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The music world is occupied by both the memory and current life of the musical equivalent to Albert Einstein. Often times these musical geniuses are grouped together based on their style, where they are from, or even their personal lives. An unfortunate example of this grouping is Bach and Handel. An author by the name Paul Henry Lang goes into great depth in his two articles, Handel: 300 Years On and Bach: 300 Years On, on why these two very famous composers have been incorrectly grouped together. Lang’s articles are very intelligent and give notable and valid reasons on this specific topic. He discusses the music styles, their accomplishments, their personal lives, and how often the composers traveled. By comparing the two composers Lang brings to light a historical misunderstanding that has gone unnoticed for years.
The grouping together of Bach and Handel is a very unkind grouping for these two composers. As Lang puts it, “the Bach-Handel hyphenation, which we owe to the Germans’ claim to Handel as their very own national composer, is one of the most ill-founded. Handel lived for almost half a century, that is, all his mature life, in England, became a naturalized British subject by Act of Parliament, composed all his important works in and for England, acknowledged his allegiance to his chosen homeland expressis verbis, and is buried among England’s great in Westminster Abbey” (Lang). To claim that Handel is to Bach as Germany is to England is absolutely incorrect for the two countries at the time were in completely different cultural spaces and the two composers were demonstrating different music styles and musical creations that are specific to where the composers lived. Handel, for instance, was a man of motion, moving from place to place picking up new musical styles and creating his own from what already existed. Handel began as a young church organist only to quickly move on to Hamburg, Germany to pursue the theater where he quickly rose from lowly musician to respected opera producer. This resulted in Handel’s first opera entitled Almira. From Germany, Handel moved on to Italy where he stayed for four years. According to Lang, “within a year he was again at the top, hobnobbing with princes and cardinals, and after the great success of his opera Agrippina in Venice (1709) a career was open to him that would have put the leading composers of Italy in the shade” (Lang). However, Handel was not interested in this career, he instead decided to move on to England. England was the most advanced country at the time so Handel believed it was the place to achieve all of his ambitions. Handel stayed in England for most of the rest of his life. It was here that Handel began to branch off from what was considered normal and started created his own rules for music. He started with ceremonial music that was loved by all and to this day the coronation anthem Handel composed for George II has been used for every English monarch from that point onwards. Handel began to ‘borrow’ the music of his past compositions and recreate them for new purposes. However, when people began to find out about this, Handel faced a lot of backlash, and was even at one point deemed a plagiarist. Handel was not fazed by this and continued working in the world of opera. Handel composed and debut many operas and often incorporated the use of deus ex machina, which was considered unusual at the time. As he continued to mature in the art of opera people began to notice how “particularly attractive and expressive are the interruptions and substitutions; he [would] break into the aria with recitatives or ariosos, or even replace the da capo section with something entirely different, or suspend it and immediately enter the next number…his dramatic figures come to life through the intensity and psychological insight of the music, which goes far beyond what is written in the text” (Lang). Handel had the ability to compose music that truly encompassed the whole personality and humanness of the characters he would write for. He could go from sultry to heroic in the blink of an eye without the change being overly drastic. Once Handel moved on from opera he developed the English Oratorio completely by himself. When compared to the Italian Oratorio, there are several noticeable differences. The most notable is how in Italian Oratorio, the chorus plays a minor role where as in English Oratorio the chorus is the star. Through this Handel created the action chorus, which is where the chorus becomes the protagonist. Towards the end of his life, and his musical life, Handel uses his music to explore complicated and subjective ideas. As Lang puts it, “In both Theodora and Jephtha Handel seem to have opened a new and final chapter in his creative life. He appears to contemplate the meaning of life and the hereafter, and there are some profound spiritual problems surrounding these works. These problems are hidden [and] difficult to explain…perhaps they are philosophical and religious, perhaps autobiographical. Local colour, even the action, and all details seem superfluous, only the soul speaks…it was while working on Jephtha that blindness struck the composer and he had to lay down his pen” (Lang). When looking at the instrumental works of Handel many try to use his keyboard fugues to prove his inferiority to Bach, when in reality these fugues prove that “though his contrapuntal skill was formidable, he seldom used it consistently throughout a composition, not even in the fugues, for the simple reason that a dramatic composer cannot think in strict counterpoint; he needs a flexibility which can cope with ever-changing situations and conflicts…Handel’s polyphony is closer to the Italian kind than to the North German variety” (Lang). Handel discovered that thinking in a linear mindset would lead him into tough spots and became remarkably skilled in avoiding these spots in a majestic way. Handel was able to use ensembles in a remarkable way due to his ear for balance, color, and his talent for composing complex and beautiful melodies. All in all, Handel’s musical abilities far surpasses those of other composers in both a choral and instrumental setting. His comparison to Bach is unfair in the sense that he was far more world-wise and much more exposed to musical ideas than his fellow composer Bach. However, neither composer is better than the other, they both have their own strengths and weaknesses.
Bach and Handel both lived in Germany for the beginning of their lives, however Bach never left Germany, he simply moved around from place to place in Germany. Because of this, Bach was able to say in the music traditions of Germany. Bach started out as an organist, but stayed in that position until he died. As Lang puts it, “Bach belonged to the ranks of craftsmen, the church organists” (Lang). Bach was taught by his older brother and then moved to Luneburg where he was heavily influenced by Georg Bohm who was one of the most important composers of the time. In 1703 he was placed as the organist in Arnstadt and was again under the influence of another giant of music. Then in 1722, when Kuhnau, the Cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig, passed away Bach proceeded to seek and eventually gain that position which he held until he died. However, according to Lang, “only after Johann Friedrich Fasch, Telemann and Christoph Graupner…declined the invitation did they turn to Bach, concluding that with the unavailability of a good modern musician they would have to be satisfied with an old-fashioned one” (Lang). According to a widely believed and very incorrect myth, when Bach died his music died along with him until it was rediscovered almost an entire century later. However, this is highly incorrect because according to Lang “the date of this rediscovery, and with it the beginning of the Bach renaissance, is assigned to 11 March 1829, when the young Mendelssohn performed the Matthew Passion as the head of the Berlin Singkakademie. Bach was celebrated in his lifetime as the greatest keyboard virtuoso of the age and for his expertise in organ construction” (Lang). Bach was a sacred composer, and focused mainly on the church. Even though he wrote mostly choral music, he was considered an instrumental composer. However, he was able to write in different styles. According to Lang “Bach had a fantastic ability to reconcile and blend his German heritage with Italian and French music in a markedly individual style, an ability he shares with Lassus, Handel and Mozart” (Lang). Bach developed the ability to write unprecedented chamber music that was unaccompanied and absolutely blew people away. This was a technique that Bach was known for, and came up with himself. The melodies of these pieces were woven together but stayed clean. As Bach continues on in his musical creations he writes the Goldberg Variations which were different because he moves away from the traditional figured bass and writes out a very detailed harpsichord part which he names cembalo concertato. Bach also began ‘borrowing’ his own violin concertos and rewriting and completely reworking them for harpsichord. Bach is known for his instrumental music, but especially for his organ music. Where Handel wrote nothing for the Organ, Bach wrote pieces that remain coveted to this day. As Lang describes them the “stylistic range is phenomenal, from the kind of counterpoint of Ockeghem’s time to the bold modern idiom of the toccatas which started with Frescobaldi…it is this spirit we find in Bach’s large works for the organ with their rumbling pedal runs, dramatic harmonic surprises and strettos. These works tower over everything in the literature for organ and remain unchallenged forever” (Lang). Bach had the ability to write pieces that made the organ show characters’ people did not know it could show. Since Bach was tied so closely to the church, he also wrote choral hymns and developed a new style for them. “The artistic aim was to retain the chorale tune intact or nearly so, at the same time exploiting it in the most sophisticated melodic, rhythmic and contrapuntal ways” (Lang). This was one of Bach’s greatest contributions to choral music. He was able to take these pieces and write them to the point where one would think he had done all he could, but then he would add something more. As Bach continued to compose, he began to use symbolism in his music. He would use holy numbers and would assign notes a number. This was not evident to the listener, but was simply for the composer’s own enjoyment. Over all, Bach’s abilities where of otherworldly proportions and his ability to create what he did was amazing.
The two biggest differences between Bach and Handel is that unlike Handel, Bach never lived anywhere but Germany whereas Handel lived in many places. The other difference is that Handel never composed for the organ whereas Bach was known for his organ compositions. Both composers gave massive contributions to the music world which would not be where it is today without them. Neither composer did better or worse than the other composer, which further proves why the grouping of Bach and Handel is incorrect.
The author of these articles, Mr. Paul Henry Lang, is an incredibly intelligent and highly scholarly man. He took the liberty to discuss a misconception that many were unaware was even considered a misconception and addressed it using incredible respect for both parties involved. Lang presented his material in a very easy to follow way. He started with some background information, then moved on to where each composer lived, and then depending upon where the composer had lived he would discuss the choral music written by the composer and any musical inventions the composer might have created. Lang then moved on to the instrumental music written by the composer and left no detail out. He was very careful to include who each composer was heavily influenced by and who each composer was found mingling with. Even though both composers where very private about their personal lives, Lang was able to add personal details to each article that made the composers even more interesting. Not only did he write about each specific composer individually, but occasionally he would mention the other composer to give reference and help the reader understand why a specific point was important in his argument. Lang succeeded in his goal in explaining why Bach and Handle should not be grouped together in the same category or why neither composer should be considered better than the other. He brilliantly explained each composer’s strengths and weaknesses while making the weaknesses not sound like actual weaknesses. These articles are well written and not too much to digest all at once. The articles are very meaty, but not to the point where the reader must read and reread more than two or three times to fully grasp every important and, quite frankly, unique point that Lang has included about each composer.
After reading these articles, my personal understanding of both Bach and Handel was increased ten-fold. Before beginning my study of music, I knew Bach because of his Mass in B Minor and Handel because of his Messiah. Frankly, that was pretty much the only thing I knew about either composer until we learned about Handel in class. I was not aware of how these composers had influenced music in the way that they did, and how much they did. I had ignorantly thought that these composers where so well known simply because of their massive musical works and did not even think that they had created new genres or created new styles of writing music. I also was not aware of the amount of symbolism used in their works, it is amazing the thought that went into each piece of music. Bach used numbers in his music simply because he wanted to and Handel used psychology because he knew his career was coming to an end. After reading through these articles and highlighting and tabbing them I did not have to do further research to better understand them. I did have to look up the definition of one or two words that Lang used, but other than that after several read throughs I felt that I understood them well enough to write about them. These articles broadened my musical understanding and helped me realize that the composers we know today may not just be known for the massive works they have composed, but that they contributed to the musical world in numerous and gigantic ways.
Paul Henry Lang took the liberty to discuss one of history’s biggest faux paus and explain how it all went wrong. Through this, Lang explained that both Bach and Handel were musical giants of unknown proportions and neither did more than the other nor was either better than the other. By discussing the lives and compositions of these two composers, Lang beautifully settles this age-old argument once and for all. Though Bach and Handel should never be grouped together in the musical world, one can agree that they are both musical giants that continue to leave an impact on music to this very day.
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