Cmparing Bach and Handel

Today, Johann Sebastian Bach is probably one of the most recognisable names from music history, even more recognisable perhaps, than the name George Frideric Handel, which has become regrettably and seemingly inextricably bound to just a single oratorio that is not generally representative of his work. One might thus be surprised to discover that during the lifetimes of their careers, it was Handel who was most well-received. In the following pages, I will attempt to discover why the latter composer dominated his Thuringian counterpart in the popularity stakes during their lifetimes and also, how Bach surpassed him in death. I will do this by exploring the careers and stylistic methods of both composers.

There are certain similarities between both composers. These include their shared use of affekt – Handel in his dramatic works especially and most notably in Bach’s Passions. Of the surviving Passions, The St. Matthew Passion is where Bach is most like Handel and In Handel’s setting of Brocke’s Passion, he resembles Bach. Both resourcefully manipulated the relatively ‘new’ but by their time, firmly established tonal system, Bach in his fugues and contrapuntal works, Handel in his creation of melodic tension and relaxation for dramatic purposes. However, it is the differences which serve to explain exactly why Handel proved to be more widely accepted than Bach did.

Handel, in comparison to Bach was well-travelled. The former’s studies brought him to Hamburg in 1703 (where incidentally, Bach sporadically visited not long before), to Italy (1706-1710) and thereafter to Hanover and Düsseldorf. In Italy, much – though not all – of the Italianate aspect of his music was nurtured. He travelled to Florence, Naples, Venice and to Rome, where he met Corelli, the violinist and both Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti. Of course Handel ultimately remained in England, where he moulded a seemingly English style, derived from the combined influence of Henry Purcell and...