As Easter approaches, most people think of spring, bunnies, and pastels, but what about music masterworks by two of the world’s greatest composers? To discover what Bach and Handel have to do with Easter, read the following article by our guest author Caroline Bennett.
“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.”
Job 19: 25-26, used as “Air 45” in Handel’s Messiah
It was just a few years before 1700. All was dark and quiet in the little town of Ohrdruf, Germany. Nothing stirred—except one little boy. Young Johann Bach, an orphan living with his elder brother, crept quietly out of bed when he knew everyone was asleep and snuck down the stairs to the room where his brother kept books. Dragging a chair over to a bookcase, Johann climbed onto it and grabbed a book of music manuscripts from high up on a shelf. He then pattered back up to his room and spent the next few hours copying down manuscripts. These midnight escapades repeated night after night until Johann had copied down the entire book. Then he set to work learning the pieces.
About the same time, another little boy from Germany was also devoting much of his time to music—George Handel. Neither of the boys knew that in one hundred years they would be heralded as two of the finest performers and composers in the world. Though Handel and Bach never met, they greatly admired each other and were very alike, especially with regards to their love for music and their deep faith in God. Bach and Handel combined these two passions to create many pieces reflecting their devotion to God, and Bach’s famous St. Matthew’s Passion and Handel’s Messiah are both perfect for listening to as Easter draws near.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21, 1685, in the town of Eisenach. The Bach family had a long musical history, and Bach’s father—Johann Ambrosius—was a prominent musician in the town. So, unlike many composers, Bach was actually encouraged to be a professional musician from an early age. After his parents died in in the mid-1690s, Bach went to live with his brother, a church organist. Bach sang in a choir and received keyboard training from his brother, but was such an eager student that he made secret copies of music manuscripts from his brother’s prohibited music book. Bach continued to mature as a clavichordist, violinist, violist, and organist, and at the age of eighteen he began performing in the court orchestra at Weimar. Back in the Baroque era, it was customary for noblemen to employ musicians and composers, supporting these artists in their endeavors; very few composers were financially stable enough to find work outside of the courts of dignitaries. Thus Bach spent his entire life working for various noblemen and churches: first at Wiemar, then at Arnstadt, Mülhausen, Köthen, and finally at Leipzig. Depending on who he was serving, Bach performed and composed different kinds of music. Noblemen wished him to write concertos, orchestral suites, and harpsichord solos. When Bach worked for churches, he created vast amounts of religious music in the forms of organ solos, chorales, masses, cantatas, and oratorios.
Among Bach’s many religious works is his St. Matthew’s Passion, written in 1727 for a church’s Good Friday service. This oratorio is quite massive—a little less than three hours long—and is sung entirely in German. Reading the English translation of the words, however, reveals a recitation of St. Matthew’s account of Christ’s last supper, betrayal, trial, and death, interspersed with eloquent arias and choruses written by various hymn-writers. The solo voices and choruses are accompanied by a double orchestra and organs. The soloists sing the parts of the different people mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, and the like. All of the Scripture passages are sung by a soloist representing “Evangelist.” When writing the music for this oratorio, Bach tastefully used very little instrumental accompaniment for Evangelist’s passages, and created a “halo” effect with the strings section whenever Jesus speaks. The oratorio ends rather somberly, with the chorus singing to an entombed Jesus.
When Johann Sebastian Bach died at the age of 65 in 1750, he was completely blind and had recently suffered a stroke. Sadly, this great man and his many works were quickly forgotten by the world, until, one Good Friday in the mid-1800s, Felix Mendelssohn conducted St. Matthew’s Passion once again, sparking sudden interest in Johann Sebastian Bach. Since then, Bach has become one of the foremost composers of all time, and the dates that make up the Baroque era are even based on his lifetime: 1685 to 1750.
One month before Bach was born, the town of Halle, Saxony, saw the birth of another future composer: George Frideric Handel. When Handel expressed interest in music at a young age, his parents disagreed with each other on what to do; his father, a barber-surgeon, intended his son to become a lawyer and forbade studying music; his mother, a pious woman who appreciated music, encouraged her son to secretly study the clavichord. Fortunately, Handel was able to study music openly a few years later, because a nobleman heard Handel playing on a church organ and persuaded Handel’s father to allow him to take music lessons. By the time Handel was eleven, he was an accomplished organist, was studying a variety of instruments, and was composing original works. When Handel was seventeen or eighteen he began to travel the world and study the various Baroque styles of music coming from different countries. He incorporated the Italian Baroque style into his music, and so, while Bach’s works were staunchly German in sound, Handel’s contained a mixture of German and Italian. In a way, Handel’s works are the best of both worlds: they feature the strong, beautiful melodies common in Italian music, but maintain the richness of Germany’s Protestant culture.
After working in a German court for a few years, Handel traveled to England, where he lived for the rest of his life. He became extremely popular there, for he was known as a lively German who spoke a mixture of English, German, and French. Few knew of the difficulties he experienced while in England—such as going bankrupt twice—for Handel found solace in his music. Indeed, because he channeled his emotions into his pieces, Handel’s music has a depth and sensitivity that speaks to all people. That is why his most famous oratorio, Messiah, is so moving. This work features a chamber orchestra, a chorus, and four vocal soloists, all weaving in and out, creating an intricate tapestry of sound. Though it is often associated with Christmas, Messiah tells a story for all seasons, including Easter. The words are all taken straight from Scripture, and the oratorio begins in the Old Testament prophecies, tells of Christ’s birth, glories in his resurrection, and concludes with triumphant words from The Book of Revelation. To get the most out of Messiah, read the words as you listen to the music and think about the wonderful story that it tells. Also note how Handel effectively uses dynamic changes and the switches from chorus to soloist to set moods and emphasize certain passages. Because Messiah is a little over two hours long, is sung in English, and can often be very expressive, children will find this oratorio easier to understand and appreciate than Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. Messiah can therefore be a good way for parents to introduce their children to Handel’s music and at the same time talk about the story of redemption.
George Frideric Handel lived out the rest of his days in England, dying in London on April 14, 1759. Like Bach, he was completely blind at the time of his death, but, also like Bach, Handel never lost sight of the glorious hope he had due to his Savior’s redeeming work on the cross.
As Easter nears, it is timely to study Bach and Handel, two composers who understood the importance of the day and wrote music to celebrate it. St. Matthew’s Passion and Messiah are good companions, for though they tell the same overall story, Bach’s oratorio focuses more on Christ’s sacrifice, and Messiah focuses more on the salvation Christ brings. In addition, because the stately St. Matthew’s Passion was written for a church service, and the joyful Messiah for a public performance, the two complement and round each other out.
Both Bach and Handel wrote music to edify their audiences and to glorify God. After completing a new composition, Bach would always write SDG at the end of the piece, an acronym for the Latin phrase that means “Glory to God Alone,” a reminder that Bach’s talent and music did not come from himself, but was a gift from God. After the premiere of Messiah, an audience member congratulated Handel on the “noble entertainment” he had given the audience. Handel turned to him and replied gravely, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.” This statement is a reflection of all Handel’s music, as well as Bach’s. And if listeners hear and believe the message these two great composers propound, they will be better—better able to worship God and sing “Hallelujah!”
♪ Celobury, Stephen and King’s College Choir of Cambridge. Bach: Matthaus-Passion. Brillant Classics, 1994.
♪ Solti, Sir Georg and Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Handel: Messiah. Decca, 1985.
Note: To view an English translation of St. Matthew’s Passion, visit http://www.uvm.edu/~classics/faculty/bach/BWV244.html.