For Bachtrack’s Baroque Music Month, musicologist and passionate Handel advocate Corrina Connor and Margaret Steinitz, Artistic Director of the London Bach Society, debate the relative merits of their preferred Baroque composer.

Corrina Connor: Handel versus Bach? What a dilemma! I worry that participating in this debate will end in being struck down by a thunderbolt hurled from Parnassus by either Bach or Handel. It seems intolerably audacious to compare the creative work of these two musical giants, let alone come out in favour of one or another of them. But, I am Handel’s advocate on Bachtrack (now, there’s a thing: where’s Handeltrack?), and as such I will wind around my little finger the great jury that is the Bach-devoted public, and convince them, beyond reasonable doubt, that it is Handel whom they love.

Let us consider the bravery of Handel. 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 — not only hundreds of kilometres away, but also a Catholic country. We know little about the journey, but can only imagine how the Baroque dynamism of Italy, the glory of the Medici and the bright Roman sun must have struck the young Handel, who swiftly was taken up as a musical talent by cardinals, and mixed in exalted society. In 1710 he became Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, Georg, who – after the death of heirless Queen Anne (the last of the Stuarts) – would be an imported King of England; Handel wasn’t tied hand and foot to this post, and by 1711 he was in England, and receiving a retainer from the Queen, but establishing himself again in the risky world of the theatre. Again, a brave man.

George I of England
George I of England
Notwithstanding his outstanding compositions and his virtuosity at the keyboard, think of the distances Handel travelled, in discomfort and uncertainty about what he would find in each country. Only a man with courage and stamina could have undertaken these journeys – today, if one makes a mistake about relocation, it is just a matter of a quick flight home. Not in the early 18th century, when a journey was a lengthy ordeal. Ah yes, the Bach advocates will say: Bach travelled too, uncertain of what he would find when he reached his destination, and not knowing what was going on at home. Bach’s journeys, like Handel’s, were speculative, but in the main he stayed in the part of the world he knew – Lutheran North Germany – and did not fraternise with the Papists, who had been the opposition in the Thirty Years’ War which had devastated the population in so many German states as one of the consequences of Reformation.

So, perhaps we can say that Handel, who plunged into Catholic Italy, and then into an England which was still fermenting discord between Protestants and Catholics, transcended these conflicts, and established himself as a bravely independent artist who enjoyed patronage from aristocrats on both sides of the religious divide, but was never tied (apart from his stint as Kapellmeister), servile, to any institution.

Margaret Steinitz: Still no contest in my view. All they really have in common is the same year of birth, 1685. They are two distinctly different composers – in musical terms, in lifestyle and career. They never met, although there were a couple of attempts, but each knew of and respected each other’s music and reputation, especially as masters of the keyboard. Handel works were played at the Leipzig Coffee-House concerts in the 1730s. Did Handel ever play Bach’s music, I wonder? Given the pioneering work of Samuel Wesley in the early 1800s to promote JSB here, probably not. Why?

My first Bach experience was when I was eight years old – a B minor Mass sung by a local choral society, and Janet Baker was one of the soloists. Sitting in the full audience, I found it all very hard going and I little imagined at the time that Bach, this towering, bewigged musical figure whose keyboard miniatures I would practise as a child till I was blue in the face, would introduce me to my husband and ultimately take over my entire life! But he is just that kind of composer. Millions of words have been written about him, yet few of his original letters and documents have survived and much is still unknown. Today the bookshelves groan with voluminous tomes and “definitive” biographies. Bach societies exist from Venezuela to Vladivostock and if JSB were alive today he would be coining in the royalties by the truckload on the B minor alone! Interest in his music is global; there is even some JSB on the Moon. Archival surveys in central Germany may well unearth more vital clues, even missing material, but we really have to go with what we’ve got – a complete treasure house of music composed in every genre, all written for a purpose and Soli Deo Gloria... and this is exactly how Bach’s greatness is revealed, how his character shines through, his thoughtfulness, musical demands and devotion to his faith and his family.

I would not say that Bach’s travels within and beyond Thuringia and Saxony were speculative. They all had a purpose. His longest trip on foot and by cart was to meet and study with Buxtehude at Lübeck and the experience had a profound musical effect, leading him to overstay his agreed leave of absence by a couple of months. The regular trips to Dresden, the state capital and where the Royal Court was centred, were to soak up the musical opportunities there and extend his reputation – do a bit of networking, even!

CC: If we are talking about the variety of genres in which these composers worked, Handel was as astoundingly various as Bach: the riches of the sonatas and trio sonatas, the vivacity and sensuality of the concerti grossi, and characterful keyboard pieces for musicians of every level of ability, are all evidence of the imagination Handel possessed. Then there are the vivid secular cantatas, the glory and rapturous grace of the Coronation anthems, and the many oratorios. The genre of music that marks the difference between Bach and Handel is the opera.

Bach did not write operas, although of course he had an acute instinct for drama, as his oratorios and Passions demonstrate. Handel is unique for the operas in which he distilled his genius for exploring musically the psychological progress of his characters. In many of the operas – I am thinking of Alcina, Rinaldo and Rodelinda particularly – Handel’s protagonists are all inarguably human, whether they are ecstatic, triumphant, resigned, or in crushing desolation.

Despite libretti and plots which are frequently fantastical, Handel always musically establishes characters who are believable, and every note contributes to our understanding of them. Think of the pyrotechnic hostility of Bertarido’s “Vivi, tiranno” from Rodelinda. He has lost his throne (of Milan) to Grimoaldo, and hauls himself through the opera in exile, disguise, or prison. Then, at the moment when he sees that Grimoaldo’s “trusty” henchman Garibaldo is about to assassinate Grimoaldo, Bertarido grabs the sword, kills Garibaldo, and then casts the bloody sword at his enemy’s feet, challenging his rival to kill him as well: “Live, Tyrant! I have saved you”, Bertarido goads, “Now kill me, ingrate, unleash your rage”. There is not a single gratuitous note here – the entire aria is designed to emphasise Bertrarido’s total scorn for Grimaldo.

It is reasonable to point out that this is not a situation in which most of us find ourselves. But, there are few instances of music in any opera of the 18th century (or subsequently) which better express such desperate defiance mixed with fury; these emotions are instantly recognisable almost 300 years after composition. And, despite his long involvement in the sorcery and warfare of the theatre (on- and off-stage) Handel remained devout, and directed his every effort towards God. When writing Messiah, he said “I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God himself.”

MS: Some very interesting Handelian points are raised here. Bach and Handel did indeed compose in a variety of genres, each reflecting their own unique compositional style. Bach did not write an opera, that’s true, but one of the joys of travelling to Dresden would have been to revel in the opera performances by Hasse and others. JSB might even have become sorrowful that the opportunity for him to put pen to paper similarly at Leipzig or in service to the Dresden Court really did not exist. The secular cantatas are perhaps the nearest; congratulatory extravagances often set to absurd texts and with a hidden, even political message, interwoven. The Coffee Cantata (BWV 211) first performed at Zimmermann’s is a satire on the public’s obsession with the liquid; Phoebus and Pan (BWV 201), also premièred at the Coffee-House, takes a swipe at one of Bach’s greatest critics. I don’t think Handel used the medium of opera to make the same comments – although you will probably tell me one immediately!

Bach is at his best dramatically with the Passions. Here we have this form of composition, staple passiontide fare in 17th- and 18th-century Lutheran Germany, raised to new heights in scale and invention with Bach’s settings. Following the traditions of his predecessors, as the Leipzig Cantor he would have been expected to provide suitable Passionsmusik for the Liturgy and Meditation for Good Friday and he set about it with a will. With the St Matthew we have a work conceived on a grand scale – double choir, double orchestra (regardless of how many to a part) plus ripieno choir – three hours of the most absorbing, uplifting and inspired music ever written, telling the most powerful story of all and with the meaning of Christ’s Passion revealed at the very beginning! The cantus firmus in the opening chorus is about redemption and written in the major key, whilst the vocal and instrumental parts below are in the minor key. As well as the more familiar 1736 version, we also have an edition credited as being the early version dating from c.1727, the material for which was only published in 2004–06. The St John is in no less than four versions. And as for the cantatas...

CC: You are quite right to say this about the Coffee Cantata and Phoebus and Pan: both pieces are ingenious, and remind us that however profound Bach was in his most penitential or joyous sacred music, he also was possessed of humour. Handel, too, dealt with his critics and with the politics of the times in which he lived – skilfully, and with wit. Georgian London was a place of increasing prosperity and and culture, but was also riven with political machination, wars at home and abroad, and controversy and scandal in public life. Handel – who trod a delicate path through the complexities of patronage and independence – had to demonstrate finesse in his operas. Audiences and critics would be sure to pick up allusions to current events in his libretti and characterisations. The historian Paul Monod has pointed out that in the last years of Queen Anne’s reign, theatres, plays, and opera were all fertile ground for political point-scoring between the Whigs and the Tories; for a time the Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket (where Handel’s Rinaldo was first performed) was something of a Whig stronghold. The “bellicose” nature of the libretto and some of the music in Rinaldo made quite clear allusions to the triumphs of the Duke of Marlborough and his army abroad. And later, when Handel had turned to oratorio, Judas Maccabeus (1746) was “a compliment to the Duke of Cumberland upon his returning victorious from Scotland”. The Duke had routed the Scottish army of the “Young Pretender” to the throne, Charles Edward Stuart. Laying waste to a Jacobite invasion was a significant victory for the Hanoverian monarchy, but politically difficult to justify, as King George II’s army, led by the Duke, had slaughtered men at Culloden who were the King’s subjects. Therefore, “victory celebrations” were low-key. Handel’s oratorio was not a direct result of Cumberland’s victory, but the subject (Judas Maccabeus rescues the people of Judea from the pagan rule of the Seleucid Empire, and forms an alliance with Rome that will continue to protect the Judeans) could easily be interpreted as a metaphor for a Protestant Hanovarian triumph over Catholic usurpers.

In the cases of Rinaldo and Judas Maccabeus, Handel’s own political reviews remain opaque; now, audiences can enjoy both pieces with or without knowledge of their historical and “political” context. There is no empty posturing or propaganda simply to please the powers that were. As always, the emotive and dramatic genius of Handel’s music is paramount, and these are what bring the characters to life in our ears, eyes, and imagination.

MS: Once again you raise some very interesting points, some of which could be said to draw parallels with Bach’s life and times. Moving on from the politics and into an equally significant event in Bach’s country, the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) had a devastating effect on the social and economic life of ordinary people in the German States and this was felt for decades to come. To aid recovery, much was imported. As a fortunate consequence for example, French dancing masters were imported to the Ducal Courts, bringing with them the latest in fashion, style and dance steps in the general stream of activity to help aid recovery. These were then taken up by those of high rank and displayed at balls, salons and other social occasions. Bach would have enjoyed this almost career-changing experience from a young age while at Lüneberg in around 1700, and during his first stint at Weimar from 1703 in particular, undoubtedly influencing his compositional style with its incorporation of dance forms.

Bach’s political views are much more difficult to assess, aren’t they? Cantata 39, “Brich dem hungrigen dein Brot”, has a very clear social message and Bach’s economic scoring in the opening movement ably depicts hunger and want. Did the text and Gospel for the Day inspire him to do a little “politics”? I doubt it. Deference to the Electoral Court, City Fathers, even the Clergy was essential throughout his life and, while certain patrons and rectors respected Bach enormously, he must have felt the breeze when at Cöthen (1717–21) Prince Leopold remarried a wife not remotely interested in music. I suspect Bach knew his place and the opportunities Leipzig offered – a prosperous city, a hub for publishing – encouraged him to pursue a position there. He was third choice for the City appointment as Cantor after Telemann and Graupner, which is hard for us to imagine, but at the same time shows us that in his lifetime Bach did not enjoy anything like the accolades afforded him now... and I doubt he would know how to handle it all! He spent much of his life trying to improve his status, something he never achieved. By contrast, Handel led an affluent life; he was much better off financially, unmarried and well in with Royalty and the nobility.

CC: “Brich dem hungrigen dein Brot” BWV 39 is an interesting example, particularly if we believe that the text was indeed written by the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. Presumably this nobleman would not have experienced much want and hunger in his life, and I suppose we are oversimplifying if we assume that Bach and Handel’s choice of libretti for opera, cantata, or oratorio were a reflection of their own beliefs. Whether they had to cater to market forces, aristocratic patrons, or the church authorities, it was the lot of both Handel and Bach to set texts appropriate to the season and/or that would meet with external approval. And, they used their respective brilliance to set these texts in the most inspiring and compelling way. In “Brich dem hungrigen dein Brot”, Bach brought this text to life in the most vivid manner, just as he did with joyful and desperate texts – think of the terrors inherent “Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält” BWV 178. Bach set the words with desperate and violent music, but did he go about with these apocalyptic visions constantly in his head? We shall never know. Similarly, as in the example of Judas Maccabeus, what did Handel really think of the Duke of Cumberland’s campaign to crush the Jacobites? Did he share popular anti-Catholic prejudice? His career, from the point when he arrived in Italy, was always spent in the company of Italian musicians who were also Catholics, and this did sometimes place him under suspicion.

Status is a curious concept, and to me it seems impossible to reconcile the situations of the two composers. I feel that Handel could easily have had a similar career to that experienced by Bach had he remained in Germany, but he took the rather drastic step of breaking away from that, admittedly with some potentially useful aristocratic contacts. But of course he suffered setbacks when the Royal Academy and the Second Academy bit the dust. The industry and energy Handel had to put into negotiation and discussion, organisation and rehearsal, was phenomenal... and then he still had to write the music. Bach, even if he lacked status in the institutions where he worked – even once he secured employment in Leipzig, of course he still had to battle with the authorities – still had security (if his work continued to please). Handel had a certain amount of independence but did also face financial disaster now and again. Perhaps the example of both composers shows that there were no ideal circumstances in which to work as a composer and musician during the 18th century. What interests me is how they dealt with their frustrations: was it their status, or their faith in God which helped them?

George I of England
George I of England
MS: Bach served the Lutheran church all his life and as part of his job was expected to provide appropriate music for the weekly services and Holy days. He also possessed a large library of Lutheran writing and his bible was well annotated.

Handel too was a devout Lutheran and expressed his pleasure in being able to set religious texts in his music. One gets the same vibes from Bach in his cantatas, passions, motets, masses and oratorios and the inscription Soli Deo Gloria, which he wrote on the manuscripts, is a constant testimony to his faith. Some contemporary scholars have questioned Bach’s religious beliefs, suggesting that he was “just doing his job”. I simply cannot believe that for one moment! He also had to pass a rigorous set of tests before being appointed at Leipzig for example, to make sure he was “on side” so to speak and his folio of compositions testifies to the Lutheran way of life and the importance attached to music in that life – Luther taught that “Music is a beautiful and gracious gift from God to be practised in the home and as well as the church”. Witness the music Bach provided for his family members as well as for the weekly services. There are just too many other examples – the moving setting in the St Matthew Passion of “Truly this was the Son of God” stands out, the final chorale in the first version of the St John is another, and also the beautifully set chorales in the Christmas Oratorio and the miraculous outpouring of cantatas to flow from his pen from 1723–c.1728, almost as if he could not commit his music to paper quick enough!

Luther may have had issues with the Catholic church, causing him to be excommunicated, but in founding the church that bears his name, he did retain two sections of the Latin Ordinary – the Kyrie and the Gloria – to provide what we tend to refer to as a Lutheran Mass, and included as part of the service format. Bach provided five such settings and then for some reason expanded BWV 232 to include all five sections of the Latin Mass to form his Mass in B minor (1748/49), compiled but never performed complete in his lifetime or under his supervision. Was he making a final nod to both his Lutheran employers at Leipzig and the Catholic Court at Dresden, to which Bach was appointed Court Composer in 1736? Quite possibly.

CC: The B minor Mass always seems to be the most wonderful example of Bach’s universality. Not only did he write vast and elaborate settings of the Kyrie and Gloria, but then continued to fill with emotion and extraordinary the sections of the Ordinary which were not part of Bach’s “own” rite. But, as you say, every piece Bach wrote was for the glory of God, for whichever patron or institution, or pupil. It’s outside of my remit here – I’m supposed to arguing for Handel – but this quotation is worth recording, just to show how serious Bach was about every piece of music, even the most humble teaching exercise: Bach used examples from the composer and theorist Friedrich Erhard Niedt to teach his students thoroughbass, and reminded his students – in writing – of Niedt’s words:

“The thorough bass is the most perfect foundation of music, being played with both hands in such a manner that the left hand plays the notes written down while the right adds consonances and dissonances, in order to make a well-sounding harmony to the Glory of God and the permissible delectation of the spirit; and the aim and final reason, as of all music, so of the thorough bass, should be none else but the Glory of God and the recreation of the mind. Where this is not observed, there will be no real music but only a devilish hubbub.”

Handel also supplied exercises in figured bass, or thoroughbass, and fugue – for Anne, the Princess Royal and eldest daughter of George II. George II began life as a Lutheran, but was obliged when he became King in 1727 to become the Head of the Church of England, which left him open to criticism – just as his father had been when he succeeded Queen Anne in 1714. Handel was in a similar position: born a Lutheran, he could be said to have inherited Purcell’s crown as a great composer of anthems and celebratory music. In Italy he had assimilated the Italian style with such verve and intensity that he wrote Latin church music that exceeded the fervour and energy of the Italians’ own. Handel’s Dixit Dominus exemplifies his abilities here: the contrasts of light and dark, of triumph and foreboding, and extraordinary vitality which infuse every moment of Dixit Dominus put this piece on a plane with sculpture of Bernini and the paintings of Caravaggio as expressions of Italian Baroque vitality and drama. Just as adaptable as Bach, Handel’s ability to assimilate and transform local styles demonstrates his ecumenical capacity to transcend doctrinal differences. But what does this tell us about Handel himself? It is difficult to know, but so many moments in his music point to a sublime and acutely personal response to scripture.

The central section of Messiah is a series of searing, agonising musical realisations of its texts. “Surely He hath borne our griefs”, “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart”, and “Behold and see” express pain and desolation unlike any other music before or since. No wonder he said, after a performance of Messiah, “I am sorry... if I have only succeeded in entertaining them; I wished to make them better.” And, as Sir John Hawkins recorded, Handel “throughout his life manifested a deep sense of religion. In conversation he would frequently declare the pleasure he felt in setting the Scriptures to music, and how contemplating the many sublime passages in the Psalms had contributed to his edification”. And it is through this devotion, contemplation, and imagination, that Handel “transports the soul, and thrills through every vein.”

Back to the Baroque Music Month homepage