WE have seen the supremacy of musical leadership wander from France to Belgium in the 14th century, from there to the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries, thence to Italy during the latter part of the 16th century and the early part of the 17th, the Netherlanders being the missionary teachers of the musical world of that day. We have seen, further, how Netherlanders and Germans visited Italy to study with Italian masters, and have observed the efforts of great German musicians, upon their return to their native land, in the direction of combining the melodic, euphoric, colorful style of the Italian masters with the contrapuntal style of the Netherlanders, to create a choral music intended chiefly for the services of the Protestant Church.
In spite of fierce wars which devastated Germany, during which all other arts suffered terribly, music actually advanced in its development of truly human expression. The wealth of folk-song and church music, including the Passion, then acquired by Germany, is still one of its greatest treasures; and polyphonic art, which had so sadly declined in Italy, found a new opportunity for development and growth at the hands of the great German organists.
The time was now ripe for the arrival of two great musical geniuses, not only the greatest in Germany but in the world of that day, Bach and Handel.
While it is in no sense our purpose to present a detailed biography of these two great masters (this having been done in the fullest and most interesting manner by Spitta and Chrysander), the character of their principal works is so much the result of the circumstances under which they lived, that some biographical data seem necessary.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21, 1685, at Eisenach. His ancestors for more than a century and a half had been musicians, some of them church organists, others, “town musicians,” of which class of players more than one Bach became the leader, the numerous members of the Bach family nearly monopolizing the musical positions in many towns of Thuringia during nearly a century. Johann Sebastian lost his parents before he reached the age of ten. His elder brother, Christopher, also a musician, took care of him, and gave him his first instruction in the elements of music. Even as a youth, the future master showed his great love for the art of which he was to be such a shining light, by copying surreptitiously, by moonlight, a number of compositions which his brother deemed a treasure as yet beyond the boy’s understanding. For nearly six months he labored thus, only to be discovered when his work was almost completed, and to have his treasure taken from him. The blindness with which he was later afflicted has been attributed to this episode of his boyhood. As Christopher Bach was very poor, and like all the Bachs the father of an ever-increasing family, Johann Sebastian was sent to the convent school at Luneburg, where his fine soprano voice secured him free tuition which included thorough teaching in Latin, together with instruction on the violin and organ. He soon made himself acquainted with the musical treasures to be found in the school library, and thirsted for more. With his credentials for entrance to the University, he left Luneburg and wandered for some time from town to town, visiting Hamburg, where he profited much from the organ recitals of Adam Reinken, and obtaining temporary employment here and there as a violinist, until at the age of eighteen he arrived at Arnstadt, where he secured the position of church organist.
The Wanderlust compelled him to ask for temporary vacations, which were sometimes obtained with difficulty, as he had a habit of forgetting his duties in the pleasures derived from hearing Reinken at Hamburg, and Buxtehude, the Danish organist at Lübeck, in recitals, as well as in listening to Suites and other compositions of French masters. Upon his return to Arnstadt, he usually received severe rebukes for his prolonged absences; he was also repeatedly reprimanded for “interspersing the chorales with many strange variations and tones, to the confusion of the congregation.” This evidence of his youthful desire for the contrapuntal embellishment of the chorales with their interludes, was only a token of his artistic instincts. Shortly afterward, in 1707, he accepted with joy the appointment of organist at Muhlhausen, which offered a better salary and thus enabled him to marry his cousin, Barbara. Of their seven children, two, Friedemann and Philipp Emanuel, became well-known musicians. From Mühlhausen, where he remained but one year, he went to Weimar to accept the position of court organist and concert-master. During his stay of nine years in this city, in the early part of his married life, he wrote for the court chapel a number of his masterworks of which the cantata “Actus tragicus,” known under the title “God’s own time is best,” is perhaps the greatest.
While in the service of the Duke of Weimar, he studied most earnestly the works of Palestrina and others, and arranged the violin concertos of Vivaldi for harpsichord and organ. His fame as an organist dates from this period, and was so great that a contest in improvisation on the organ between him and the French organist, Marchand, was arranged by Dresden music-lovers. Bach accepted the challenge and appeared at the hour appointed, only to learn that the Frenchman had departed on that very morning.
Bach then journeyed to Cothen, where in the meantime he had been appointed chapel-master to Prince Leopold, who paid him a salary sufficient for his wants and also encouraged him in his studies of the works of the masters. To please his patron Bach wrote, among other orchestral pieces, the six famous Brandenburg Concertos for the court orchestra, be-sides many other concertos, and church music for various instruments. During his stay at Cothen he also composed the “French Suite the “Inventions,” and the first part of the “Wohltemperirtes Clavier,” whose first edition bore the curious title “Preludes and Fugues in all tones and semi-tones, i.e., in major thirds Do, Re, Mi, and minor thirds Re, Mi, Fa, for the advantage and use of musical youths desirous of study, as well as for the pastime of those who have already acquired some skill, composed and noted down by Johann Sebastian Bach, chapel-master and director of chamber music to the Prince of Anhalt-Cothen, anno 1722.” The second part of this work was not completed until 1744.
Bach was in such favor with his employer that he often went with him on his travels. During one of these absences, Bach’s wife died and was buried before his return. Almost two years thereafter he married a well-known soprano, the daughter of one of the court musicians. For her he wrote some of his easier instrumental pieces and songs, and she later assisted him in the copying of corrected manuscripts, some of which are now in the Royal Library at Berlin, one of them bearing the inscription “écrite par Mme. Bach, son épouse.”
From a letter to one of his school friends, written in 1730, we learn the reason for his leaving Cothen and for his acceptance of the appointment as cantor in the St. Thomas’ school at Leipzig in 1723. In this letter he declares his affection for his princely employer, whose graciousness and love for music he praises, and with whom he would gladly have remained, had not his marriage with a princess who delighted in worldly pleasures gradually led the husband away from his interest in serious music. He says, further, “And so God arranged it that the post of cantor at St. Thomas’ should become vacant. At first, I thought it unbecoming to relinquish the dignified position for that offered to me, and therefore considered it for three months, but was at last induced to accept, as my sons were inclined to be studious, and I was desirous of giving them an opportunity to gratify this inclination by entering them into school; and so, in the name of the Most High, I ventured and came to Leipzig.”
The salary attached to his new position was much smaller than that received at court, and the bickerings with the Church authorities that had embittered his earlier life at Arnstadt were now renewed, although the criticisms made at this time were not of his incapacity or lack of musicianship, but rather of his unsatisfactory services as teacher of the choir-boys and general servant of the church. Because of the needs of his family, he eked out his income by giving music-lessons to various persons of means but no ability, and by playing at funerals, for which he received extra compensation. In the letter already quoted, he speaks of this: “When funerals are numerous I gain more, but `if the air be healthy,’ then my income drops, my earnings last year being consider-ably less owing to the small number of deaths.” His regular duties were varied and numerous; besides the teaching of music, they consisted in giving instruction in Latin, and directing the music at other churches and, on all festival occasions, at the University. When we take these facts into consideration, we may well wonder how he found time for the creation of so many masterworks, some of which he was compelled to hear performed very inadequately (as compared with his conception), and others which he never even heard.
That he served his art for the love of it, and not for glory or the hope of wealth, is seen from his sturdy adherence to the composition of works which breathe genuine piety and religious devotion, at a time when the atmosphere of the courts and the society of possible patrons were permeated with gayety and frivolity.
One of his great joys at this time was his family, which he Ioved passionately, and of whose individual musical abilities he was very proud; another was the continuous flow of lofty musical ideas which poured from his mighty pen and which he so well knew how to mould into imperishable forms. In one of his letters he refers with pride to the work of his first three sons at the University and to his ability to give a very good concert with the members of his family. Great was his satisfaction when, in 1733, his son Friedemann was installed as organist at the church of St. Sophia in Dresden, and when, in 1740, the second son, Philipp Emanuel, was appointed court musician and pianist to Frederick the Great. Through the son, the king often heard of the greatness of the father, and finally in 1744 invited him to visit the palace in Potsdam. The respect which the king showed the aged master was only equaled by Bach’s humble but dignified reception of this royal attitude.
The list of great works written during Bach’s sojourn at Leipzig is a stupendous one, and includes about 200 church cantatas, the great Magnificat, the Passions according to St. Matthew and St. John, the B-minor Mass, the Christmas Oratorio, and the second part of the “Wohlemperirtes Clavier,” many of whose preludes and fugues are as full of religious devotion and exaltation as his vocal works with sacred texts.
Among his professional pleasures were the opening of new organs, the examination of candidates for positions as organists in various parts of Germany, and his visits to his staunch friend and admirer, the Elector of Saxony, at Dresden, on which occasions he used to frequent the Italian opera-house of that city with his son Friedemann “to hear some of those pretty little Italian tunes.”
After his return from Potsdam, his health left much to be desired, and he sought relief in earnest and assiduous work, which so aggravated the disorder of his eyes that he became totally blind. He died on July 28, 1850, valued so lightly by the community in which he lived that the exact place of his burial was unknown, and has only recently been discovered.
Space forbids a detailed enumeration of his great works, but a few may be mentioned. Among the many cantatas there is his setting of a fundamental conception of early Christianity: “Think ye how to die,” as expressed in his cantata “God’s time is best,” which is filled with a mystic contemplation of the life beyond the grave. Then there are his settings of the Passion, according to St. Matthew and St. John, the one buoy-ant with mature faith, the result of religious experience, the other effulgent with youthful meditation on the mysteries and beauty of the great tragedy. How powerfully has the master portrayed the fanatical Jewish rabble surging around the Saviour, and what a contrast this offers to the setting of His words, by which we are impressed with His human sufferings regardless of creed or schism, and which therefore appeals to all the world.
Among his instrumental works for the piano the “Wohltemperirtes Clavier” stands foremost, a veritable panacea for all moods, now sad, now joyful; now heroic, now sublime; a friend at all times and under all circumstances, every number expressing a special mood. Feelings are here expressed in tones, which is the mission of music, and in doing so Bach emancipated instrumental music from words, and stands as the first and perhaps the greatest of all tone-poets. Even the Italian opera-composers of his day did not nearly equal him in this expression of individuality. These masterly preludes and fugues were prophetic of the possibilities of the modern grand piano.
Of his orchestral works, the Brandenburg Concertos and the Suites deserve special attention; while his compositions for the organ, of which instrument he was one of the greatest masters who ever lived, are most admirable exemplars of their class.
The life of George Frederick Handel presents a sharp contrast to that of the grand old cantor of Leipzig. He was born at Halle, a little less than a month before Bach, on February 25, 1685, the son of George Handel, a surgeon. The father, a self-made man who had risen from obscurity, desired the son to be a lawyer, and therefore forbade the boy’s practice of gratifying an innate desire for music. This desire, however, could not be suppressed, and the picture of his nightly practice by candlelight upon a small clavichord, which he had hidden in the attic, is a familiar one.
On a brief visit to the court at Weissenfels in company with his father he obtained access to the court chapel and began to play on the organ. There he was discovered by the Duke, who pleaded with the boy’s father to give him musical instruction. As a consequence, he began the study of organ, harpsichord and composition under the Halle organist Zachau. Without aid he also learned to play the violin and oboe, and at the age of ten had actually written some sonatas for two oboes and bass.
At eleven the youthful prodigy was taken to Berlin and placed under the protection of Princess Sophia Charlotte, a very accomplished musician, who often conducted excellent concerts. There he met two Italian composers, Ariosto, who at once became his friend and admirer, and Buononcini, who treated him with disdain. This was borne with such dignity by the boy, that he won the favor of Frederick III, who proposed to send him to Italy. Handel thanked the Elector for his kindly offer, but, despite the protests of his mother and his first teacher, declined the proposal and entered the University at Halle, in 1702, as a law-student. Being at heart a musician, he devoted most of his year in the university to the study of music and to his duties as organist at the cathedral. We have spoken of his work in Hamburg, whither he was attracted in 1703 by the activity of German operatic composers. There he met John Mattheson, a versatile musician, littérateur and musical critic, who became Handel’s lifelong friend and admirer, and secured for him a number of pupils as well as the position of second violinist at the opera-house, where he soon became conductor (harpsichordist) of the orchestra. He brought out several Italian operas, and his financial success with Almira enabled him, because of his thrifty habits, to go to Italy in 1706. He visited in turn Florence, Rome, Venice and Naples, where he remained some time. The years thus spent were among the happiest of his life, as he was not only surrounded by art treasures which he loved, but was hailed everywhere as a welcome guest and an accomplished musician. From this stay in Italy dates the disappearance of the academic quality predominant in his Hamburg compositions; his succeeding works show the influence of this more emotional environment, resulting in a number of operas, cantatas, etc., some of which, under English titles, such as Acis and Galatea and The Triumph of Time, reappear in his later life.
Through the influence of German musical friends he was induced to leave Italy and take up his abode in Hanover. Upon his arrival in 1710 he was made chapel-master to the Elector George, who gave him permission to visit England before assuming his official duties. This visit and its resultant contact with the music of that country had a great influence upon his future career.
We have already mentioned the development of Protestant church music in England and its degeneration under the sway of Puritanism, which was responsible for the destruction of much of England’s best music. The same religious movement retarded the development of dramatic music, but after the Restoration, French opera having become popular, English musicians began its study. One of these, Pelham Humphreys, went to France to become the pupil of Lully, and upon his return had as his pupil England’s greatest opera-composer and first representative musician, Henry Purcell (1658-1695), whose opera Dido and AEneas was far in advance of contemporary Italian operas in dramatic sincerity.
He wrote many anthems and canticles for the Anglican church. That he exercised some influence over Handel may be seen from his “Utrecht Te Deum” and from the following quotation from his music to Diocletian, which seems to fore-shadow the great trumpet aria in The Messiah.
No sooner had Handel arrived in L0ndon than he began to cast about for a libretto for an opera in the Italian style; and in February, 1711, he brought out Rinaldo, which was completed in the incredibly short period of two weeks. After a few months’ stay he returned to Hanover and took up his duties at the court of George, but, having tasted of the fullness of English literary and musical life, and having made many friends among the aristocracy, he solicited and was granted permission for a second visit during the following year. Two other Italian operas quickly followed his arrival, and his Te Deum and Jubilate in large choral form for the celebration of the corrupt peace of Utrecht so endeared him to the Jacobite English Cabinet and Parliament before which they were performed, that he was granted an annuity of $1000. This sum, added to his salary of $1500 as Hanoverian chapel-master, gave him a handsome fixed income, and every-thing was made so pleasant for him that he overstayed his vacation. In doing so he incurred the displeasure of his patron, who in the following year became King George I of England. His frequent efforts for a restoration to the king’s favor finally met with success, and he even accompanied the court on a short visit to Germany, where he wrote a Passion on a modified Biblical text by the poet Brockes. Upon his return to England he became musical director to the Duke of Chandos, at whose home he wrote the twelve celebrated “Chandos” anthems, his first oratorio, Esther, and the pastoral play (serenata) Acis and Galatea.
An attempt made by the English nobility to establish Italian opera resulted in his securing the directorship, and during several years he wrote a number of operas, most of which are almost unknown. The antipathy of the English against all things foreign, and the intrigues of the Italian opera-singers, finally caused the closing of the. Haymarket opera-house in 1728. Nothing daunted, Handel determined to open a new opera-house. He went to Italy to secure his singers, and on the return-journey stopped at his old home in Halle, where he almost met Bach, who had expressed a desire for such a meeting. His new venture failed after four years, costing him his fortune; but, with the aid of friends, he made a third attempt. This also resulted in financial disaster, due in great measure to the rancorous opposition of rivals for public favor, Handel being unfortunately on the unpopular side. His old enemy Buononcini was one of his chief opponents; the rivalry between the two composers was neatly taken off in an epigram penned by the Lancashire poet Byrom:
Some say, compar’d to Bononcini, That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny; Others aver, that he to Handel Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle: Strange all this Difference should be, ‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!
He almost lost his mind as a result of the repeated attacks of his detractors, and sought a few months of peace and quiet on the continent. Upon his return to England, he began his career as a composer of oratorios, in which capacity he has never been excelled, and as these were written and sung in the vernacular they endeared him to friend and foe alike. These works began a new era in the domain of oratorio, being epical in character, not lyrical like those of his predecessors. He generally uses stories from the Old Testament, and excludes the chorale, thus removing them at once from the sphere of pure church music to that of the concert-hall, the Biblical narrator of events being often wholly eliminated, and the meditative utterance being assigned to different dramatis person. He raised the status of the chorus from a humble helper to the main feature of the oratorio, using it to describe dramatic events whose impressive power would have been lost if delivered by a solo voice, while it is intensified by the massing of many voices. No individual description, how-ever emphatic and vigorous, can compare with the ponderous utterance of the chorus in narrating the fate of a person or a nation, or in describing dramatic and thrilling events. yo Handel belongs the honor of making the chorus represent much of the dramatic action.
Most of his oratorios reflect, in text and music, not only his own indomitable nature, but also the spirit and character of the country which had adopted him, and which at that time was the only stronghold of freedom and independence.
His association with men of lofty ideas, grandeur of thought and enthusiasm for liberty, had a tremendous influence upon his work. Among his daily associates we must mention Samuel Johnson, Richard Savage, Dean Swift, the Duke of Chandos, Pope, Addison, Gay, Arbuthnot, and many other poets, littérateurs and men of affairs.
No wonder that he was cosmopolitan in his art, and that he chose to sing of the heroes of the Israelites, Greeks, Macedonians, and even of the Persians; no wonder that he wrote for almost every instrument and combination of instruments then in use.
His work in the field of oratorio won back the friends who had been alienated during the operatic feuds, and gave him an assured position; for, with the changes of time, oratorio came to be more fashionable than opera.
Though he loved the society of ladies, Handel remained a bachelor. He gave much to charity, and be it said to his honor during his lifetime the receipts of every performance of his most popular work, The Messiah, as well as those of many others, were devoted to charitable purposes. His gifts to the Foundling Hospital in London were munificent, as were his contributions to the establishment of a home for indigent musicians. He was devoted to his mother; he provided the widow of his first teacher, Zachau, with a pension, and gave much from his own purse for various benevolent enterprises.
When at work on the oratorio Jephthah, in 1754, he began to have difficulties with his eyes which resulted in total blindness. Excitable though he had always been, Handel bore this trial with gentle dignity, and never complained.
Was it the prophetic quality of genius that enabled him to picture the grief of the blind Samson in that remarkable utterance “Total eclipse” ? His appearance, when led to the organ in his final years, caused a thrill of veneration in the musicians who flocked to the concerts to hear his masterly playing, which he continued almost up to the day of his death, April 13, 1759.
His work in his adopted country was of such a high standard that excellent English musicians like Doctor Arne and Pepusch could not approach it, and were perforce content with the composition of smaller works.
We have seen the difference of environment which characterized the lives of the two great masters under consideration, the one dwelling in comparative obscurity and working mostly in and for the Protestant Church, the other spending the greater part of his life among the glitter, pomp and circumstance of a great court; the former nearly always in straitened circumstances and lacking congenial friends, the latter moving among men of great mind and character, the foremost of their day; both striken by blindness in their old age, but the one buried in an unknown grave, and the other at rest among England’s greatest in her hall of fame, Westminster Abbey.
That their environment influenced the character of their works is indisputable. Those of Bach are born of religious enthusiasm and are for the inner court of the heart, while those of Handel demand the larger audience, the concert-hall. Each worked out what was in him, and, side by side, they are the two towering colossi that form the portal to modern musical art.