George Frederick Handel was German--and a contemporary of Johann Sebastion Bach--who lived most of his adult life in London. Unlike Bach, he was a star in his own day, a huge star worshipped wherever he went, on the level of the Beatles. Like Bach, he wrote a tremendous amount of music: nearly 50 operas, more than 20 oratorios (including “Messiah”), a multitude of suites for clavier; concertos for organ; orchestral music; and chamber music, which he’d been composing since he was ten. Fame, fortune, scads of talent, the company of royalty: Handel had it all.
Like Bach, Handel began as a church organist. However, while Bach remained a church organist all his life, Handel moved on, first to Hamburg where he performed as a musician in the opera. After that, he traveled for three years, then became a conductor in Hanover, then studied opera in Italy, and then, at age 27, settled down in London where his operas were creating a sensation. In no time, he had the ear of the king. One of Handel’s most famous pieces was written exclusively for the king as he dined on his boat on the Thames. Today, Handel’s “Water Music” is as much a part of English culture as fish and chips.
While Bach was a humble man of the church (and a homebody), Handel was a man of the world, outgoing, proud, often arrogant, and, like Beethoven, subservient to no man. Handel’s music is more melodic, easier to grasp, and, on first hearing, easier to enjoy than Bach’s. Bach’s music is deeper and, on the fourth or fifth hearing, begins to reveal itself as something truly profound.
“Bach’s art is introspective, while Handel is a man of action,” writes a musicologist. “Bach is a master of detail; Handel works with sweeping brush strokes. Bach’s mystic gaze is turned upon the world to come; Handel hymns the pomp and power of this world . . . Bach was a Lutheran; Handel was a man of the Enlightenment whose moral sense was bound to no creed or dogma.”
Today, J. S. Bach is considered the greatest composer who ever lived. Beethoven, however, who carefully studied the music of Bach and Handel, Haydn and Mozart, declared: “Handel is the greatest of us all.”