Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Case of Handel

Composer Nathan Shirley takes me to task in a comment on my last post: Origins of the Keyboard Sonata. He says:
But what about Handel? It's said Beethoven considered him the greatest composer, and of the late Baroque composers he certainly had some of the strongest influence on on the course of western music. Personally he's a bit hit and miss for me, but when he hits? Fantastic stuff!
 Why did I ignore Handel? Well, I also ignored Buxtehude, Corelli, Telemann and a host of others. But Nathan is correct, Handel is a large figure and Beethoven thought very highly of him. The problem I have with Handel is I find him dull. I have never been able to listen to a performance of the Messiah without falling asleep; which reminds me of the joke about the two hoary old orchestral musicians. One says to the other, "last night I dreamed I was playing Handel's Messiah and suddenly I woke up and, by God, I was!"

When I have performed Handel, starting with singing in the chorus for Judas Maccabeus when I was an undergraduate, playing the continuo part to some chamber sonatas and transcribing some of the Water Music for guitar ensemble, I have also found him dull. Let's have a listen and see if I have a point or if I am just irrationally prejudiced. Here is the famous chorus:

That is certainly stirring, but I doubt I could listen to it very many times. If Beethoven preferred that to a similar piece by Bach, then I don't know what to say. Here is a chorus from the Bach Magnificat:

The passacaglia from the suite in G minor for harpsichord has been a popular piece, especially in an arrangement for violin and cello by Halvorson. Here is the original:

And here is the arrangement:

Let me see, what might we compare that to? I was trying to find a different passacaglia, but performances of this one run on for pages and pages in YouTube. So here it is, the Passacaglia in C minor for organ by Bach:

How about one more example? The Hornpipe from the Water Music is a wonderful little piece:

But we could compare it to this, the first movement of the 2nd Brandenburg Concerto by Bach:

Of course, there is an element of unfairness here! Handel is a terrific composer who wrote a lot of enduringly popular and fine music. But he falls short of Bach in many aspects. His music is made of broader strokes, simpler construction. Nothing wrong with that, but while it has immediate impact, it begins to pall after a while. Handel's themes are just a bit too obvious and his sequences too predictable. The vast majority of Baroque music is dull and predictable, cranked out for numerous festive and social occasions and never intended to last. Acres of Telemann and a host of other Baroque composers attest to this. Much of Handel falls into this category, I think. But there are some great pieces, like the three I put up above, that really stand out, that really do transcend the time. That Hornpipe is perfection, in its way. But the music of a truly great composer like Bach (well, there are no composers like Bach), when put alongside music by Handel, shows us, I think, the difference between a really good composer and a great composer.

Which reminds me of an endearing thing Osvaldo Golijov said once: "I'm a second-rate composer, but a really good second-rate composer." Like Handel!


Nathan Shirley said...

I never said he was Bach! ;)

Of course I tend to agree, but even Bach had his share of less inspired music (mountains of it really).

Handel has a lot of fantastic, if less complex music, like you pointed out. And don't forget the Sarabande-

But at least have a listen to this-

That's first-rate music in my book, and complex to boot (plus he's got a lot like this).

Bryan Townsend said...

I know that sarabande, of course and love it on guitar. In fact, I think you have just inspired me to do my own transcription of it.

But that Gloria is amazing! I didn't know that piece. Thanks so much for suggesting it. Very tough piece for the choir.

I think I can see what in Handel appealed to Beethoven: it is the broad strokes, the power and the simplicity. We often mistake complexity for aesthetic quality, but composers like Handel show the error of that.