A Comparative Study between Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel

Category: Composers, Music
Last Updated: 17 Mar 2023
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Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel were both Baroque composers who used the Italian and French styles that were the basic language of the Baroque. The study of Bach and Handel is interesting because of their marked similarities and subtle differences. Bach and Handel were of Saxon ancestry. They came from neighboring towns, Bach from Eisenach, Handel from Halle, and were born but one month apart in the same year, Handel in February, Bach in March, 1685 (Young, 1962). They were both masters of concerto in all its forms:

  • sonata;
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  • suite;
  • fugue;
  • opera;
  • cantata;
  • both sacred and secular;
  • oratorio;
  • mass;
  • passion.

Both Bach and Handel learnt their art by making copies of all the works of acknowledged masters. Bach and Handel were studious copyists throughout their lives. Besides Johann Christoph, Bach took as models the Italians, Frescobaldi, Corelli, Vivaldi, Lotti, Caldara, Legrenzi, Marcello and many others. His special interests led to keyboard music, to violin music and to choral music. Handel, under Zachau, made an anthology of excerpts from Froberger, Kerll,Strungck, Johann Krieger. During his later career he was influenced by Alessandro Stradella, Giacomo Carissimi, Georg Muffatt, Karl Heinrich Graun, Giovanni Clari and others.

Though they sound like brilliant stars rising at the same time, they charted their different paths in music according to their individual natures. There was no musical tradition in Handel's family, his father was a prosperous surgeon who intended George Frideric for the Law; on the other hand members of the Bach dynasty had been for generations conspicuous in musical affairs in Thuringiaevering. Bach remained within the boundaries of his Saxon fatherland throughout his life and was a good citizen and was the father of twenty children.

Handel, on the other hand was the man of the world, honored all over Europe. He was bold and outgoing in nature. The one tragic similarity in their lives is that they both went blind at the end of their lives (Young, 1962). While Bach's grave was forgotten, Handel, who died nine years later, in 1759, was laid to rest in the English pantheon, Westminster Abbey. In those days, music was solely written for the sole purpose of immediate performance, its preservation beyond that moment being a secondary consideration. "Occasional" or commissioned work used to be the rule.

Bach wrote his cantatas for the services of St. Thomas' Church in Leipzig, and Handel wrote his operas for special performances and strictly to suit the voices of the personnel that happened to be available. Bach’s work was mostly unrecognized and neglected for many generations till the 19th century. He was recognized as a great musician by the world only 75 years after his death. The later 18th century knew Bach mainly as an instrumental composer who wrote especially for the organ and the piano (Bekker, 1927). People tended to interpret Bach’s from diverse viewpoints.

Bach used to be considered a contrapuntist pure and simple, a learned musician who treated music as a sort of mathematics (Bekker, 1927). From this viewpoint, Bach seemed to be principally a servant of the church, a sort of Protestant Palestrina who also wrote secular music. Later it became apparent that he could not after all be counted simply as a composer of Church music, so he was looked upon as a romantic poet. The romanticists, declared that Bach was the archromanticist, and should be interpreted with the utmost feeling and expression.

Some felt that Bach's music was inherently emotional (Bekker, 1927). Whatever the angle of perception, Bach came to be regarded as the great builder of musical form. Contrastingly, Handel, the cosmopolitan composer and impresario, was internationally famous in his own lifetime. He was primarily a writer of oratorios (Young, 1962). His instrumental compositions were not considered serious enough for study. The Italian operas which he composed in were considered worthless in the eyes of the critics of that period (Bekker, 1927).

Today however, things have changed and Handel's operas are in the repertoire of nearly every great opera-house (Bekker, 1927). Bach used a personal synthesis of the Flemish and Italian styles with German counterpoint, Handel showed a strong early inclination toward the extroverted and dramatic world of Italian opera (Krantz, 2007). In short, it can be said that Bach looked inward and Handel outward. Bach composed cantatas and organ music and, by his genius and talent for seeing holistic symbolism in words and music, he extended the character of his models (Young, 1962).

Handel, more fluent, more rhetorical, and a free agent with his way to make in the world seized the formalized patterns of entertainment music in secular cantata, in oratorio, in opera, and in instrumental music (Young, 1962). Both Bach and Handel had different personalities. Bach was an introvert whereas Handel was an extrovert. Handel assimilated the various national styles and specialized in each of them separately. Bach assimilated the various influences with his own personal style and arrived at a fusion of national styles in which the single elements are inseparable (Dorak, 2002).

The main works of Handel are his operas, written from an universal perspective for an international public. The main works of Bach are his cantatas, written for the local churches, and his passions, the monuments of his liturgical severity. Handel, being a widely traveled musician has visited many international centers of music. Bach, on the other hand confined himself within the limits of central Germany. Bach’s great works include the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, most of the great preludes and fugues, and the 45 chorale-preludes gathered in Das Orgelbuchlein [the little organ book].

His instrumental compositions are the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue; the English Suites; the French Suites; the Two-Part and Three-Part Inventions; and Book I of the celebrated Well-Tempered Clavier. He also wrote several unaccompanied violin sonatas and cello suites, and the Brandenburg Concertos, recognized as the best concerti grossi ever composed. The St. John Passion was performed (1723) at Leipzig and his Magnificat was presented shortly after he assumed that post.

Many more of his superb religious compositions followed: the St. Matthew Passion (1729), the Christmas Oratorio, the sonorous Mass in B Minor, and the six motets. The principal keyboard works of this period were Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier and the four books of clavier pieces in the Clavierubung and the Goldberg Variations. His last notable compositions were the Musical Offering composed (1747) for Frederick the Great and The Art of the Fugue (1749). In all his positions as choir director, Bach composed sacred cantatas—a total of some 300, of which nearly 200 are extant.

There are also over 30 secular cantatas, composed at Leipzig, among them Phoebus and Pan (1731). The bulk of his work is religious. In his instrumental and choral works he perfected the art of polyphony, displaying an unmatched combination of inventiveness and control in his great, striding fugues (The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2004a). Handel's 46 operas include much of his finest music; among them are Julius Caesar (1724), Atalanta (1736), Berenice (1737), and Serse (1738), which contains the tenor aria now known as Largo. Handel's opera, ‘Messiah’ was presented in Dublin in 1742.

An essentially contemplative work, it stands apart from the rest of his 32 oratorios, which are dramatically conceived, and its immense popularity has resulted in the erroneous conception of Handel as primarily a church composer. Other outstanding oratorios are Acis and Galatea (1720), Esther (1732), Israel in Egypt (1736–37), Saul (1739), and Judas Maccabeus (1747). He also composed about 100 Italian solo cantatas; numerous orchestral works, and the anthem "Zadok, the Priest" (1727) for the coronation of George II, which has been used for all subsequent coronations (The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2004b).

There is one particular text that was set to music by both Bach and Handel. This is Eilt ihr angefocht'nen Seelen in the Passion Oratorio (by Handel) and in the St. John Passion (by Bach). They used the same key and the same pictorial representation of 'haste', and the choral interjections at dramatic points are also common. Bukofzer, however, has opined that Handel's music is inferior because it lacks the highly individual stamp that distinguished Bach from all other composers (Dorak, 2002). When one considers their particular musical styles, Johann Sebastian Bach's music is not pompous, not theatrical; it is not court music, not gala music.

His music was essentially introspective music; he did not think of the audience for whom he composed; his music is the product of his inner reflections. It is an outward expression of his tender feelings. Even in the most grandiose and eloquent moments of his "Passions" he still remains intimate. Bach’s music thus addressed itself mainly to the connoisseur. Handel wrote for the world, for the court, for the stage. His music is naturally brilliant; he has the gift for clear sonorities and powerful rhythms, which make a physical impression on the crowd, exalt and carry it away.

His breadth and simplicity of design make his work illuminating, he is popular. But Bach's art is one that aims to say many things in an instant – in a single word (Landormy & Martens, 1927). This richness sometimes made it difficult for people to understand and appreciate. Handel focuses most on the harmonic clarity of his ensemble; he makes choice of what he wishes to say, he is sober, concise; He prefers to use the simple air of accompanied monody rather than polyphonic complexities (Landormy and Martens, 1927).

Dynamic patterns in music were principally of two types: the melodic, which made use mainly of the voice and is known as thorough-bass, and the contrapuntal, which made use mainly of instruments and is mistakenly called polyphony (Bekker, 1927). On the superficial level, one may find that Bach is a composer of instrumental music in contrapuntal style and Handel on the other, a composer of vocal music in thoroughbass style. Some might classify the work of Bach, the pious man as subjective and Handel, the worldly man as an objective type. But these distinctions are not firmly based.

Both were religious men who were also practical in their approach. They were both introspective as well as objective and both wrote vocal as well as instrumental music, and both made use of thorough-bass as well as of contrapuntal forms. They figured bass and counterpoint, and although they performed individually, they were also teachers in singing. They even chose to specialize in the same musical instrument: the organ. Bach lead his congregation in the singing of cantatas on Sundays or the Passions on high holidays at St. Thomas's church at Leipzig much in the same way as Handel conducted his operas and his oratorios (Bekker, 1927).

Bach’s music can be termed as intensive melodies whereas Handel’s music can be termed extensive melodies. Bach uses very dense contrapuntal texture with complex and chromatic harmonies. On the other hand Handel uses a simple template for his expressions and hence his work is meant for instant sensuous appreciation. The extensive quality of Handel's melodies allows his music to be amplified whereas this is not possible in the case of Bach's music. Amplification would destroy the transparency of the contrapuntal process. The vocal component of Bach’s music is very difficult to perform.

There are disjunct movements and awkward intervals. There is no overlapping between the instrumental and vocal lines. In fact, the free-voiced choral polyphony of Handel and the strictly linear, instrumentally conceived polyphony of Bach form the two poles of late Baroque music (Bekker, 1927). Handel considers the flow of ideas more important than elaboration whereas to Bach, elaboration is more important. The fast changing textures in his choral writing clearly indicate that for Handel, counterpoint is only a means to a dramatic end (Krantz, 2007). On the contrary, Bach takes it as an end in itself which must be consistent.

By nature of its conception, Handel’s counterpoint reaches its apex through the vocal medium. Handel’s work depends so much on the vocal component so much so even his keyboard fugues seem to call for text and become most excellent in vocal form. This accounts for the success of Handel in vocal music (Krantz, 2007). Bach is more adept at the instrumental form. Bach prefers to submit his choral polyphony to an instrumental standard. To quote Tevfik Dorak: “In the flexibility of his choral idiom, Handel surpasses Bach in the same measure as Bach surpasses Handel in contrapuntal consistency” (Dorak, 2002).

One of the major differences between them lay in their individual conception of tone. A person who conceives tone vocally will also feel instrumental music as vocal, and the person who conceives tone instrumentally will also feel vocal music as instrumental. Some comparative features among the two great masters are as follows (Dorak, 2002):

  • Bach conceived tone instrumentally and Handel vocally.
  • Bach focused a lot on spiritual music and created profoundly religious cantatas, passions and masses. Handel treated even religious theme based oratorios such as the “Messiah” with a theatrical effect. This was more popular to the middle class audience.
  • The vocal component of his music was used essentially as a melodic instrument with the most intricate demands of counterpoint expected of it. Handel's writing for the voice is completely idiomatic and the freer contrapuntal textures are more vocally conceived and are contrasted with powerful choral writing.
  • Handel demonstrates the Italian conservatism in his music and uses very simplified form. Bach is conservative in his adherence to the complex polyphonic texture, but progressive in his choice of modern forms, such as the concerto form of Vivaldi. Similarly, the organ style of Handel is clearly influenced by the idiom of the harpsichord as the opposite is true for Bach.
  • Bach is related to the immediate future in his attitude because of modern day focus on instrumental music, while Handel is related to the past. On the other hand the melodic, homophonic figured bass chosen by Handel is more relevant to modern music than Bach's contrapuntal style. Thus both these composers are in some ways relevant to the past and in some other ways relevant to the future. The two great masters of the Baroque period were not beyond criticism.

Bach was criticized because he was too intellectual and, paradoxically, because an excess of reason conflicted with the aesthetic precepts of the Age of Reason. Handel was criticized for exceeding the conventional in the extras which he introduced into his orchestration to underline his dramatic appreciation of scene and situation. Whatever be the criticisms, it remains undeniable that these two masters of Baroque were outstanding in their natural talent. Though they belonged to the same place and same period and produced musical works of similar genre, they differed in their styles of expression.

This difference actually was a major asset to these great masters who remained true to their inner beliefs. The honesty of expression combined with their outstanding talents has helped define baroque music.


  • Dorak, Tevfik (2002). Handel and JS Bach. http://www. dorak. info/music/jsbgfh. html
  • Bukofzer MF. Music in the Baroque Era. WW Norton & Company Inc. NY, 1974, pp. 345-9.
  • Krantz, Allen (2007). George Frideric Handel. http://www.classicalarchives. com/bios/handel_bio.html Landormy, Paul and Martens, H. Frederick (1927).
  • A History of Music. Charles Scribner's Sons. New York. 1927. The Columbia Encyclopedia (2004a).
  • Bach, Johann Sebastian. Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press. New York. 2004 The Columbia Encyclopedia (2004b).
  • Handel, George Frideric. Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press. New York. 2004. Young, M. Percy. (1962).
  • The Choral Tradition: An historical and analytical survey from the sixteenth century to the present day. W. W. Norton Publishing. New York 1962. Bekker, Paul (1927).
  • The Story of Music: An Historical Sketch of the Changes in Musical Form. Translated by Alice Kortschak and Herter Norton. W. W. Norton and Company Inc. New York. 1927.

Related Questions

on A Comparative Study between Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel

How Did Baroque Era Composers Differentiate Their Music From That Of Previous Generations?
Baroque era composers differentiated their music from previous generations by incorporating more elaborate and ornamental melodies, intricate harmonies, and the use of instruments such as the harpsichord and violin. They also placed a greater emphasis on emotion and drama in their compositions.
What Did Bach And Handel Have In Common?
Bach and Handel were both German composers who lived during the Baroque period. They also shared a passion for sacred music and were known for their exceptional skills in keyboard playing.
How Do The Musical Styles Of Bach And Handel Differ ?
The musical styles of Bach and Handel differ in their approach to melody and harmony. Bach's music is characterized by complex counterpoint and intricate harmonies, while Handel's music is known for its simpler melodies and more straightforward harmonies.
How Are Bach And Handel Similar ?
Bach and Handel were both Baroque composers who lived during the same time period and in the same geographic region. They both made significant contributions to the development of Western classical music and were masters of their craft.
Did Bach And Handel Know Each Other ?
Yes, Bach and Handel did know each other. They met in 1719 when Handel visited Bach in Weimar, Germany.

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A Comparative Study between Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. (2016, Jul 16). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/a-comparative-study-between-johann-sebastian-bach-and-george-frideric-handel/

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