500 years of Reformation influence on music

Bach and Handel, contemporaries of Christian music

It’s an interesting coincidence that Bach and Handel, the two preeminent Protestant composers of the Baroque period, were born the same year and in the same region. Both wrote masterpieces of Christian music, yet their careers contrast in many other ways. Georg Frederic Handel (1685-1759), born in Halle, Germany, is the only musical figure of the era whose achievements are mentioned in the same breath with those of Bach (1685-1750). Though he was a German composer of hundreds of pieces, Handel’s best-known works were English oratorios, particularly Messiah and the instrumental suite Water Music. The libretto for Messiah was prepared by Charles Jennens who based the text on the King James Bible and the Psalms from the Church of England’s early Book of Common Prayer, and later put to music by Handel in 1741. It’s interesting that even to today, most of Handel’s oratorios have crossed into the mainstream repertory.

A performance of Handel’s Messiah during the Handel Festival in 1857 at The Crystal Palace, London, features a vast orchestra, choir and audience. image: Illustrated London News, 27 June 1857; pp. 630–631

Aside from the fact that Handel’s music is still performed, aspects of the Baroque style can be found in modern genres such as black gospel, jazz and popular music. For instance, in his recitatives, arias and choruses, Handel frequently used a technique called melisma, which is the singing of a single syllable of lyric while moving between several different notes in succession. This succession often can be so rapid, in fact, that each vibrato of a vocalist’s voice might be on a different note during a given “run,” or set of melismas. The effect is that the voice is meant to imitate the tonal versatility of the violin. It is not necessarily called “melismatic singing” in the world of black gospel and pop music, but great exponents of the melismatic technique in modern singers can easily be found in the music of Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey, among many others.

Circling back to the period of Handel and Bach: While Handel was a cosmopolitan of international renown, Bach was a parochial but hard-working, productive church musician who during his lifetime wasn’t particularly well-known or well-traveled. But in retrospect, Bach is arguably the towering composer in the history of Western music whose staunch Lutheran faith permeated his life, his career and his view of music. According to the title pages of some of his works, he believed music was a “refreshment of spirit.”

Knowing the inculcative and emotional power of music in general, like Luther, Bach recognized that music was a potent vessel for the proclamation of the gospel, as his cantatas, Passions, organ chorales and other compositions clearly exemplify. Bach believed that music ultimately brought glory to God, as the initials SDG Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone belongs the glory” at the end of most of his scores indicate. He understood that the desire, the intellect, the skill and the final purpose of the musician is a recursive function of God returning his gifts to his people back to himself.

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church history, music, Reformation, worship