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Bach, Handel, Luther, Hooker - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Bach, Handel, Luther, Hooker
(Or here: http://tinyurl.com/cz5oce)

There is, I suppose, a certain partisan divide between those who swear by Bach and those who, rather shamefacedly, give Handel the palm. Why this should be so – and indeed, why there need be a ranking between the two greatest of composers – I cannot say; but there it is.

In part, I suspect, it is a matter of mood – and mode. Over the years, there have been long periods in my life when I preferred one to the other; these have had nothing to do with their merits or music, but with my own then circumstances. Today, I find that one or another answers more passing and less lengthy needs and wants, again wholly as a barometer of my own emotional weather.

Yet there is, I confide, rather more to the matter than that.

Even musicians and persons serious about and knowledgeable in music, rather associate Handel with choral works – for all the Bach passions and the cantatas, and the B-minor Mass – and Bach, with instrumental (never mind Handel’s concerti: fiery, watery, or grossi: and what not). I know that, except in seasonal response to seasonal and liturgical impulses, I immediately associate JSB with a well-tempered clavier, stunning works for organ, the Art of Fugue, and – to put things on my ground, this being my instrument – the sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin. Equally, the very name of Handel connotes in the first instant of impression the oratorios and coronation anthems.

Now, why is this? Of course there are the lengthy shadows yet cast by earlier generations and their tastes. And there is quite legitimately the issue of the relative emphasis each composer gave to one form over another. It could even be argued that Handel’s concerti grossi, say, are not quite as fine as Bach’s suites and the Brandenburg concerti, though I shouldn’t care to get in the midst of that one, the more so as I think it silly as a topic of argument.

No. At bottom, I am increasingly inclined to see the difference as liturgical, even theological. Bach is unalterably Lutheran. His grave – and he is grave at his most joyful and joyous – and mathematically precise, architectural, engineered music is the final expression of the Continental Reformation. Sola fide and the idea that God must be the sole actor in redemptive grace, that man cannot even reach out to God without God’s first giving him the grace to do even that, is implicit in every note Bach wrote. His is a Pietist, and even a Quietist, approach to music and composition. Had he been fortunate enough to have been born an Englishman (irony: do keep up), one can imagine him only in the context of Cambridge (a Kingsman and quite possibly a Senior Wrangler of his day), of East Anglian low-churchmanship, and almost certainly of a fascination with change-ringing. (How one reconciles this with that RC Ultra, Damian Thompson’s, stated preference for Bach over Handel, I cannot say.)

Bach is pre-eminently the composer of solo magnificence: the sonatas and partitas, the keyboard works, the ’cello sonatas. His unsurpassed brilliance in structure and invention is seen to its best effect in solo works and in those for small consorts. He is the composer, if you like, of private devotions, and of intimate congregations.

And Handel, of course, is the master of revels, of feasts and festivals. If Bach is the greatest of Roundheads by inclination, Handel is the perfect cavalier. Possessed of what was at once a more catholic and a more Catholic taste and temperament, touched by the high certainties and grand gestures of Counter-Reformation Italy, it is inevitable that he should have moved to London and become a British subject; it is difficult to imagine him, for all his unfortunately non-native birth (that’s irony, you lot), as anything other than an Englishman – or, rather, to be much more specific, a Londoner. He was certainly more of one than his Hanoverian king. And in his life as in his music, he came very soon to incarnate not only an Anglican via media, but indeed the innocent pomp of the Established Church as it was in its great days. In his sonatas and concerti, his works for harpsichord as much as his great, grand oratorios, Handel is quite as brilliant a master of structure and architecture as is Bach – if less visibly so to the casual eye. And this is because his ornamentation playfully hides his engineering. Bach is a clean-lined Groote Kerk, a Wienhausen Convent, a St Giles: Gothic in origin, yet ‘purified’ to the exacting taste of the Lutheran and Calvinist Reformers. Handel is Palladian, a Wren church, or even – to return to the Continent – the Vierzehnheiligen. He is to Hooker’s Anglicanism as Bach is to Luther’s Reformed Church.

Handel, although as capable of Bach of the still, small voice, the private prayer, the devotional tract, is pre-eminently the royal and cathedral, the festival, music-master, the heir and successor to Purcell. And that is why, in the end, it is pointless and silly to set them in opposition. It is like attempting to settle a point of precedence between Vermeer and Constable – or perhaps Gainsborough, or Reynolds. Both equally have their place, primus inter pares … and that place, of course, is either side of one’s best Stubbs.

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5 comments or Leave a comment
From: tree_and_leaf Date: April 15th, 2009 10:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, but you simply can't conflate Calvinism and Lutheranism. They're entirely different, even leaving aside the - common - paradox that Luther himself was not much of a Lutheran, and liturgically, if not doctrinally, would have had more sympathy with the Ritualists than with the authors of the Book of Common Prayer.

I think you're quite right about Bach and change ringing, though. I have never considered the point, but of course he'd have been fascinated!
wemyss From: wemyss Date: April 16th, 2009 01:52 pm (UTC) (Link)

Oh, but I can.

When, as I here, I am referring to the effects of both on church architecture and the decorative arts. I know the various heresiarchs hated each other: Luther and Melanchthon v Zwingly v Calvin and contrariwise. But High Church Lutheranism notwithstanding, what was done to, say Ulm Minster had a good deal in common w what was done to Haarlem Groote Kerk - or St Giles's. Wh is all I was suggesting.
From: tree_and_leaf Date: April 16th, 2009 02:15 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Oh, but I can.

True enough - though there's still a difference in degree, at least in North Germany or Wittenberg itself; the churches weren't nearly as comprehensively stripped as the Groote Kerk or St Giles (or the abominable mess that was made of St Salvator's chapel in St Andrews, for that matter). I must admit I've never been to Ulm, though.

shezan From: shezan Date: April 16th, 2009 04:07 am (UTC) (Link)
Bach is pre-eminently the composer of solo magnificence

I can't let you get away with that. I mean, yes, of course, he is too, but - the Passions! "Laß ihn kreuzigen!" The Mass in B! The cantatas! And the concerti!

And yes, even though he wrote some of his most fantastic stuff for a Catholic patron, I see Bach as more Gothic than Lutheran. But it's Handel who's the modern entrepreneur; who launches two opera companies in London; who thrives in the new Protestant-Anglican context. Handel can dream of thousand-strong orchestras; Bach would just like to have 12 musicians playing in the right tempo at times. (No wonder indeed there are so many solo pieces.)

You probably know they were exact contemporaries; each was aware of the other's work and they nearly met in 1729 when Handel travelled to Halle to visit his dying mother and caught a cold which prevented him being driven the extra 50 miles to Leipzig to meet Bach as he had planned.

wemyss From: wemyss Date: April 16th, 2009 01:58 pm (UTC) (Link)

Indeed, and I have always wished they had met.

And I, a fly upon the wall for it.

When I say, 'Bach is pre-eminently the composer of solo magnificence', I don't mean, as I perhaps failed to make clear, that he was by preference or by his own emphasis predisposed to solo composition as his preferred mode; rather, I mean that one goes first to Bach over all others for solo compositions, and not to Handel, even as one goes first to Handel for the converse, and not to Bach.

Interesting year, 1685. Scarlatti and Alberti were born in that year as well.
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