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Darkness and Light; Handel and Bach

by John H. Lienhard

The news as I drove to work one morning was no better than any other. So much suffering abroad in the world, contending politicians and pundits cherry-picking among facts. Anger seemed ascendant; the sky was grim and overcast. There I was, about to enter a workplace where, like yours or anyone’s, troubles unexpectedly self-generate for no good reason.

I needed to clear my head, so I turned to music by a tenor and soprano singing pieces by Handel written at the same time as Messiah. And Waft Her Angels from Handel's last opera, Jeptha.

Something very strange happened as I listened. The day took on a different hue. Handel's Messiah arias are familiar to us. But Messiah is largely driven by a mood of drama and triumph. These pieces are far different. The impulse here was quiet resignation. Extraordinarily long and profoundly gentle melodic phrases wove into perfect sonorities. The message was clear: All that noise going on out there is illusory — come inside and claim your quiet.

Let me read what a friend of the aging Handel had to say about him. It's a word-picture that explains both his music, and my visceral reaction to it:

[Handel, he says] was impetuous, rough and peremptory in his manners and conversation, but totally devoid of ill-nature or malevolence; indeed, there was an original humour and pleasantry in his most lively sallies of anger or impatience, which, with his broken English, were extremely risible ... Handel's general look was somewhat heavy and sour; but when he did smile, it was his sire the sun, bursting out of a black cloud.

So darkness drained away from that particular day. After all, I'd just left the warmth of the breakfast table — the cats enjoying one another and us. The intense green of new growth rising in the gray overcast that created it. The intense heat of Houston's summer was muted. Handel's smile had indeed burst out of the cloud, which I had so wrongly taken to be heavy and sour.

Such strange shifts of perspective are more common than we might think. They sometimes cause me to wonder if all life might not be one big optical illusion. Creativity is always a matter of seeing an old thing in a new way. It's Handel's friend looking at his sour face and seeing rays of the sun. It's looking at scorched rubber and inventing vulcanization. Or hearing a long musical phrase and realizing that we can ride it into a better day than the morning ever promised.

Of course, any of a thousand composers might’ve done just what Handel did for me. Handel’s contemporary, Bach, had the same touch. And, by the way, both had similar struggles with light and darkness.

Both were born in 1685, and only 80 miles apart — Bach in the small state of Thuringia; Handel in nearby Saxony. Handel studied at the university in Hamburg. He went to Italy in 1707, where he established himself as a first-rate composer. He then moved to London and spent the rest of his life as an English citizen.

Bach learned music by apprenticeship in several church posts, none very far from his birthplace. In 1723, at the age of 38, he moved to Leipzig where he spent the rest of his life. So Handel and Bach lived separate lives. They never met; but they came close.

In 1719 Bach's work took him to Halle, where Handel was home on a visit. ;Bach learned of Handel's visit and tried to meet him. Handel had, alas, left the day before. Bach made a second attempt to contact Handel ten years later. That didn’t pan out either.

So the two greatest composers of their age worked at their art without meeting. Both worked until their eyes failed. And here we meet a third character: John Taylor. Taylor, born the son of an apothecary in 1703, studied medicine and specialized in ophthalmology. He soon rose to the post of eye doctor to King George II and became a shameless self-promoter.

By the time Bach and Handel began losing their sight, Taylor was traveling widely on the continent. He operated on Bach's ailing eyes during a visit to Leipzig in 1749. That first operation failed, so he tried a second one. After that, Bach's blindness was total and his health failed. He died less than a year later. Taylor had probably killed him.

By then Taylor's unsavory reputation was well known. As early as 1740, an anonymous comic opera, The Operator, ridiculed him. Samuel Johnson called him "an instance of how far impudence will carry ignorance." You'd think that Handel, the surgeon's son, would've known better. But, in 1751, he too submitted to Taylor's knife, and he too came out none the better for the surgery.

So Bach's and Handel's closest connection, beyond having together defined the end of the baroque epoch of music, was having let the same quack doctor damage their dimming sight. Taylor, by the way, went blind before his own death in 1772.


The CD in my car (which I recommend) was: As Steals the Morn: Handel Arias & Scenes for Tenor. Mark Padmore, with Lucy Crowe and the English Concert directed by Andrew Manze, Harmonia Mundi USA, HMU 907422, Tracks 17 and 18.

The Handel image above, from John Mainwaring's 1760 biography of Handel, seems to bear out the word-portrait better than the many more well-known formal portraits. 

Clouds photo by JHL.

Below, two measures of "Waft Her, Angels, Through the Sky", from the opera Jeptha.  They show a typical long melisma in the vocal line.

P. Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach: His Work and Influence on the Music of Germany, 1685-1750 (Clara Bell and J. A. Fuller-Maitland, tr.). New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1951. See especially Vol. II, p. 9, and Vol III, pp. 274-275.

See also the Encyclopaedia Britannica articles on Bach and Handel and the Dictionary of National Biography article on John Taylor and his son (who served as eye doctor to King George III). I am especially grateful to Steve Luttmann, UH Music Library, for his help in locating materials for this track.

Taylor's operation on Bach is also mentioned in the following website:

Cloud photo by JHL