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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 6 Class of 1685 (I)
Richard Taruskin

Bach and Handel were born within a month of one another, about a hundred miles apart, in adjoining eastern German provinces (then independent princely or electoral states). Handel, whose baptismal name was Georg Friederich Händel, was born on 23 February, in Halle, one of the chief cities in the so-called March of Brandenburg (a “march” being a territory ruled by a Margrave). Bach came into the world on 21 March a little to the south and west, in the town of Eisenach in Thuringia, a province of Saxony. Because of their nearly coinciding origins and their commanding historical stature, Bach and Handel are often thought of as a pair. In most ways, however, their lives and careers were a study in contrasts.

Careers and Lifestyles

fig. 6-1 J. S. Bach’s and G. F. Handel’s career trajectories.

Handel spent only the first eighteen years of his life in his native city, where he studied with the local church organist, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, and attended the university. In 1703 he moved to Hamburg, the largest free city in northern Germany, which had a thriving opera house maintained by the municipal government and supported by the local merchants. There he played harpsichord (continuo) in the orchestra and composed two operas for the company. Having found his métier in the musical theater, Handel naturally gravitated to Italy, the operatic capital of the world. He spent his true formative years—from 1706 to 1710—in Florence and Rome, where he worked for noble and ecclesiastical patrons and met and played with Alessandro Scarlatti, Corelli, and other luminaries of the day, and where he was known affectionately as il Sassone, “the Saxon,” meaning really “the Saxon turned Italian” in the musical sense. In 1710 he became the music director at the court of George Louis, the Elector of Hanover, one of the richest German rulers. There, Handel had to assimilate the French style that all the German nobles affected in every aspect of court life, including court music.

The great turning point in Handel’s life came in 1714, when his employer, without giving up the Electoral throne in Hanover, was elected King George I of England. (Queen Anne had died without a living heir and George Louis, as the great-grandson of King James I, was the closest Protestant blood claimant to the English throne.) George I never learned to speak English and was personally unpopular in England. He continued to spend much or most of his time in Hanover, leaving the running of the English government largely to his ministers of state, chief among them Robert Walpole, the powerful Prime Minister.

Handel had actually made his English debut as an opera composer before George’s accession to the throne. With the King a virtual absentee ruler, his court composer was left remarkably free of official duties, and gained the right to act as a free agent, an independent operatic entrepreneur on the lively London stage. Over the rough quarter century between 1711 and 1738, Handel presented thirty-six operas at the King’s Theatre in the London Haymarket (with a few, toward the end, at Covent Garden, which is still called the Royal Opera House), averaging four operas every three years. Acting at once as composer, conductor, producer, and, eventually, his own impresario, he made a legendary fortune, the first such fortune earned by musical enterprise alone in the history of the art. (Palestrina also died a very rich man, but his fortune came from his wife’s first husband’s fur business.)

Beginning in the 1730s, operatic tastes in London began to catch up with the continent. A rival company, the Opera of the Nobility, managed to engage the latest Italian composers and (far more important) the services of the castrato singer Farinelli (see chapter 4), around whom a virtual cult had formed. After a few seasons of cutthroat competition, both Handel and his competitors were near bankruptcy, and Handel was forced out of the opera business. With his practically incredible business sense he divined a huge potential market in English oratorios: Biblical operas presented without staging, along lines already familiar to us from the Lenten work of Roman composers such as Carissimi.

Handel’s adaptation of this old-fashioned genre was really something quite new: full-length works in the vernacular rather than Latin, without a narrator’s part, but with many thrilling choruses, sometimes participating in the action, sometimes reflecting on it (“Greek chorus” style) to represent as a collective entity the pious yet feisty nation of Israel, with which the musical public in England—a public of “self-made men,” aristocrats of wealth and opportunity, not birth, exulting in England’s mercantile supremacy—strongly identified.

Careers and Lifestyles

fig. 6-2 J. S. Bach (?) at age thirty. Oil portrait by Johann Ernst Rentsch (ca. 1715), at the Municipal Museum of Erfurt.

Though ostensibly religious in their subject matter, the subtext of Handel’s English oratorios—twenty-three in all, produced between 1732 and 1752—was stoutly nationalistic. It was the first important body of musical works motivated by national-ism—a nationalism in which the composer, a naturalized British subject who had benefited greatly from his adopted country’s economic prosperity and the opportunities it offered, enthusiastically shared—just as England, since the “revolutions” of the mid-and late seventeenth century, was the first country larger than a city state to identify itself as a nation in the modern sense of the word: a collectivity of citizens.

Careers and Lifestyles

fig. 6-3 A bird’s-eye view of Leipzig in 1712. St. Thomas Church, where Bach would find employment eleven years later, stands by the south wall at right. The churches of St. Paul and St. Nicolai, where he also supervised musical performances, are at the other end of town.

Handel’s was thus the exemplary cosmopolitan career of the early eighteenth century, a career epitomized by his operatic “middle period,” in which a German-born composer made a fortune by purveying Italian-texted operas to an English-speaking audience. Handel’s style was neither German nor Italian nor English, but a hybrid that blended all existing national genres and idioms, definitely including the French as well. France was the one country where Handel, though an occasional visitor, never lived or worked; but its music, an international court music, informed not only the specifically courtly music that he wrote for his kingly patron but the overtures to his oratorios as well, which paid tribute to the “Heavenly King.” Handel was the quintessential musical polyglot and the consummate musical entrepreneur. He commanded “world” (that is, pan-European) prestige. He has been a role model to “free market” composers ever since.

Careers and Lifestyles

fig. 6-4 St. Thomas Square, Leipzig, in an engraving by Johann Gottfried Krügner made in 1723, the year of Bach’s arrival. The church is at right; the school, where Bach lived and worked, is at left.

Johann Sebastian Bach never once left Germany. Indeed, except for his student years at Lüneburg, a town near Hamburg to the north and west, his entire career could be circumscribed by a small circle that encompassed a few east German locales, most of them quite provincial: Eisenach, his Thuringian birthplace; Arnstadt, where he served between 1703 and 1707 as organist at the municipal Church of St. Boniface; Mühlhausen, where he served at the municipal Church of St. Blasius for a single year; Weimar, where he served the ducal court as organist and concert director from 1708 to 1717; Cöthen, a town near Halle, Handel’s birthplace, where he served as Kapellmeister or music director to another ducal court from 1717 to 1723; and finally Leipzig, the largest Saxon city (but not the capital), where he served as cantor or music director at the municipal school attached to the St. Thomas Church from 1723 until his death.

Careers and Lifestyles

fig. 6-5 Interior of St. Thomas Church, with a view of the organ loft.

One of the larger German commercial cities even in Bach’s day, Leipzig was nevertheless only a fraction of London’s size and far from a cosmopolitan center. Still, it was a big enough town to have sought a bigger name than Bach as its municipal cantor. He was chosen only after two more famous musicians, Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767) and Christoph Graupner (1683–1760), had declined the town’s offer in favor of more lucrative posts (in Hamburg and Darmstadt, respectively). One of the Leipzig municipal councillors grumbled that since the best men could not be had, they would have to make do with a mediocrity. Bach, for his part, felt he had been forced to take a step down the social ladder by going from a Kapellmeister’s position at Cöthen to a cantorate at Leipzig. Until age put him out of the running, he repeatedly sought better employment elsewhere, including the electoral court at Dresden, the Saxon capital. Leipzig was the best he could do, however, and Bach was the best that Leipzig could do. Neither was very happy with the other.

Bach’s, then, was the quintessential “provincial” career—humble, unglamorous, workaday. He remained for life in the musical environment to which he had been born, and which Handel quitted at his earliest opportunity. Handel had an unprecedented, self-made, entrepreneurial career that brought him glory and a very modern kind of personal fulfillment. Bach’s, by contrast, was entirely predefined: it was the most traditional of careers for a musician of his habitat and class. For a musician of exceptional talent it was downright confining.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06002.xml