Georg Philipp Telemann was born in Magdeburg, the son of a Lutheran deacon who died in 1685, leaving the mother to raise their three children alone. The youth showed remarkable talent in music, but was temporarily discouraged in his chosen pursuit by Puritan Lutherans, who told Telemann's mother that he would turn out no better than "a clown, a tightrope walker or a marmot-trainer." In opposition to his mother's wishes, Telemann continued to study in secrecy until she relented, allowing him to train under the highly respected Kantor Benedict Christiani, at the Old City School. Outside of some early lessons in reading tablature, Telemann was self-taught and was capable of playing the flute, violin, viola da gamba, oboe, trombone, double bass, and several keyboard instruments. Telemann began to write music from childhood, producing an opera, Sigismundus, by age 12.
Telemann was sent away to Zellerfeld in 1694; at the age of 20, the composer resolved to study law in Leipzig, but a chance meeting in Halle with 16-year-old Georg Friedrich Handel appears to have drawn him back to music. Telemann began writing cantatas for a church in Leipzig and quickly became a local celebrity. In 1702, he was named director of the Leipzig Opera, and over the next three years he wrote four operas specifically for this company.
Early on, Telemann's career is marked by sharp contrasts, both professionally and personally; Kapellmeister in Sorau, now part of Poland, in 1705, he only served three years before moving on to the court in Eisenach (1708-1712). In 1712 Telemann accepted an appointment in Frankfurt to the post of Kapellmeister at the Church of the Barefoot Friars and as director of municipal music. In 1709 Telemann married Amalie Eberlin, who died in childbirth during the first year of their union. In 1714 Telemann married Maria Katharina Textor, whose gambling addiction was so bad the citizens of Hamburg took up a collection in order save the couple from bankruptcy. Later Telemann's second spouse would abandon him in favor of a Swedish military officer.
In 1721 Telemann's opera, Der geduldige Socrates was performed in Hamburg. That same year, Hamburg's officials awarded Telemann the positions of Kantor of the Johanneum and musical director of the city's principal churches. In doing so Telemann accepted the responsibility of writing two cantatas for every Sunday, a new Passion setting annually and of contributing music to a wide variety of liturgical and civic events. Telemann readily met these obligations and in 1722 accepted the directorship of the Hamburg Opera, serving until its closure in 1738.
Telemann was also one of the first composers to concentrate on the business of publishing his own music, and at least forty early prints of his music are known from editions which he prepared and sold himself. These published editions were in some cases extremely popular and spread Telemann's fame throughout Europe; in particular the Der Getreue Musik Meister (1728), Musique de Table or Tafelmusik (1733) and the 6 Concerts et 6 Suites (1734) were in wide use during Telemann's own lifetime.
Starting in the 1740s until about 1755, Telemann focused less on composition, turning his attentions to the study of music theory. He wrote many oratorios in the mid-1750s, including Donnerode (1756), Das befreite Israel (1759), and Die Auferstehung und Himmelfährt Jesu (1760). Telemann's long life ended at the age 86 in 1767.
Georg Philipp Telemann was considered the most important German composer of his day and his reputation outlasted him for some time, but ultimately it was unable to withstand the shadow cast by the growing popularity of his contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach. Telemann enormous output, perhaps the largest of any classical composer in history, includes parts of at least 31 cantata cycles, many operas, concertos, oratorios, songs, music for civic occasions and church services, passion, orchestral suites and abundant amounts of chamber music. While many of these works have been lost, most still exist, and the sheer bulk of his creativity has made it difficult for scholars and performers alike to come to terms with. The inevitable revival of interest in Telemann did not arrive until the 1920s, but has grown exponentially ever since, and with the twenty first century in full swing more of Telemann's music is played, known, understood and studied than at any time in history.