George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach were both Baroque composers. They both used the basic languages of Baroque, French and Italian. Both composers were of Saxon ancestry and were from neighboring towns, Handel from Halle and Bach from Eisenach. They were both born in 1685, Handel in February and Bach in March. Both composers learned their art by making copies of all the works of known masters. They were both studious copyists throughout their lives. Bach’s influences were Frescobaldi, Corelli, Vivaldi, Lotti, Caldara, Legrenzi, Marcello, and several others.
His interests led to violin, choral, and keyboard music. Under Zachau, Handel made a compilation of excerpts from Kerll, Johann Krieger, Strungck, and Froberger. Later in his career, Handel was influenced by Karl Heinrich Graun, Giovanni Clari, Alessandro Stradella, Giacomo Carissimi, and others. Bach and Handel followed different paths in music according to their different natures. Handel’s upbringing had no musical tradition. His father was a surgeon who intended George to go into Law.
Bach, on the other hand, had generations of musicians in his family. Bach did not stray away from his Saxon fatherland during his life and he fathered twenty children. Handel, however, did stray away from his home. He was outgoing in nature and traveled all over Europe. A heartbreaking parallel is that both composers went blind near the end of their lives. While Bach’s grave was forgotten, when Handel died nine years later, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. During Bach and Handel’s lives, music was written for immediate performance, conservation after that was a second thought. Only commissioned work was preserved beyond the performance. Handel wrote his operas for special performances, strictly to cater to the voices of the people that happened to be available, while Bach wrote his for the services at St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig. Up until the 19th century, much of Bach’s work was unrecognized. It wasn’t until 75 years after his death that he was recognized as a great musician. The later 18th century knew Bach mainly as an instrumental composer who wrote for the organ and piano. People often interpreted Bach from varied viewpoints. Bach was once considered a contrapuntist pure and simple, who treated music as a sort of mathematics. From this stance, Bach seemed to be a servant of the church who also wrote nonspiritual music. Later on, it became apparent that he couldn’t be counted simply as a composer of Church music, so he was looked at as a romantic poet. It was declared by the Romanticists that Bach was the archromanticist and should be taken with the highest feeling and expression. Some people believed Bach’s music was characteristically emotional, but whatever the perception, Bach came to be observed as the great builder of musical form. Contrastingly, Handel, was internationally famous during his lifetime. He was principally a writer of oratorios and his instrumental compositions were not considered serious enough for study. The Italian operas he composed were considered rubbish in the eyes of critics for that period. Things have changed today, and Handel’s operas are the repertoire of nearly every great opera-house. Handel showed a solid early inclination toward the extroverted and dramatic world of Italian opera and Bach used a personal mixture of the Flemish and Italian styles with German counterpoints. Basically, it can be said that Handel looked outward, and Bach inward. Handel, more rhetorical and a free agent, grabbed the formalized patterns of entertainment music in secular cantata, in oratorio, instrumental music, and opera. Both composers had different personalities, Bach was an introvert while Handel was an extrovert. Bach adapted various influences with his own personal style and arrived at a fusion of national styles in which the single elements are inseparable. Handel, however, assimilated the various national styles and focused in each of them separately. The main works of Handel are his operas which are written for an international audience from a universal perspective. Bach’s main works are his cantatas which were written for local churches. Since Handel was well traveled, he visited several international centers of music while Bach stayed within the limits of central Germany. Bach’s great works include the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, most of the great preludes and fuges, and the 45 chorale-preludes gathered in Das Orgelbuchlein. His instrumental compostions are the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue; the English Suites; the French Suites; the Two-Part and Three-Part Inventions; and book I of Well-Tempered Clavier. Bach also wrote many violin sonatas and cello suites as well as the Brandenburg Concertos which is recognized as the best concerti grossi ever composed. Many more of his religious compositions followed; the St. Matthew Passion, the Christmas Oratorio, the Mass in B Minor, and the six motets. Handel’s 46 operas included Julius Caesar (1724), Atalanta (1736), Berenice (1737), and Serse (1738). In 1742, Handel’s opera Messiah’ was presented in Dublin. Messiah’ stands apart from the rest of his 32 oratorios and his high popularity resulted in the incorrect conception of Handel as a church composer. In addition to his oratorios, he also composed around 100 Italian solo cantatas, several orchestral works, and Zadok, the Priest for the coronation of George II. One text was set to music by both composers. That was Elit ihr angefocht’nen Seelen in the Passion Oratorio (Handel) and in the St. John Passion (Bach). Both of the composers used the same key and pictorial representation of haste. The choral interjections at dramatic points are also the same. Bukofzer has lectured that Handel’s music is lesser because it lacks the individual stamp that distinguished Bach from all other composers (Dorak). Both Bach and Handel were religious men who were practical in their approach. They both were introspective but objective and both wrote instrumental and vocal music. Both composers make use of through-bass and contrapuntal forms. Although they both performed individually, they both taught singing. Both Handel and Bach specialized in the organ. Handel’s music can be labeled as extensive melodies while Bach’s can be termed as intensive melodies. Handel uses a modest template for his expressions, hence his work is intended for immediate sensuous appreciation, while Bach uses very dense contrapuntal texture with intricate and chromatic harmonies. Handel considers the flow of ideas more important than elaboration whereas to Bach, elaboration is more vital. Handel’s fast shifting textures clearly show that counterpoint is only a means to a dramatic end (Krantz). On the other hand, Bach takes it as an end in itself which must be consistent. There is no overlying between the instrumental and vocal lines. Actually, the free voiced choral polyphony of Bach form two poles of late Baroque music (Bekker). One of the major alterations is in their conception of tone. Handel perceived tone instrumentally and Bach, vocally. Bach focused on religious music and created profoundly spiritual cantatas. Handel treated even religious based oratorios with a theatrical effect, which was more popular to the middle-class audience. Whatever the differences, it remains that both Handel and Bach were outstanding talents. Even being born in the same place, during the same period, they differed in their styles of expression. Their differences ended up being a major asset to them as they remained true to their beliefs. Bach and Handel’s expressions combined with their talents helped define Baroque music.