At a Glance
Although Bach and Handel were both virtuoso
harpsichordists and organists and consummate improvisers on their instruments,
Handel wrote far less keyboard music than Bach. This, in part, reflects the
trajectories of their respective careers: Bach spent most of his life as a hardworking
church musician in Germany, while the London-based Handel was Europe’s
preeminent composer of operas. Yet both men made major contributions to the
genre of the harpsichord suite. Handel’s debut volume of suites, published in
1720, was a bestseller, as were the six partitas that Bach collected in 1731 as
the first installment of his magisterial Clavier-Übung,
or Keyboard Practice.
Comparisons between the two Baroque masters are inevitably somewhat tendentious.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach—himself a brilliant composer and keyboard player, but
hardly an impartial critic—awarded the palm to his father. “In Handel’s suites,”
he wrote, “there is considerable imitation of the French manner of the period,
and there is not much variety; in the parts of Bach’s Clavier-Übung, all is originality and variety. The melody of the
arias with variations in Handel’s suites is flat and for our times far too
simple. Bach’s arias with variations are still good today: they are original
and will accordingly not easily become outdated.”
Handel, too, had his contemporary partisans, however, and today we recognize
that both composers had a claim to genius. By juxtaposing one of Handel’s greatest
harpsichord suites with three of Bach’s, Richard Egarr encourages us to
appreciate the differences and similarities between these two Baroque masters.