Handel vs Bach
When thinking of composers, whose works changed the world of music forever, many names may come to mind. Among those on that list, two prominent and famous composers are guaranteed on the list – Handel and Bach. Both Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel are figures whose effect on music has been felt worldwide.
Born in the same year, these composers have much in common and many differences that illustrate their importance to their era and music as we see it today.
Their individualism and creativity influenced much of their time and together, their works defined the Baroque Period as we know it today.
In this article, I am going to make a comparison between two extremely famous Baroque composers; George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and Johan Sebastian Bach(1685-1750). It is often quite challenging to take an unbiased view of two such eminent composers, but also informative and even inspirational. So enjoy the ride.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
He was born in Halle in February 1685, about a month before and 200km away from where J.S. Bach would be born in Eisenach. Handel was not born into a musical dynasty: the parental wish was for him to become a lawyer, so he defied his family to become a musician: he moved towards a profession which was insecure unless one could find a position in the court or the church. Even in these spheres, his living would be at the risk of aristocratic whim. But Handel was brave, and clearly interested in theatre and opera: in 1703 he was working as a violinist and keyboard player in the opera house in Hamburg. He was drawn to opera and wrote two of his own before he set out on an incredibly long journey to Italy.
He travelled extensively and made himself known to the aristocratic patrons who he knew would fund and support his ambitious ventures. Handel cut his musical teeth as a violinist in the orchestra of Hamburg where they performed many contemporary operas that perhaps contributed to Handel’s own life-long fascination with the genre.
HANDEL’S EARLY YEARS
In his early twenties Handel was able to travel to Italy; the home of opera. Handel absorbed the traditions and practices of the great operas at of the time on his travels whilst increasing his standing as a virtuoso performer. The Italian influence on his compositions became increasingly evident from then on. Handel returned to Hanover but only briefly before journeying to England where he remained until his death.
It was as a composer in England that Handel firmly established himself. He heaped lavish quantities of his own time and his patron’s money into each operatic project. The operatic works became steadily popular with the London crowds but eventually, after some lapses of artistic judgement, Handel found himself increasingly in debt. Even in the 18th century, operas were not inexpensive to stage.
Handel found that his reputation and popularity began to wane and all too soon the London audiences found him less fashionable. Undaunted, Handel wrote what was to become probably the best-known oratorio in musical history; The Messiah. Completed in a staggeringly short amount of time.
Handel began noticing changes in his eyesight. Some scholars insist that he had cataracts, because he had his putative cataracts “couched” by the Chevalier Taylor
After his visual loss, Handel’s health inexorably declined through the last eight years of his life. He became more religious, more introspective, and retreated into a cocoon of solitude and silence. Although he still played the organ and acceded to conduct the occasional Messiah, his compositional style changed. He went on to complete the oratorio Jephtha in 1752, his last work in the genre. Handel’s days as a composer of opera seria were long past as well; his last opera, Deidamia, premiered in 1741, victim of a sea-change in the taste of London society. It remained for Mozart.
Handel died on April 14, 1759 at the age of seventy-two, a justly famous and widely admired cultural icon. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. Having never married and having no children, he left his estate to his niece, Johanna, and also, as per four separate codicils, to his friends, his servants, and several charities.
Johan Sebastian Bach
JS Bach unlike Handel came from a long line of established musicians. He was born in 1685 in Eisenach, Germany the son of Johan Ambrosius Bach, also a fine musician. Orphaned at the age of ten, he went to live with his elder brother J C Bach who was largely responsible for the young Bach’s musical education. This is where Bach began to develop his formidable skills as a practical musician, especially on the organ and the Klavier.
In spite of Bach’s status as a composer these days, during his lifetime he was in no way so well-known. His working life began as Kapellmeister in 1717 at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen where he composed many of the best-loved of his instrumental works including The Brandenburg Concertos.
Following the death of his first wife in 1720, Bach wasted little time in choosing another. In 1721 Bach married the now well-known Anna Magdelena Wilcken, to whom he dedicated his “Notebooks”. Increasingly Bach became restless with his job as Kapellmeister at Anhalt-Cöthen, prompting his application for a new position at St Thomas’s in Leipzig.
His application was not successful although fortunately for Bach, the appointee withdrew and Bach was given the post. Whilst in Leipzig, Bach composed a substantial quantity of the sacred music we are now familiar with including the St Mathew Passion, The Mass in B Minor and his final work (unfinished), The Art of Fugue (Die Kunst die Fuge).
Even though Bach sustained a reputation as a formidable organist and virtuoso Klavier player, his work as a composer was not so well recognised out of his small musical circle. After his death Bach’s music all but vanished from the public ear, his work often being considered as overly protestant and old fashioned.
Bach underwent eye surgery in March 1750 and again in April, by the British eye surgeon John Taylor. Taylor was widely understood today as a charlatan and believed to have blinded hundreds of people. Bach died on 28 July 1750 from complications due to the unsuccessful treatment.
Mendelssohn has been credited with the revival of Bach’s music that came after a performance he conducted, of the St Matthew Passion in Berlin. Since then the numerous compositions of Bach have been catalogued, edited and comprehensively published, with Bach’s reputation as a supreme polyphonist fully restored.
Similarities and Comparison between Bach and Handel
What we can reveal in this brief summary of these great Baroque composers are two musicians whose lives paralleled in many ways but also were highly distinct.
1. Bach remained broadly within a small area of Northern-Germany whilst Handel travelled, eager to learn and be influenced by other cultural traditions. Both wrote a substantial quantity of instrumental works and both were recognised as virtuoso performers on several instruments.
2. Bach did not seek to rise through the ranks of the social hierarchy whereas Handel deliberately did so. Handel even furthered his career as a result in a country that was not his own. Bach married twice and reportedly fathered twenty children. However, Handel remained a deeply private individual who never sought the benefits of marriage.
3. Handel became a celebrated operatic composer as well as the composer responsible for creating the enormously popular oratorio, The Messiah. Bach was the great master of the polyphonic form, a fugal genius. Handel on the other hand was a melodist of immense power and sensitivity. The sacred output from Bach greatly outweighs that of Handel although he composed only one full Mass in B minor.4. Bach’s works enjoyed a revival through Mendelsohn after his death. Handel’s fell from favour and still to this day remain somewhat in the shadow of Bach.
But something else also unites these two Baroque masters, namely a medical bond. They both suffered visual loss at the end of their lives. Even more coincidentally, both composers may have undergone eye surgery by the same person.
Handel never recovered his eyesight and his last compositions were notated painstakingly by his amanuensis (copyist), John Christopher Smith; himself a relatively successful opera composer.
One thing was so sure with this two giant, therir rich musical creations remain a trove of artistic beauty, extraordinary in both quality and quantity. Despite their visual impairments, Bach and Handel retained wondrous acoustic capacities, through which they conjured and crafted such a sublime and indelible musical legacy.
Some Compositional Statistics of Bach and Handel
Passions and Oratorios
Bach – (St Matthew; St John passions/Christmas, Easter Ascension Oratorios) ( 5 )
Handel – The Messiah – no Passions (29)
Bach – none
Handel – 42 Operas
Total Estimated Number of Pieces Composed by Bach & Handel
Bach – 1200
Handel – 612
Many compositions, in particular of Bach, has been lost. The same is broadly true for Handel.
There you go. So you would you pick as the king of Baroque period, Bach or Handel?
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