Musical Showdown: The Underdog in the Battle of Bach vs. Handel

Byvu lita

Jul 28, 2023
This article is about the author’s preference for Handel over Bach and their exploration of the fundamental differences between the two composers. What are your thoughts? Let us know.
George Frideric Handel
Photo: pictore / Getty Images

I often think back to a discussion I once had with my colleague, Chronicle movie critic Mick Lasalle, about the artistic version of “two kinds of people” people — you know, the ones who delight in dividing folks into categories according to some affiliation that seems to be illuminating.

We talked about the differences between Lennon people and McCartney people. We talked about Tolstoy people and Dostoevsky people.

Then I thought, as I so often do, about Bach people and Handel people. But I didn’t say anything, because come on — there aren’t really any Handel people. According to any ordinary reckoning, Bach reigns supreme, and everyone else is an also-ran.

Hi, nice to meet you. I’m a Handel guy.

That doesn’t mean I have anything negative to say about J.S. Bach. I love and admire the beauty and assurance of his compositions. I marvel at the intricacy and mathematical precision of his counterpoint.

Yet if you place these two composers side by side — which in my opinion is an illuminating comparison to make — I consistently find myself drawn decisively in Handel’s direction. It isn’t just that I find his writing more vivacious and more arresting (although I do). Rather, it’s that I consider Handel a kindred spirit on such fundamental questions as “What is music for, anyway? What sorts of rewards do we seek from it?”

You could hardly ask for a more solidly engineered contrast than the one between these two giants of the Baroque. They were born in Germany just a month apart; both were steeped in the traditions of German music until Handel, as a young man, spent a defining few years in Italy, which put him on a different creative track.

Stylistically, their closest point of contact comes in vocal and choral music. If you stand a little way off, these bodies of work — Bach’s cantatas and liturgical pieces, Handel’s operas and oratorios — can sound superficially similar. They’re built primarily out of solo arias, connected by sparse and speechlike music known as recitative, and interspersed with music for chorus. In both cases, music is there to serve and illuminate a linguistic text, by illustrating turns of phrase and embodying expressive impulses in sound.

But zoom in even a little and the differences become clear and defining. Bach composed for the church, Handel for the theater. Bach’s music is designed to exalt God, Handel’s to explore the multiplicity of human experience. Bach’s music turns inward, Handel’s outward. Where Bach touches the soul, Handel celebrates the body. (Only one of them has anything to say about sex.)

Obviously, these are crude and reductive binaries. But they also get at something true about the two men — and help explain, I think, why they might appeal to different kinds of music lovers.

For anyone whose notion of Handel is shaped by “Messiah,” it may come as a surprise to learn how completely irreligious his music is. Handel was an opera composer first and last, and his preoccupations were those of human interaction in all its manifestations — the basic mechanisms of love, sorrow, power, betrayal and desire.

When the political and artistic winds shifted halfway though his career in his adopted home of London, Handel dexterously abandoned Italian opera and adopted the English-language biblical oratorio instead. But the change was little more than a fig leaf. For all their Judeo-Christian trappings, the oratorios — yes, even “Messiah” — are still operas under a light disguise.

Bach also traffics in the world of emotions, but largely as they relate to the Lutheran lifestyle. The love he celebrates is the love for Jesus; similarly for faith and sorrow and the rest.

This doesn’t imply that the true meaning of this music isn’t accessible to non-Christians like myself — only that we come into Bach’s house as guests. And because Bach’s assumed audience is made up of his fellow Lutheran churchgoers, he doesn’t have to persuade anyone of the importance of what he’s doing.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Handel, on the other hand, had tickets to sell, and if there’s one thing that underlies the differences between these two composers, it is Handel’s essentially mercantile outlook. His economic well-being depended on satisfying public taste, and he wrote with the audience, not God, in mind. The extravagance of his vocal writing, the emotional entanglements of his opera plots, the emphasis on external display and musical virtuosity — it was all designed to bring in paying customers.

Bach’s music says, “Listen to how beautiful this is — won’t God be pleased?”

Handel’s music says, “Listen to how exciting this is! Are you pleased?”

Indeed I am. I’m thrilled by the resourcefulness, the fecundity and the communicative directness of Handel’s writing, but most of all I’m thrilled by the fact that he regards my satisfaction — me, the listener — as the reason for music to exist.

This is by no means the only reason for artists to make art. Some try to create timeless monuments to dazzle posterity. Some find it an avenue for self-expression, and some simply have an urge to tinker and invent stuff. I have no beef with any of these motivations.

But for me, it’s the impulse to bring joy to your fellow humans that resonates most strongly. That’s why I count myself among the Handel people, and why I feel confident I’m not alone.

Source: Bach or Handel? Making a case for the underdog | Datebook (

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