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Handel and JS Bach

GF Handel

(Halle; Febr 23, 1685 - Apr 13, 1759; London)

George Frideric Handel can be described as a completely international composer. His main output was opera/oratorio for international public. His music has immediate appeal and more accessible than Bach's. He is a master of grandiose effects and drama. Pictorial and effective musical symbolism is one of the main features of Handel's choral writing (word-painting, descriptive music, use of certain keys in certain contexts). Much of his happiest word setting occurs in description of nature. He uses choral counterpoint to express a conflict of dramatic principle. Double and inverted counterpoint is frequent. He has a wonderful melodic gift. Expansive, tuneful, seemingly effortless music that makes no demands from the listener is typical of Handel. Most tunes have a serene lyricism (like Lascia ch'io pianga). He uses Romantic harmony (it is said that between him and Bach, all tools of the so-called Romantic harmony had already been used). Purcellian turns of melody and harmony, including false relations at cadences and love of hemiola (not exclusively at cadences), expressive play with words, broken unaccompanied cadences are frequent. Handel and Purcell often elected to dwell in the same way on the same words and ideas (especially death). Although his works during the Cannons period have some flaws, he set the language with a subtlety few native composers have equaled. His melodic simplicity points to the classical style. The dramatic charge in his simple music is noteworthy (the Dead March in Saul). Beethoven most appreciated the ability of Handel to create enormous effects through simplicity.

He was a man of the theatre. Writing music for a paying audience was his business. He had first left his hometown Halle to go to the only operatic center in Germany, Hamburg, where he wrote his first two operas. His next journey was not surprisingly to the European center of opera, Italy. According to Mainwaring, his biographer, Handel's intention in traveling to Italy was to experience Italian opera at first hand. Altogether he wrote almost fifty operas and half as many oratorios, much of his other music is also occasional music (like Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks). Even the organ concertos he wrote were written for use in the theatre to be played between the acts of his oratorios. Handel, therefore, is not interested in the academic side of his music, he doe not care about the academic procedures in his fugues, ignores the pure consecutive fifths (in Zadok) as long as the music has the theatrical character. For Handel his music had to be appreciated at first hearing. He was one of the first composers who responded the demands from the audience. For example, he knew that English taste showed a predisposition towards the chorus to which he replied promptly. His theatrical ambitions were so strong that even after the failure of the Royal Academy of Music (1718-1728) and the huge success of the Beggar's Opera (1728), he continued to produce operas. This time he was not so successful. In 1732, he created a new genre: the Handelian Oratorio. Esther was the first production with success. In those years, to be able to compete with the rival company 'the Opera of the Nobility', he invented the organ concertos to be played between the acts. Until 1741, he produced both operas and oratorios after which there were only oratorios. An obvious reason for abandoning the Italian opera serie was that the public was not as enthusiastic as it had once been about Italian opera.

JS Bach (1685-1750)

A brief biographical note on Johann Sebastian Bach's life:

1685  Born in Eisenach (March 21), a small town in Thuringia. His mother died in 1694 and his father in 1695.

1695-1700  Together with his brother Jacob, moved to Ohrdurf to his brother Johann Christoph III's house who had been a pupil of Pachelbel.

1700-1702/3  Moved to Luneburg (St Michael Church) to be a member of Matins choir. In another church in Luneburg, G. Bohm was the organist. From Luneburg, he traveled to Hamburg and Celle (French orchestra) to increase his musical experience.

1703  Briefly in Weimar as a violinist in the court of  Prince Ernst who was fond of Italian music.

1703-1707  Organist in Arnstadt (the New Church). He traveled to Lubeck to listen to Buxtehude and became aware of Kuhnau's programmatic music. Under his music's influence, wrote the Capriccio (1704) for Jacob's departure.

1707-1708  Organist at St Blasius, Muhlhausen. Married Maria Barbara Bach. Early cantatas (No. 4, 71, 131).

1708-1717  Court organist at Weimar (second Weimar period). Primarily wrote organ music. WF Bach (1710) and CPE Bach (1714) were born.

1717-1723  Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Kothen. Concertos (the Brandenburgs, solo and double string), two of the orchestral suites, instrumental works (sonatas and partitas for violin, cello suites) and keyboard works (sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba). Maria Barbara died at 1720 and he married Anna Magdalena Wilcken.

1723-1750  St. Thomas's Kantor in Leipzig as successor to Kuhnau. Cantatas, Passions, Oratorios, Masses, Motets and Magnificats, Harpsichord Concertos, Well-tempered Clavier, Goldberg Variations (Air with thirty variations), the Musical Offering, the Art of the Fugue, etc. Director of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig (1729). JC Bach was born (1735).

1750  (July 28) Died in Leipzig

He was a determined person to extract the best from every worthy source. His stylistic development was determined by those whose music he came across. The first composers he got to know were Froberger, Pachelbel and Kerll during his stay in his brother Johann Christoph's house in Ohrdurf (1695-1700). The composer Froberger had traveled a lot and integrated various national styles in his keyboard suites whereas Kerll was a contrapuntist of distinction. In Luneburg (1700-1702/3), he met G. Bohm who had a famous repertory of Italian music. In the same period, he traveled to Hamburg (Reinken, Keiser and Lubeck) and Celle. The Duke of Celle had been to the famous court of Louis XIV and transferred French string players to Celle. Again, without traveling abroad, Bach was able to come across the French Baroque music. In his short stay in Weimar (1703), he was a violinist in the court of Prince Johann Ernst who was a transcriber of Italian music. (When he later had a post in Weimar in 1713, the Prince had acquired Vivaldi's [Op.3] concertos published in Amsterdam in 1711.) During his Arnstadt years (1703-7), he traveled to Lubeck to hear Buxtehude. Buxtehude had been a pupil of Italian Frescobaldi. At this period, his predecessor in Leipzig Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) published programmatic multi-movement keyboard sonatas which used romantic harmony and the French style brise. These sonatas exhibit elements of French, Italian and German styles. These pieces may have inspired Bach to write the Capriccio for harpsichord (BWV992) on the departure of his brother Jacob. At an unknown period in his life, Bach came under the influence of JCF Fisher who had transferred the French orchestral ballet suit idiom to the keyboard. In Weimar (1708-17), the organist of the town church (who was also his cousin) had an interest in arranging Italian organ music. The combined effects of these interactions were the fusion of national styles of the late Baroque period in Bach's music. For example, his unaccompanied solo violin sonatas are in Corelli's sonata da chiesa type (slow-fast-slow-fast plan), the violin partitas and unaccompanied cello suites are in the French suit model.

In concertos, combination of French and Italian styles can easily be seen. Unlike Handel, Bach absorbed foreign influences without traveling abroad. For example, the Brandenburg concertos are in the Italianate-Vivaldian style with German preference for several wind instruments together. The first one is French suit-based, and the fifth one is almost an Harpsichord concerto (the favorite French instrument of the time). Brandenburg concerto No. 4, on the other hand, is considered to be a Violin concerto in Italian style. As early as 1715, he had written an Italian style ritornello movement (Cantata No. 31; first movement) and a French overture (Cantata 61; in 1714). Also plenty of organ music in German style was written in Weimar years (1708-1717).

Bach writes for human voices in instrumental idioms (for example, the jagged tenor line in the Kyrie of Mass in B minor). He likes musical symbolism, symmetry and mathematical relationships in his music, and is fond of modulating to the subdominant. Bach's music is more expressive than abstract, and when he chooses to tell a story (as in St. Matthew's Passion) the result is impressive. He is a master of counterpoint. His work represents the climax of the later contrapuntal style, of which the fugue was the most definite expression.  The ultimate expression of his contrapuntal genius is The Musical Offering (1747). He wrote a lot of sacred vocal music but no opera. Some of his cantatas (like the Peasant) strongly suggest that he could have written comique operas if he had to. He wrote nothing for public entertainment, his instrumental music is for private court entertainment. In his concertos, he follows the Vivaldian structure leading to the three-movement classical concerto style. The main difference from Vivaldi is that he emphasizes woodwind instruments as a North German tradition. Also the texture of his concertos is fuller and more contrapuntal than Vivaldi's. Even in his sonatas or suites for solo violin and cello (with no accompanying part), one does not feel that the texture is thin. He had a similar interest to various instruments like Vivaldi but he was more interested in their combinations (as in the Brandenburgs). Compared to Handel who followed the Corellian style in Baroque concerto, Bach makes use of the ritornello structure more and uses wind instruments more. In chorales, he made extensive use of chromaticism and dissonance to emphasize emotional significance of words. A typical Bach melody in slow movements on a ground bass is highly elaborate and rococo: frequent groups of demisemiquavers, a lot of mordents, appoggiaturas, subservient to no metrical pattern, but pausing to cadence only. From diverse stylistic elements of Baroque music, he created an individual style. His style is the result of his technical competence, intellectual concentration, musical imagination and emotional sensitivity.

Bach vs Handel

A general comparison of Bach's with Handel's music can be summarized as intensive melodies vs extensive melodies. Handel excels in broad and majestic motives while Bach's melodies are intensive. Bach uses very dense contrapuntal texture with complex and chromatic harmonies. Handel achieves expressiveness through simple means. In their sensuous and immediate appeal, Handel's arias are opposite of the abstract appeal of Bach's music. The extensive quality of Handel's melodies explains why his music lends itself to amplification by massed ensembles. The monumental effects of Handel's music gain strength by reinforcement whereas it would ruin Bach's music because it would obscure the transparency of the contrapuntal process.

Bach writes complicated instrumental lines and different but still complicated vocal line in his vocal music. In the vocal part, disjunct movements and awkward intervals are common. Between instrumental and vocal lines, there is no sharing of the material. The free-voiced choral polyphony of Handel and the strictly linear, instrumentally conceived polyphony of Bach form the two poles of late Baroque music. To Handel, who is always close to improvisation (cf. his organ concertos), the flow of ideas is more important than their elaboration, whereas to Bach elaboration is more important. Handel regards counterpoint only as a means to a dramatic end, as can be seen in the quickly changing textures in his choral writing. Bach takes it as an end in itself which must be consistent. Because of its dramatic conception, Handel's counterpoint reaches its greatest heights in the vocal medium. Even his keyboard fugues seem to call for text and seem to acquire their final impetus in vocal form; it is for this reason that Handel was so successful in transferring his ideas from the instrumental to the vocal music. In his vocal-mindedness (which is quite different from the instrumental-mindedness of Bach and Vivaldi), Handel appears as a composer whose main concern was the human voice. Bach's self-borrowings are between instrumental forms (many movements of the Brandenburg concertos were used as preludes to his cantatas). Bach does not hesitate to submit his choral polyphony to an instrumental standard. In the flexibility of his choral idiom, Handel surpasses Bach in the same measure as Bach surpasses Handel in contrapuntal consistency.

In his instrumental music, Handel shares the Italian conservatism and hardly goes beyond Corelli so far as form is concerned. The simplicity of his instrumental melodies points towards innovations of the Classical period. Bach is conservative in his adherence to polyphonic texture, but progressive in his choice of modern forms, such as the concerto form of Vivaldi. Similarly, the organ style of Handel is clearly influenced by the idiom of the harpsichord as the opposite is true for Bach.

Their psychological attitudes were also different. Bach was an introvert whereas Handel was an extrovert. Handel assimilated the various national styles so that they became his second nature. He mastered each one equally well. Bach assimilated the various influences with his own personal style and arrived at a fusion of national styles in which the single elements are inseparable. Handel's work center around his operas, written from a worldwide perspective for an international public. Bach's works center around his cantatas, written for the local churches, and his passions, the monuments of his liturgical severity. Handel always bent on success, passed through the international centers of music; Bach, unconcerned about worldly success, began and ended his career within the narrowness of central Germany.

It is interesting that the same text was set to music by both composers. This is Eilt ihr angefocht'nen Seelen in the Passion Oratorio (by Handel) and in the St. John Passion (by Bach). They used the same key and the same pictorial representation of 'haste', and the choral interjections at dramatic points are also common. According to Bukofzer, however, Handel's music is inferior because it lacks the highly individual stamp that distinguished Bach from all other composers.



* Bukofzer MF. Music in the Baroque Era. WW Norton & Company Inc. NY, 1974, pp. 345-9.

* Sadie S & Latham A. The Cambridge Music Guide. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, 1996, pp. 184-217

* Dean W. Handel's Dramatic Oratorios and Masques. Oxford University Press. London, 1959

* Hendrie G. Handel (From Baroque to Romantic, Units 5-7). The Open University Press. Milton Keynes, 1996.

* Hendrie G. Bach (From Baroque to Romantic, Units 8-10). The Open University Press. Milton Keynes, 1996.


I thank Grant AB Gilman of Peabody Conservatory for pointing out the lack of acknowledgement of the References used in this compilation (April 2, 2002).

Compiled by  M.Tevfik Dorak, BA (Hons)

Last updated on April 2, 2002

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