The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Why do Bach and Handel seem more necessary and deeper than Telemann and Biber? | May 10, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

First, A REMINDER: Tonight, Monday, at 7:30 p.m. in  the Overture Center’s Playhouse, the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Rhapsodie Quartet (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) will perform a free chamber music concert (with a $5 donation at the door suggested). The program includes the Largo movement of Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 64, No. 1; Bela Bartok’s String Quartet No. 2; and Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet. Member include co-concertmaster Suzanne Beia and Laura Burns, violins (front); principal violist Christopher Dozoryst and principal cellist Karl Levine (back). The quartet is part of MSO’s HeartStrings community program.

Now, on to the regular posting:

Friday night I attended the concert by the Baroque Band from Chicago (below).

The early music, period instrument group performed here as part of the biennial meeting of the American Bach Society, which was being hosted for the first time ever at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.

It was an enjoyable event, and one that should have drawn a larger crowd to Mills Hall than the 100 or so participants in the conference.

But then it is the end of the semester and people were either writing final papers or studying for final exams or perhaps taking in the citywide Gallery Night, which happened at the same time, and perhaps staying home because of the cold, rainy weather.

The theme of this year’s conference is J.S. Bach and his German contemporaries. So the concert featured music by Georg Philipp Telemann (an Overture in D major), Heinrich Biber (Parts 1 and 5 of the “Mensa Sonora”) and the Concerto Grosso, Op 6, No. 4, in A minor by Handel as well as that perennially popular Concerto No.,1 for Harpsichord in D major by J.S. Bach.

The whole concert proved entertaining and exciting as well as instructive. It was valuable for specialists and the general public alike. Special moments included the wonderful gamba part, played by Craig Trumpeter (below) in the Telemann Overture.

But for me was the highlight was the harpsichord part (played by David Schrader, below) of the Bach concerto, which, to my taste, should be been more prominent – which is to of say louder.

But even as I was listening to the concert, I kept thinking: One of the great contributions of the early music and period instrument movement over the past 30 or so years has been the revival of previously lost music and musicians from the Baroque era and before.

But another part of the legacy is that, for me, at least, it highlights even more just how far Bach and Handel stood – and continue to stand — above their contemporaries (with the exception perhaps of Vivaldi, whom Bach deeply admired.)

So I find myself asking: What is it about the music of Bach and Handel that makes it seem so immediate and relevant, so necessary and deep, so vital?

Oh, the other composers and works have their moments, to be sure. And it is not a question of good versus bad so much as good versus better or best.

But neither Telemann, who had a higher reputation than Bach at the time, nor Biber could match the fun and profundity, the vitality and reliability of those two Old Masters.

So for me Bach (below) remain tops, No. 1 by far. He is the Big Bang of western classical music.

Just a couple of steps below him is Handel, who sometimes equals him but never surpasses him.

And a few steps lower on the ladder and on my personal playlist of the Baroque, come Telemann and Biber.

I imagine I am not alone. But I also imagine there are many who disagree with me – including academic scholars and performing specialists who have their own axe to grind, their own subject of study to elevate and promote.

So I ask you, readers:

If you share my view, what is it that makes Bach and to some degree Handel so necessary and so deep? Is it the appealing melodies, the poignant harmonies, the long phrases, the just-right rhythms?

And what is that keeps the others from reaching those heights and seeming too often to be dance-like diversions that are entertaining but not culturally necessary or primary?

And if you disagree, I’d love to hear why and be directed to specific pieces you think prove my instincts misdirected.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. Handel and Telemann are easy listening. They can be listened to for hour after hour without causing fatigue. They can be used as background music while working on something else. Bach is more brilliant by a good measure but requires a great deal of focus and mental energy. I can’t listen to him for more than a half an hour or an hour. Different kind of experience. I’m not nearly as familiar with Biber as the other three.

    Comment by Grant — September 20, 2021 @ 3:14 am

  2. Bach and Handel had the innate ability to choose the correct harmony, texture, instrument/s, rhythm etc., and through it to touch the heart and soul of the listener. Listen to the scene between the two harlots in Handel’s oratorio “Solomon.” The means are simple, yet the effect is dramatic.

    In the darkness scene in the “St. Matthew Passion,” Bach produces a bell-like effect in the orchestra which is so perfect in setting the mood of the scene.

    Handel’s use of atonality in the chorus “He sent a thick darkness” in “Israel in Egypt” is so apt in describing people walking around lost in the darkness.

    These examples are repeated countless times in Bach and Handel’s works. It’s that gift of genius that, for me, sets them apart from their contemporaries.

    Comment by John Stehn — February 14, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

    • Hi John,
      Thank you for reading and replying.
      You make excellent points with illuminating specific examples.
      Both Bach and Handel were master sound painters — much more so than Biber or Telemann, to my ears at least.
      I also think Vivaldi was outstanding at sound painting, which is one reason why Bach studied his works very closely and even transposed them into keyboard sonatas/concertos.
      I look forward to hearing more from you.

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 14, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

  3. I agree in spades! Bach as Big Bang – I love it. He had endless intellectual creativity, super-human compositional chops and a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic, and put it all at the service of his other-worldly spiritual perspective and vision.

    I enjoyed the whole concert on Friday, but once that Bach started I was breathlessly on the edge of my seat. I was talking with Trevor about it on Saturday. He thinks Bach wasn’t necessarily writing for his contemporary audiences but for posterity, and that for this current generation, when we’re wondering whether the center will hold, we desperately need Bach’s musical assurance that yes, Virginia, the center will always hold.

    But what specific musical components, you ask, give Bach’s music that perfect combination of zestful life force and underlying profundity??? The whole answer is surely as wide as the sea, but for me, it comes down to counterpoint.

    A melody accompanied by an Alberti bass is just surface pretty, no matter how well-played. But in Bach’s textures, every line, from soprano to bass, from traverso to violone, has its own life and shape and energy, its own crucial contribution to make to the forward movement and flow and drama of the music.

    And he is able to combine all these individual lines into a total, unified texture and shape it into word-painting to highlight the meaning of a vocal text, or to spotlight the particular abilities and beauty of a solo instrument or group of instruments, or to completely explore the possibilities of a form like fugue, or variation, or of temperament.

    I find in Bach’s music the perfect model of how we as human beings should develop our own talents as far as we can, but do so with reference to our fellow human beings so that, without sacrificing our own individuality, we can still find communal harmony, on a local, regional, national and global level. How’s that, oh Ear?

    Comment by Marika Fischer Hoyt — May 10, 2010 @ 9:12 am

    • Hi Marika,
      The Ear says that you have written an excellent reply on all fronts.
      I would only add that, even in his counterpoint, I also think Bach shows a certain Italianate quality — beautiful melodies and moving harmonies and long lines that go somewhere, like Aristotle’s aesthetic ideal of a beginning, middle and an end.. Too often the others just seem to drone one. Bach takes you places, and does so with economy and inevitability.
      Hope that adds something to your thinking about Bach.
      Best you, o fellow Bachophile,
      The Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — May 10, 2010 @ 10:30 am

  4. […] Classical music review: Why do Bach and Handel seem more necessary and deeper than Telemann and Bibe… […]

    Pingback by Mausoleum Cello Suite – Solo F Tuba — May 10, 2010 @ 7:04 am

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