Georg Philipp Telemann: Suite for Two Violins, “Gulliver’s Travels”

Program notes written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

Between 1728 and 1729, Telemann published a periodical he called Der getreue Music-Meister (The Faithful Music Master), filled with entertaining and instructive chamber music for use at home. Among the pieces was a set of violin duets inspired by a recent literary bestseller, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, published in English in 1726 and translated into German in 1728. The novel intersects the genres of adventure, fantasy, philosophy, and satire—a riff on Robinson Crusoe that jabs at the attitudes of the Enlightenment. Telemann, however, focuses on its more children’s-book qualities, offering musical impressions of the surreal creatures Gulliver meets. Swift, no doubt, would have been contemptuous of the use of his novel if he knew of it: he did not love music, and only surfaces again in music history for nearly preventing the premiere of Messiah, by Telemann’s friend Handel, in Dublin in 1742. As dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Swift objected to the choir performing with “a club of Fidlers.”

Telemann’s Suite, “Gulliver’s Travels,” begins with an introductory movement followed by four more corresponding to the sections of the novel. Gulliver sets sail from his home in England each time, suffers some misfortune (shipwreck, stranding, pirates, mutiny), and ends up in a strange land. The first is populated by Lilliputians:

In a little time I felt something alive moving on my left leg, which advancing gently forward over my breast, came almost up to my chin; when, bending my eyes downwards as much as I could, I perceived it to be a human creature not six inches high, with a bow and arrow in his hands, and a quiver at his back. In the mean time, I felt at least 40 more of the same kind (as I conjectured) following the first. I was in the utmost astonishment, and roared so loud, that they all ran back in a fright; and some of them, as I was afterwards told, were hurt with the falls they got by leaping from my sides upon the ground.

On the next journey, Gulliver encounters Brobdingnagians, giants who are frighteningly large and physically disgusting because all their flaws (“spots, pimples, and freckles”) are magnified by their sheer size.

He appeared as tall as an ordinary spire steeple, and took about 10 yards at every stride, as near as I could guess. I was struck with the utmost fear and astonishment, and ran to hide myself in the corn, whence I saw him at the top of the stile looking back into the next field on the right hand, and heard him call in a voice many degrees louder than a speaking-trumpet: but the noise was so high in the air, that at first I certainly thought it was thunder.

Telemann writes the Chaconne of the Lilliputians in the very small time signature of 3/32, a visual joke for the violinists, who have to read minuscule 64th and 128th notes.

The Brobdingnagians are written in the equally eccentric time signature of 24/1, putting their music into enormous whole notes.

Next, the Laputians are impractical intellectuals who live on a flying island up among the clouds. They love such useless things as music and math, but are so inattentive to the immediate world that they hire servants called “flappers” to hit them with stuffed bags to bring them back to reality.

It seems the minds of these people are so taken up with intense speculations, that they neither can speak, nor attend to the discourses of others, without being roused by some external taction upon the organs of speech and hearing; for which reason, those persons who are able to afford it always keep a flapper in their family, as one of their domestics.… This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and upon occasion to give him a soft flap on his eyes; because he is always so wrapped up in cogitation, that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post.

Finally, the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos share an island— the Houyhnhnms being rational horses, the Yahoos being wild, monkey-like humans. Of the Yahoos:

Their heads and breasts were covered with a thick hair, some frizzled, and others lank; they had beards like goats, and a long ridge of hair down their backs.… They had no tails, nor any hair at all on their buttocks, except about the anus.… Upon the whole, I never beheld, in all my travels, so disagreeable an animal, or one against which I naturally conceived so strong an antipathy.

Of the Houyhnhnms:

Upon the whole, the behaviour of these animals was so orderly and rational, so acute and judicious, that I at last concluded they must needs be magicians, who had thus metamorphosed themselves upon some design, and seeing a stranger in the way, resolved to divert them- selves with him; or, perhaps, were really amazed at the sight of a man so very different in habit, feature, and complexion, from those who might probably live in so remote a climate.

Telemann gives the Houyhnhnms a Loure, a refined French dance, played by the first violinist, while at the same time the second violinist portrays the scampering Yahoos.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.