What if Bach and Handel had met?

The massive international stature of Handel’s success seems to have irked Bach’s acolytes enough for them to fashion a false binary which to an extent persists to this day.
Portrait of a young George Frideric Handel, 1720. Credit: DeAgostini / Getty Images.
Portrait of a young George Frideric Handel, 1720. Credit: DeAgostini / Getty Images.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

In the various annals of Bachian lore accumulated since that July afternoon in 1750 when he breathed his last is a tantalising near-miss that stands out for anyone with a predilection for alternative histories: the prorogued meeting of J.S. Bach and George Frideric Handel.

The closest these two giants of the age ever got to one another was when their busts were erected in the same hall of the Berlin Konzerthaus and their portraits put next to one another in every music appreciation book from Abkhazia to Zambia. Later in life, they were even operated upon by the same English eye-surgeon who, true to eighteenth-century medical form, rendered them both blind. 

As it happens, it seems that they came close to meeting twice. According to an anonymous late eighteenth-century account tentatively ascribed to Bach’s second son Carl Philipp Emanuel:

‘Handel came three times from England to Halle [his birthplace, in Sachsen-Anhalt]: the first time about 1719, the second time in the thirties, and the third time in 1752 or 1753. On the first occasion, Bach was Capellmeister in Cöthen, twenty short miles from Halle. He learned of Handel’s presence in the latter place and immediately set out by stage coach and rode to Halle. The very day he arrived, Handel left. On the second occasion, Bach unfortunately had a fever. Since he was therefore unable to travel to Halle himself, he at once sent his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, to extend a most courteous invitation to Handel, and received the answer that he could not come to Leipzig, and regretted it very much … On the third occasion, J.S. was already dead.’ 

The rest of the essay, before and after this anecdote, essentially takes shots at Handel in favour of the author’s hero, Bach, and indeed interprets Handel’s failure to meet him as an avoidance of comparison with a greater musician. This author – and in light of the rebarbative tone he applies to Handel in virtually every other instance of mentioning him, I am certain that it was Emanuel – even says that ‘Handel, it seems, was not as curious as J.S. Bach, who once walked at least 250 miles to hear the famous Buxtehude in Lübeck.’ Incidentally, later, at different times, both men went to test the waters around succeeding Dieterich Buxtehude at the Hanseatic city’s Marienkirche; depending on how close either of them got to the elder organist’s daughter (marrying her was required as part of the deal to win the job), there is that proximity to consider as well. 

Of course Emanuel Bach was speaking total nonsense. Not exactly lacking in curiosity, as a young man Handel defied the predictable parental anxieties of a barber-surgeon father to spend virtually all his adolescence in the organ loft, before skipping town for the big city torches of Hamburg, then the nearest the German-speaking world had to the headiness of New York or London. Far from the dour churchmen of his hometown and the preening Francophile formalities of the myriad two-bit court establishments across Germany, here the ambitious young artist, still in his teens, was free to ply his craft against the backdrop of a total free market. He played fiddle in the orchestra of the city’s famous commercial opera house, taught private students, and seems to have met anybody who was anybody. By the age of nineteen, he even had his first operatic success: AlmiraKönigin von Castilien, whose wildly popular run of twenty-odd nights was to presage a thirty-six-year career in the theatre. Soon after, it was only natural that he’d try his spade in that greenhouse of artists, Italy – and by the age of twenty-five, he had conquered that nation as well, acquiring an epithet across the peninsula as ‘il caro Sassone.’ A portrait dating from the period – a cameo set in jewellery that now, sadly, has been lost – shows a strikingly handsome and self-assured young eagle with the kind of big eyes that fall down to planet Earth every hundred or so years. Handel’s subsequent successes in England and his ultimate status as a living national treasure, albeit encased in the kind of marble which every generation or so needs a good power wash, originate from that very quality Emanuel Bach accused him of not having: curiosity. 

Johann Sebastian Bach’s curiosity, on the other hand, was of a very different kind: it was far less ambitious as far as cartography goes, but rather looked to stretch the expanses and boundaries of the traditions of the artistic and metaphysical soil that had made him. Like Handel, he too looked outwards, but his basic mission was along the lines of Confucius’ famous dictum on the powers of reflection: ‘The more I look up at it, the higher it appears; the more I bore into it the harder it becomes.’ Nonetheless there is enough in common between these two very different geniuses to allow us, as historical flies on the wall, to imagine a rather fruitful or at least interesting meeting between them.

For whatever reason, though, the massive international stature of Handel’s success seems to have irked Bach’s acolytes enough for them to fashion a false binary which to an extent persists to this day. Much of the ire directed at Handel is from our old friend Emanuel, whose pathological obsessions with the unequal fates of his under-appreciated father and the celebrated Handel played into resentful commentary on Handel’s success from other contemporary writers which, in turn, fed the first Bach biographers of the early nineteenth century. Johann Mattheson, a Hamburg composer with not-inconsiderable gifts for polemic, even claimed responsibility for teaching the skills to Handel that had earned the latter his renown. For good measure, he even made sure to emphasise his erstwhile colleague’s youthful indigence: 

‘At that time [1703, when Handel was 18] he composed very long, long arias and really interminable cantatas, which had neither the right kind of skill or taste, though complete in harmony, but the lofty schooling of opera soon trimmed him into other fashions … During that period he went most of the time for free meals at my late father’s house, and in return he introduced me to some special techniques in counterpoint. Since I rendered him no small service as regards the dramatic style, each hand may be said to have washed the other.’

It may be pointed out here that any reputation Mattheson enjoys today is mostly because he knew Handel. 

Eighteenth-century legendry and apocrypha about Bach, on the other hand, tended to run along the lines of admiration, intermingled, particularly in the posthumous accounts, with regret that so skilled a musician had not achieved greater fame. In a letter to Charles Burney, Emanuel Bach cannot help himself in describing his father’s skill in the context of yet another volley at the famous straw man of Halle: 

‘Hasse, Faustina, and Quantz, and others beside, whom Handel knew well, did around 1728 or 1729 hear my father when he played in Dresden and said: verily, Bach has brought organ-playing to its highest level. In all seriousness, this is where we can see the difference between great men. Did your Handel write trios for organ with two manuals and pedal? Did he write 5- or 6-voice fugues for the clavier? It seems not.’

Others write of J.S. Bach’s good-natured modesty when in contact with other, more famous musicians, and often a barb or two at a world whose values fell short of placing Bach on a higher pedestal follows. Since Handel was virtually the only world-famous composer from the perspective of many of these writers, the implication is clear: people are at fault for failing to appreciate Bach, and the man who does receive accolades obviously represents all that is wrong with the world.

To surmise what hoped-for dialectical sparks of inspiration for the ages would have flown from the collision of these two treasure-laden galleons is one of those speculative endeavours best left to those with a flair for creative writing. To say that Bach and Handel represented two worlds is, frankly, a discursive cop-out. Bach represented a world that Handel had been part of and that he had decided to leave behind, but the aspirational and cosmopolitan winds of the mercantile age had, by both men’s maturity, reached the wilds of Saxony and Brandenburg, effectively making a world that favoured the talents of a man like Handel. A fairly solid case can be made on musical and documentary evidence for J.S. Bach as one of the first Handelians, both as a performer and as an enthusiast who would have heard and collected some of Handel’s works. But ‘Bach as Handelian’ deserves another, more in-depth study, though we can say that old Sebastian probably did not share whatever resentments his followers had about his more successful colleague.

In short, when visiting the old market towns and whitewashed chapels of Lutheran Germany, Handel may have come as a guest, but the Europe of the High Baroque was very much his world, and Bach was all too happy to admit that he, for all his talents, was just living in it. 

Mahan Esfahani

Mahan Esfahani is known mainly for his career as a harpsichordist in two major realms: the great works of the 17th and 18th centuries and for championing modern and living composers in halls and with orchestras on four continents. More recently he has a growing reputation as an active broadcaster and commentator with radio documentaries on a variety of musical and social topics for the BBC and articles for the The New Yorker, Guardian, and Opera. Born in Tehran, he grew up in the United States and has spent his post-university life living between Milan, Oxford, London, and more recently Prague, where he spends his time between concerts writing, collecting rare books, and studying ancient and modern languages.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.