Lovers of Baroque music often fall into the “Bach camp” or the “Handel camp”, though it is certainly possible to love both equally—something not quite so easy with other more oppositional composers like Wagner and Brahms. After all, Bach and Handel did share the instantly recognizable musical language of the high Baroque. In fact, part of what is so attractive about the music of both Handel and Bach is that they both effortlessly blended the sunny Italian sense of melody and harmonic clarity with the more sober counterpoint of the German school, seasoned with a soupçon of French rococo ornamentation.
Although their music is generally very similar, I like to think that what differentiates them is related to the ways in which their lives diverged from one another. In a consequence of almost mythical significance, these two giants of western music were born within one month of one another in 1685—Handel on February 23rd and Bach on March 21st, in towns about 80 miles apart. They both served as church musicians and worked in royal courts; but whereas Handel travelled extensively, coming of “musical age” in Italy in his early 20’s, Bach remained in his native central-eastern region of Germany his entire life. He was by no means cut off from musical life, however: many musicians made the pilgrimage to Leipzig to meet Bach, and he was deeply influenced by Italian composers, most notably Vivaldi. Both Handel and Bach were friends with Georg Philipp Telemann, who is less well-known today, but was one of the most prolific composers of the Baroque. (In fact, Telemann had been the first choice for the job eventually awarded to Bach in Leipzig.)
One of the quickest ways to differentiate Bach and Handel is to describe Bach as church composer and Handel as an opera composer. On the face of it, this tidy construction is largely correct: Bach spent the last 27 years of his life as Music Director of Leipzig’s churches, and Handel was for many years a successful operatic composer and producer, and he only turned to oratorio to recover his massive financial losses from producing operas.
But the full story is more complex. In addition to his famous English-language oratorios dealing with biblical texts, Handel wrote a great deal of church music. There are the many works written in English during his service to the English crown, such as the Coronotaion Anthems, as well as the Chandos Anthems, written for the Duke of Chandos. But he also wrote a number of German cantatas (the genre with which Bach’s name would be forever linked), as well as Latin settings from his years in Rome, most notably the extraordinary, Italianate Dixit Dominus. Bach and Handel are musically linked by a German passion libretto by Barthold Brockes. Handel used the libretto for his Brockes-Passion; Bach would draw from the same text for his own St John Passion.
It is certainly true that Bach did not write any operas, a point about which many musicologists have speculated over the years. The reason for this is probably due to the circumstances in which Bach found himself—none of the courts in which he worked produced operas, and by the time he arrived in Leipzig, the local opera company had folded. Nearby Dresden had an important opera company, and it is reasonable to think that Bach might have written for them had he so intended. He did write some quasi-operatic dramatic secular cantatas, but this is the closest he came to explicit operas. In an odd twist, however, Bach was criticized by church authorities in Leipzig for bringing opera-like characteristics to his cantatas, with their high sense of emotion and drama. Certainly, lovers of Bach’s choral music believe that his two Passion settings give us a glimpse into the kind of genius that he would have brought to opera composition.
The oddest coincidence linking Bach and Handel, who never met (despite two attempts by Bach to meet Handel) is also the most tragic. Both composers developed cataracts in late middle age, leading them both to turn to the English eye surgeon, John Taylor. A shameless self-promoter and almost certainly a charlatan, Taylor was the eye surgeon to King George II, and he also travelled through Europe performing surgery. On a tour through Leipzig in 1749, he operated on Bach, without success. Many people believe that the strenuous operation, which weakened the composer, led to his death in 1750. Handel also submitted to Taylor’s knife, to no avail: after his 1751, he spent the final years of his life in near-complete blindness.