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Bach vs. Handel

By M.R. Bukofzer

The musical style of Handel must be seen in the general perspective of baroque music, and must be evaluated in relation to its opposite pole: the style of Bach. There are many striking similarities between these two ultimate representatives of baroque music: both were born in the same part of Germany, both were reared in the atmosphere of cantors and organists, both were famous for their improvisations, both preferred the organ to any other instrument for their own playing, both were stricken with blindness, both dictated their respective last work, which was in either case a revision of a composition from an early period. However, these external parallels lose significance in view of the fundamental polarity between Handel and Bach.

It would be patently unfair to contrast the weakest side of Handel with the strongest of Bach, particularly if the comparison attempts to be more than an indication of a difference of approach. In the music of both composers certain musical ideas, typical of the late baroque, recur time and again. While Bach transformed these types in a personal way, Handel clung closer to convention, treating the same type more often, but in less individual a fashion. Due to his improvisatory attitude, evinced in his customary haste to finish a work, Handel used pre-existing types as springboards for his music. As in every improvisation his aim was not so much the transformation of the type as its animation by means of a great variety of solutions. The recurrence of types lends to Handel’s music a certain uniformity which may be criticized as a defect, but which has the virtue of enabling Handel to borrow extensively from himself. In his borrowings and revisions Handel usually observed the underlying affections-

As musicians of the baroque, both Handel and Bach were equally indebted to the doctrine of affections, but their methods of representation differ widely and reveal a sharp contrast with regard to melodic design. Handel excels in broad and gestic motives, Bach in complex and intricate lines; Handel’s melodies are extensive, Bach’s melodies are intensive. … Handel seizes only upon the basic affection and writes a melody of wide arches. Handel’s penchant for improvisation manifests itself in his sweeping melodic lines, designed in bold strokes as if painted with a thick brush in fresco manner; Bach’s penchant for the luster of scrupulous workmanship manifests itself in his consistently patterned melodies, designed as if engraved with a fine cutting tool. The two-dimensional intricacies of Bach’s implied polyphony lie below the surface of the melody; Handel’s one-dimensional melodies sweep the hearer off his feet by the sheer force of their drive. In their sensuous and immediate appeal the arias of Handel stand diametrically opposed to the abstract appeal of the lines of Bach. Even in their dance melodies the contrast between Bach’s and Handel’s melodic conception can be observed.

The extensive quality of Handel’s melody explains why his music lends itself to amplification by massed ensembles. The monumental effects of Handel’s music actually gain strength by reasonable reinforcement whereas the same practice would ruin Bach’s music because it would obscure the transparency of the contrapuntal web.

The polarity of Bach and Handel can in the last analysis be explained as that of two great individualities of fundamentally different psychological attitudes. Handel belongs to the extrovert, Bach to the introvert type. This typological difference emerges most convincingly in the manner in which both composers reacted to the musical styles of the period. Handel assimilated the various national styles so that they became his second nature. He thus arrived at a complete coordination of national styles enabling him to master each one equally well. Bach, conversely, assimilated the various influences with his own personal style and thus arrived at a fusion of national styles in which the single elements are inseparable. The two methods are incommensurable and cannot be weighed against each other, but they explain why Handel’s works center round his operas, written from a world-wide perspective for an international public, and his oratorios, the monuments of his ethical humanism; and why Bach’s works center round his cantatas, written for the local churches of Saxony, and his passions, the monuments of his liturgical severity. In this light, the life of Handel and Bach symbolizes their respective artistic significance: 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. Both composers are universal in their appeal. The worldly grand manner of Handel and the spiritual attitude of Bach represent the two essential and at the same time complementary aspects of baroque music which cause the curious paradox that Bach and Handel arc equals only where they are incomparable.

Published in M.R. Bukofzer