Sunday, April 11, 2010

Composing is no contest

It seems there are some people who don't like the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. But I don't think anyone denies his greatness. He is generally considered one of the greatest composers in history. There are more who are almost unanimously admired, like Monteverdi, Mozart and Schubert. But others may have had an important place in history, they are nevertheless controversial as the quality of their compositions is concerned. One of them is George Frideric Handel.

Not a few musicians of fame never perform his music. Gustav Leonhardt, for instance, has stated several times that he is overrated and that his music is rather superficial. Early in his career he has recorded some of Handel's harpsichord suites, and he participated in a recording of Handel's wind sonatas by Frans Brüggen and Bruce Haynes. But otherwise he has stayed away from Handel.

Likewise Philippe Herreweghe, although having recorded many of the most important sacred works of the 17th and 18th centuries, has never conducted sacred music by Handel. I am not aware of any statements in regard to Handel from Herreweghe, but I can imagine him having the same views as Leonhardt.

Recently a Dutch newspaper published an interview with the renowned bass Peter Kooy, who often works with Philippe Herreweghe and Masaaki Suzuki. He is happy to be considered a baroque specialist, but still wants to avoid some baroque composers. He mentions particularly Handel, who may have written well for the voice, but whose music is often harmonically not interesting enough and is missing depth.
Everyone is entitled to his opinion, and if a singer doesn't like a composer he does well to stay away from his music. Performing music you don't believe in doesn't make sense and does the composer, the audience and the interpreter an ill service.

At the same time it is questionable whether it makes any sense to compare composers. One can debate ad nauseam whether Bach is a better composer than Handel or than Telemann, but in my view that is pretty useless. Composers certainly preferred a style of composing, but their oeuvre also reflects the circumstances in which they lived and worked. It may be fascinating to speculate what kind of music Telemann had written if he had been appointed Thomaskantor in Leipzig instead of Bach. But we will never know. And had Bach become a representative of the German Enlightenment if he had been Musikdirektor in Hamburg? It is anybody's guess.

Telemann was once considered a composer of rather lightweight music, mainly written for amateurs. That judgement was based on that part of his chamber music which was printed in the early days of the re-emerging interest in baroque music. In recent times other parts of his oeuvre have been explored and it has been recognized that there is more to him than was prevously thought.
We now know that he was able to write in the 'learned' style mostly associated with Bach, and that he had thorough knowledge of the German tradition of counterpoint and did indeed compose in that style. But he mostly did not, because he composed for audiences which didn't ask for such music. And as he embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment in regard to educating people with music he aimed at giving his clientele what it was asking for.

Likewise, Handel was writing music according to the needs and wishes of the circles he was part of. There is no reason to believe his skills as a composer were inferior to those of Johann Sebastian Bach. After all, every would-be composer - or any musician, for that matter - received a thorough musical education. But why would he write music nobody was interested in? It may be true that most of his music is harmonically less interesting than Bach's, that doesn't mean it is less expressive. There are mores ways to express affetti than harmony alone.

Peter Kooy doesn't like opera very much. That is fair enough; he is not the only one. And it is true that a singer who doesn't like opera has little business in Handel's music. Most of his oratorios may have biblical subjects, stylistically they are not that much different from his operas. And the chamber cantatas are a kind of pocket-size operas.
But that is no reason to dismiss Handel as a composer. In his operatic music, whether secular or sacred, he reaches great heights of expression. In particular many of his duets are hard to surpass in that respect.
And even outside the operatic works there are some treasures in Handel's oeuvre. As much as I personally prefer Bach over Handel, I definitely wouldn't like to miss Messiah or Israel in Egypt - two monuments of sacred vocal music -, or his organ concertos.

In my view any composer should be judged on his own merits. Composing is no contest. Comparing composers of different backgrounds and judging them out of their context is basically unhistorical. It doesn't do them any justice, not even the one who comes out on top.

1 comment:

  1. Hallo Johan,

    ben al even niet meer op je site geweest, vandaar een late reactie. Wat vind jij van Händel? Bij mij hangt het er erg van af. Er zijn stukken die ik magistraal vindt en dan is Händel 1 vd grootste componisten voor mij. Theodora, Messiah, Solomon, integrale meesterwerken. Giulio Cesare'incidentele hoogtepunten, maar dan wel van wereldniveau. Rinaldo, uitstekend met Bartoli, andere uitvoeringen minder. Jeptha, in zijn geheel wat minder, enz enz enz. Kan uren doorgaan. Over het algemeen staat Händel toch net niet op het niveau JS Bach, maar zou ik stiekem toch niet zonder hem kunnen.