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Some Thoughts on Handel and Bach

December 1, 2012

Handel’s music is splendid in its way, but clearly more “public” or “civic” than Bach’s (I was shocked to find out they were near-contemporaries when I looked them up – I’d always assumed Bach was at least a generation older). With Handel it’s like gazing at a well-ordered city-scape – not today’s urban jungle, of course, but something more elegant with plenty of parks and tree-lined avenues to maintain an agreeable balance with nature. A public in agreement with the world and with itself – that’s the impression.

Bach, on the other hand, gives us a human heart in balance with nature. For that reason his music sounds more profound to us today; we’ve lost the Enlightenment sense of true civic pride – the sense that something new and splendid was being created, that after millennia of blind toil humanity had finally “cracked it”. From here things could only go onwards and upwards. And this civic pride explains what is for me the besetting sin of 18th Century music: self-satisfaction, presumptuousness, smugness. I often hear it in Vivaldi, for example, and even in Mozart: “What clever fellows we are, to be sure!”

Of course, in this respect I’m judging them by what they couldn’t have known: the things that came after. And the best of them (certainly including Bach and Handel) managed for the most part to produce music that was confident and dignified rather than conceited. Oddly, for both composers, it’s their religious music that I find most in danger of slipping into conceit. 15th and 16th Century choral music was all about God. God and nothing but. God in all his transcendent, awe-inspiring, terrifying majesty. But even in Bach, 18th Century religious music somehow suggests that God is just one (albeit important) part of a satisfying, benign, rational whole. God, in other words, has been put in his place.

Why does it sound that way to me? In part I think it’s to do with the incorporation of the chamber orchestra. That provides an ingenious interweaving of disparate sounds – a whole comprised of discrete elements. By contrast, 16th Century choirs blended many voices into something that was fundamentally one. On top of this, there’s the introduction of the solo human voice. Leaving aside the fact that I personally find the sound of the classically trained solo singer grating and artificial (the singer has turned himself into an instrument in order to be heard above the orchestra), it always strikes me that a choir sings to the individual whereas the solo vocalist sings to a public. Here again I suppose time has altered our vision. We (or at least I) have lost the feeling for the broader religious community; for us it is a deeply personal matter. I don’t mean we have no religious communities today – of course we do. But they are oddities cut off from society in general. In Handel’s time it was society itself which formed the religious community. Yet already in the Messiah you can hear the “religious” aspect giving way to the “community” part. Well, that’s what I hear, at any rate.

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From → Classical Music

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