather than how Telemann notated it. In bars 18, 26, 29, 58 and 62, chords have been revoiced and bars 29-31 have been transposed up an octave. In the last movement, bars 6, 33, 34 and 44 have had a note removed from the double stopped passage, bars 10, 11 and 49 have had harmony notes added and bars 48-50 have been transposed up an octave.

Edited Concert Version      Clean Concert Version     Easier Version         Literal Transcription

FANTASIA Nº 6

This Fantasia has so many more double stops and chords than any of the others that we might wonder sometimes why Telemann didn’t just write it as a duo! Bar 23 has a correction to the trill note, in bar 40 a note is added to the chord. In the 2nd movt, in bar 15 a double stop is revoiced. In the 3rd movement, a note has been added to the chord in bar 2 and in bar 11 of the “Maggiore” movement the C# has been transposed up an octave. Once again, an “Easier Version” of this Fantasia requires simply eliminating or modifying some of the double-stops.

Edited Concert Version         Clean Concert Version      Literal Transcription

FANTASIA Nº 8

No note changes have been made except for a very few in the “Easier Version”, which is in fact almost identical to the “Concert Version”. The last movement of this Fantasia is very strange. Was Telemann delirious at the time of writing it, is it full of mistakes, was it a joke ………or was he anticipating 20th century maniacal minimalist mayhem?!

Edited Concert Version         Clean Concert Version         Easier Version           Literal Transcription

FANTASIA Nº 9

No notes have been changed except for in the “Easier Version”.

Edited Concert Version          Clean Concert Version          Easier Version              Literal Transcription

FANTASIA Nº 10

The only note changes are in bar 10 of the 3rd movement of the “Easier Version”.

Edited Concert Version          Clean Concert Version          Easier Version              Literal Transcription

FANTASIA Nº 12

The beautiful, stately, processional dotted first movement, in pure French style, can definitely be played “double-dotted”. The revoicings of the double stops in bars 29 and 30 of the second movement are the only note changes made. There is no “Easier Version” because there are no passages needing transposition down an octave, and no use of the thumb. The best way to make this Fantasia easier is simply to play it a little slower.

Edited Concert Version         Clean Concert Version        Literal Transcription