Great Musical Composers
Category: History
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In reading the lives of these great musical composers, we can trace the gradual development of music from its earliest days as an art and as a science. Unlike the other arts which have flourished, decayed, and had rebirth, music, as we now understand it, sprang into being out of the ferment of the Renaissance, and therefore is the youngest of the arts — a modern growth belonging particularly to the later phases of civilisation. Music in a rude, undeveloped condition has existed doubtless “since the world began.”

Great Musical Composers

German, French, and Italian

George T. Ferris

Great Musical Composers


The following biographical sketches were originally published in America by Mr. George T. Ferris, in two volumes, separately entitled The Great German Composers and The Great Italian and French Composers. They have achieved the success they deserved: for while we have whole libraries of books upon the history and technicalities of music in general, upon musical theories and schools, and upon the exponents thereof in their artistic capacity, there has been a distinct dearth of treatises dealing in a brief and popular fashion with the lives of eminent composers themselves. Now, when music is “mastered and murdered” in almost every house throughout the length and breadth of the land, there can be no doubt that compilations of this kind must be welcome to a very large number — we will not say of musical students, but of lovers of music. There are, it would be needless to attempt to prove, great numbers of the music-loving public, who practically have no facilities towards making acquaintance with the leading facts in the lives of those men whose compositions they have such a genuine delight in rendering: to these mainly is such a book as Great Composers addressed. But, indeed, to every one interested in music and musicians the volume can hardly fail to be of interest. In his preface to The Great Italian and French Composers, Mr. Ferris explained that — as was very manifest — “the task of compressing into one small volume suitable sketches of the more famous Italian and French composers was, in view of the extent of field and the wealth of material, a somewhat embarrassing one, especially as the purpose was to make the sketches of interest to the general music-loving public, and not merely to the critic and scholar. The plan pursued has been to devote the bulk of space to composers of the higher rank, and to pass over those less known with such brief mention as sufficed to outline their lives, and fix their place in the history of music.”

To The Great German Composers he prefaces a few words which may be quoted — “The sketches of composers contained in this volume may seem arbitrary in the space allotted to them. The special attention given to certain names has been prompted as much by their association with great art epochs, as by the consideration of their absolute rank as composers. The introduction of Chopin, born a Pole, and for a large part of his life a resident of France, among German composers, may require an explanatory word. Chopin’s whole early training was in the German school, and he may be looked on as one of the founders of the latest school of pianoforte composition, whose highest development is in contemporary Germany. He represents German music by his affinities and his influences in art, and bears too close a relation to important changes in musical forms to be omitted from this series.”

Various important events have occurred since the publication of these volumes in America: inter alia, the performance of Wagner’s last great work “Parsifal,” and the death of the great German musician; the production of new works by Gounod and Verdi; and so forth. The editor has endeavoured, as briefly as practicable, to supplement Mr. Ferris’s causeries with the addenda necessary to bring Great Composers down to date. Mr. Ferris further acknowledges his obligation to the following authorities for the facts embodied in these sketches: — Hullah’s History of Modern Music; Fétis’ Biographie Universelle des Musiciens; Clementi’s Biographie des Musiciens; Hogarth’s History of the Opera; Sutherland Edwards’ History of the Opera; Schlüter’s History of Music; Chorley’s Thirty Years’ Musical Reminiscences; Stendhall’s Vie de Rossini; Bellasy’s Memorials of Cherubini; Grove’s Musical Dictionary; Crowestl’s Musical Anecdotes; Schœlcher’s Life of Handel; Liszt’s Life of Chopin; Elsie Polko’s Reminiscences; Lampadius’ Life of Mendelssohn; Urbino’s Musical Composers; Franz Hueffer’s Wagner and the Music of the Future; Haweis’ Music and Morals; and the various articles in the leading cyclopædias.

To this volume the present editor has appended a chronological table of the musicians referred to in the following sketches.

In reading the lives of these great musical composers, we can trace the gradual development of music from its earliest days as an art and as a science. Unlike the other arts which have flourished, decayed, and had rebirth, music, as we now understand it, sprang into being out of the ferment of the Renaissance, and therefore is the youngest of the arts — a modern growth belonging particularly to the later phases of civilisation. Music in a rude, undeveloped condition has existed doubtless “since the world began.” In all nations, and in the records of past civilisations, indications of music are to be found; martial strains for the encouragement of warriors on the march; sacred hymns and sacrificial chants in religious ceremonials; and song accompanied by some rude instrument — we find to have been known and practised among remote tribes as well as among potent races. The bards of divers peoples and many countries in ancient days played upon the harp not merely for delight, but for the exorcism of evil spirits, the dispersion of melancholy, the soothing and cure of mental and physical disorders. Here we find music as the direct expression of feeling, but not as a science. The Greeks made further use of music by incorporating it into their dramas, but it was chiefly declamatory, and was used solely in the choruses. To modern ears such music would sound very inefficient, more especially as the antique instruments were of the crudest — and although musical sounds, to a limited extent, could be produced from them, all attempts at expression must have been unsuccessful.

In Europe in the early middle ages there existed two kinds of music: that of the people, spontaneous, impulsive, the song of the Troubadour, unwritten and orally transmitted from father to son; that of the Church, which had been greatly encouraged since the days of Constantine, and especially owed much to St. Ambrose and St. Gregory. For a time music became the handmaid of the Church, but it thereby, to a certain extent, also gave voice to the lyrical feelings of the people; for the chorister and composer not only embodied popular songs into the chants, but in many instances interpolated the words themselves. This incongruity at length necessitated the reform, brought about by Palestrina — the father of sacred music as we now know it — whose Missa Papae Marcelli, performed in 1565, established a type which has been more or less adhered to ever since. The services of the Church gave rise to the oratorio, which, however, chiefly owes its development to Protestant genius, more especially to Handel. In 1540 San Filippo Neri formed in Milan a Society called “Le congregazione dei Padri dell’ Oratorio” (from orare to pray), and we are told by Crescembini that “The oratorio, a poetical composition, formerly a commixture of the dramatic and narrative styles, but now entirely a musical drama, had its origin from San Filippo Neri, who in his chapel, after sermons and other devotions, in order to allure young people to pious offices, and to detain them from earthly pleasures, had hymns, psalms, and such like prayers sung by one or more voices.” “Among these spiritual songs were dialogues; and these entertainments, becoming more frequent and improving every year, were the occasion that, in the seventeenth century, oratorios were invented, so called from their origin.”

Then came the fulness of the Renaissance, quickening dead forms into new life, laying its vivifying touch on the new-born art, music, and making it its nursling. At first the change was hardly perceptible. It was church music out of church, fine, stately, what may with seeming paradox be called statuesque, which came to bear the name of L’Opera, signifying The Work: — but, though born to a heritage of good aims, possessed of very inadequate means for their fulfilment. Once liberated from its presumed function of expressing religious feeling, and thus subjected to other impelling forces, music could not long remain in the old forms. It began to feel its way into new channels, and in the form of the opera became a national institution. Its growth at first was weak and faulty; but finally it developed into a perfect art. It was as the novice, who, freed from the sanctity of the convent with its calm lights and shadows, enters at last the portals of the life of the world — a varied world full of turmoil, passion, and strife. A greater world, after all, than that quitted, because composed of so many possibilities in so many directions, and comprising the sufferings, the joys, the aspirations of such innumerably differentiated beings; a world wherein the novice learns to widen her sympathies, to feel with and for the people, and to express for them the never-ceasing craving for something beyond the fleeting moment. At first, therefore, the stately art and the musical needs of the people were dissimilar and apart; but little by little each gave to and took from the other, till at length, out of the marriage of these elementaries, a third arose to become the expression of the life of the people, partaking in likeness of both, having lost certain qualities, having gained many more, becoming richer, broader, more eclectic — in short, developing into the more fitting expression of the manifold aspirations of modern days, when life is varied and intense, and the mind gropes blindly in every direction.

This development is traceable in all art, and in the sphere of music it is most manifest in the opera. Like all great movements the opera began humbly. Towards the end of the sixteenth century a number of amateurs in Florence, dissatisfied with the polyphonic school of music, combined “to revive the musical declamation of the Greeks,” to wed poetry and music — so long dissevered — to make the music follow the inflexion of the voice and the sense of the words. The first opera was “Il Conte Ugolino,” composed by Vicenzio Galileo — father of the famous astronomer — and it was followed by various others, the titles of which need not here be recorded. At first, such performances took place in the palaces of nobles on grand occasions, when frequently both performers and musicians were of high rank. At length, however, in 1637 a famous theorbo player, Benedetto Farrari, and Francesco Manetti, the composer, opened in Venice an opera-house at their own risk, and a little later brought out with great success “Le nozzi di Peleo e di Telide” by Cavalli, a disciple of Monteverde, and it was henceforth that the opera became, as we have said, a national institution. Schools for singing were opened in Rome, Naples, and Venice — the science of music made rapid strides — instruments for orchestral purposes naturally likewise improved in quality and in variety; and the opera developed continuously in breadth of treatment and form in the hands of Scarlatti, Leo, Jommelli, and Cimarosa.

About the beginning of the eighteenth century a rival to the serious opera sprang up in Naples — the comic opera, the direct offspring of the people, and of lower artistic standing. But as the serious opera became more stately, more scientific, more purely formal, less human, less the expression of direct feeling, cultivated more for art’s sake solely, the comic opera throve on the very qualities that its elder sister rejected, till at length the greatest musicians of the day, Pergolesi, Cimarosa, Mozart, wrote their masterpieces for it. Ultimately the two were fused into one, that is, into the modern Italian opera. The comic opera, as we now understand it, is of French origin.

From Italy the opera found its way into other countries with varying results. In England it took early root, and assimilated itself with the earlier masques which were played at Whitehall and at Inns of Court. In the early productions in this country, however, the music was merely incidental. During the Commonwealth, an opera entitled “The Siege of Rhodes,” composed by Dr. Charles Colman, Captain Henry Cook, Henry Lawes, and George Hudson, was performed in 1655, under the express license of Cromwell. Purcell seems, however, to have been the first to see the possibility of a national English opera; — his music to Dryden’s “King Arthur,” and to the “Indian Queen,” is considered very beautiful; “his recitative was as rhetorically perfect as Lulli’s, but infinitely more natural, and frequently impassioned to the last degree; his airs are not in the Italian form, but breathe rather the spirit of unfettered natural melody, and stand forth as models of refinement and freedom.” “The Beggar’s Opera,” set to music by Dr. Pepusch, and Dr. Arne’s “Artaxerxes,” a translation from Metastasia’s libretto, adapted to melodious music, were deservedly popular, and long retained a place on the stage. Nevertheless, when the Italian opera became an institution in England, the national opera made no further progress. During the last few years the former seems to have practically died out in England, and it remains to be seen in what form the English opera will revive and flourish once more as a national product. We have good promise in the works of such musicians as Balfe, Wallace, Sterndale Bennet, Sir G. A. Macfarren, Dr. A. C. Mackenzie, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Mr. C. V. Stanford, and others.

The end of the sixteenth and end of the seventeenth centuries form what has been called “the golden age of English music — aye for all musical Europe — of the madrigal. Nowhere was the cultivation of that noble form of pure vocal music, whether in composition or in performance, followed with more zeal or success than in England.” The Hon. Roger North, Attorney-General to James II., in his Memories of Musick, speaks thus of the state of music in the first half of the seventeenth century — “Afterwards these (Italian fantazias) were imitated by the English, who, working more elaborately, improved upon their patterne, which gave occasion to an observation, that in vocall the Italians, and in instrumental music the English excelled.” Again he alludes to “those authors whose performance gained the nation the credit in excelling the Italians in all but vocall.” In instrumental music, then, in the madrigal, the cantata, and in ecclesiastical music, England prospered. Among her most important composers were John Dowland, Ford, Henry Lawes, John Jenkens, Pelham Humphreys, Wise, Blow, Henry Purcell — great in secular and ecclesiastical works, in instrumental and in vocal — Croft and Weldon; all were predecessors of Handel, who, though one of the greatest of German composers, lived nearly fifty years in England, composed several operas and all his famous oratorios for England, and is therefore not unjustifiably added to the list of English composers.

The opera was first introduced into France by Cardinal Mazarin early in the seventeenth century, but the lyrical drama owes its origin in that country to Lulli, who also introduced into it the ballet, which was a favourite pastime of the young king Louis XIV. The ballet has since become an integral part of the French and also of the later Italian operas. It was Lulli, again, who extended the “meagre prelude” of the Italian opera into the overture as we now know it. But as the rise and progress of the French opera is fully portrayed in the following musical sketches, it is needless to trace it further here.

Germany — equally with Italy the land of music, but of harmonious in contra-distinction to melodic music, which belongs most properly to Italy, well named the land of song — was much later in developing her musical powers than Italy, but she cultivated them to grander and nobler proportions; for to Germany we owe the magnificent development of instrumental music, which culminates in the form of the sonata for the piano, and in that of the symphony for the orchestra, in the hands of such masters as Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. In Germany the opera took root by means of a translation of Rinaccini’s “Dafne,” set to music by Henry Schütz in 1627, with Italian airs and German recitative. The first German opera or singspiel, “Adam und Eva,” by Johann Theil, was performed in 1678, but it became national through the works of Reinhard Keiser, whose opera “Basilino” was performed in 1693. “His style was purely German, less remarkable for its rhetorical perfection than that of Lulli, but exhibiting far greater variety of expression, and more earnest endeavour to attain that spirit of Dramatic Truth which alone can render such music worthy of its intended purpose.” He was worthily followed by Hasse, Grann, by Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Die Zauberflöte,” “Don Giovanni,” and by Beethoven’s one opera “Fidelio.”

The growth of a national opera in Germany and France, competing with that of Italy, induced also the rise of party quarrels between the adherents of the several schools; and the history of music demonstrates the fact, often seen in the history of politics, that in such contentions the real point at issue — the excellence of the subject in question — is lost sight of in the fierce strife of opponents; the broader issues are obscured in the narrowing influences of mere partizanship, wherein each side on principle shuts its eyes equally to the merits of its adversary and to its own faults. Thus in the following sketches are recorded the quarrels between the adherents of Lulli and Rameau, Handel and Bonacini, Piccini and Gluck, Mozart and Salieri, Weber and Rossini, and in the present day between the advocates of Wagner’s “Music of the Future” and those of the “Music of the Past.” “The old order changes, giving place to new,” but only after a long protracted struggle, a struggle that will not be productive of good as long as the bitterness of partizanship exists, whose aim is wholly to annihilate its adversary, though thereby much that is good and fine be lost. This is not, however, the place to discuss the importance of such strife, nor the comparative advantages and disadvantages of its existence or non-existence — but it is as well to draw attention to it in order to point out that in the history of music the belligerents are usually blind to the important fact that, inasmuch as nations differ essentially in ways of thought and action, in character, temperament, and fundamental nature, so also must the various phases of art differ which are their mediums of expression.

The history of the art of music is divisible into two great epochs — the first dating from its birth about three centuries ago under the impelling influences of the Renaissance, to the end of the eighteenth century, when pseudo-classicism had given all it had to give; the second dating from the rise of Romanticism in the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present day. The revival of the “forgotten world of old romance — that world of wonder and mystery and spiritual beauty,” no longer crippled by lack of science, and fettered by asceticism, was to music, that youngest of the arts, a novel influence, which pushed it vigorously in a new direction, towards the more direct expression of the cravings of humanity — making it more human, more the fitting medium expression of this democratic age. The true romantic feeling has been described as “the ever present apprehension of the spiritual world, and of that struggle of the soul with earthly conditions.” This later period gave “new seeing to our eyes, which were once more opened to the mysteries and the wonder of the universe, and the romance of man’s destiny; it revived, in short, the romantic spirit enriched by the clarity and sanity that the renascence was able to lend.”

In the opera Gluck was one of the earliest masters who came under the influence of the new movement, and he anticipated Wagner in many of his reforms. He decreased the importance of the singer, and increased that of the orchestra, elaborated the recitative, and made the music to follow the rhythm of the words, and he also gave importance to the dramatic expression of the human emotions. In Germany Weber is styled the Father of the Romantic opera, as in France the most noteworthy figure is Berlioz, and the new method was further developed in the instrumental music by Schumann, and demonstrated by other musicians, dead and living, who, from the limited space of this volume, have not been specially noticed — Liszt, Franz, Thomas, Brahms, Rubenstein, Dvorák, Massinet, Bizet, Jensen, Grieg, and others. Gounod, is, of course, unmistakably under the same influence, and may be considered as the direct descendant of Gluck, and there is every reason to suppose that he is the last great composer of the grand opera of France, as Verdi is undeniably that of the Italian opera. The most remarkable figure of the movement, he who has carried it to its utmost limits, is Richard Wagner. At first he refused for his compositions the name of “Music of the Future,” and desired for them the more comprehensive term of “Work of Art of the Future.” It is impossible to predict to what extent his theories will be followed: it is not desirable that they should be blindly worked out by musicians of power inferior to his; but they are in the right direction, and may ultimately bring about a new art mode in music. The resources of art are endless, being, as the Abbé Lamennais tells us, to man what creation is to God; and music may safely be trusted to develop in such a way as to ever be the most fitting expression of the inarticulate cravings and aspirations of the human soul. Wagner has attempted to unite the three arts of Painting, Poetry, and Music: and of his work a competent judge has written — “The musical drama is undoubtedly the highest manifestation of which men are capable. All the most refined arts are called in to contribute to the idea. The author of a musical drama is no more a musician, or a poet, or a painter; he is the supreme artist, not fettered by the limits of one art, but able to step over the boundaries of all the different branches of æsthetic composition, and find the proper means for rendering his thought wherever he wants it. This was Wagner’s aim. His latter works, ‘Tristram and Isolde,’ the ‘Niebelungen Ring,’ and ‘Parsifal,’ are the actuation of the theory, or at least are works showing what is the way towards the aim.” Another eminent critic, Mr. Walter Pater, writing upon the fine arts, tells us that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music…. It is the art of music which most completely realises this artistic ideal, this perfect identification of form and matter. In its ideal consummate moments, the end is not distinct from the means, the form from the matter, the subject from the expression; they inhere in and completely saturate each other; and to it, therefore, to the condition of its perfect moments, all the arts may be supposed constantly to tend and aspire. Music, then, and not poetry, as is so often supposed, is the true type or measure of consummate art. Therefore, although each art has its incommunicable element, its untranslatable order of impressions, its unique mode of reaching the ‘imaginative reason,’ yet the arts may be represented as continually struggling after the law or principle of music, to a condition which music alone completely realises.”

We may rest assured — as assured as Emerson or Matthew Arnold concerning the illimitable possibilities of poetry — that the future has great riches in store for all lovers of music. Giants, indeed, are they who are no longer among us, but it is not derogatory to these great ones to believe and hope that — life being “moving music” according to the definition of the Syrian Gnostics — the world will yet be electrified by the genius of successors worthy of such royal ancestry as Handel and Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner.

Elizabeth A. Sharp.

Great Musical Composers

Great Musical Composers

The Great Composers




The growth and development of German music are eminently noteworthy facts in the history of the fine arts. In little more than a century and a-half it reached its present high and brilliant place, its progress being so consecutive and regular that the composers who illustrated its well-defined epochs might fairly have linked hands in one connected series.

To Johann Sebastian Bach must be accorded the title of “father of modern music.” All succeeding composers have bowed with reverence before his name, and acknowledged in him the creative mind which not only placed music on a deep scientific basis, but perfected the form from which have been developed the wonderfully rich and varied phases of orchestral composition. Handel, who was his contemporary, having been born the same year, spoke of him with sincere admiration, and called him the giant of music. Haydn wrote — “Whoever understands me knows that I owe much to Sebastian Bach, that I have studied him thoroughly and well, and that I acknowledge him only as my model.” Mozart’s unceasing research brought to light many of his unpublished manuscripts, and helped Germany to a full appreciation of this great master. In like manner have the other luminaries of music placed on record their sense of obligation to one whose name is obscure to the general public in comparison with many of his brother composers.

Sebastian Bach was born at Eisenach on the 21st of March 1685, the son of one of the court musicians. Left in the care of his elder brother, who was an organist, his brilliant powers displayed themselves at an early period. He was the descendant of a race of musicians, and even at that date the wide-spread branches of the family held annual gatherings of a musical character. Young Bach mastered for himself, without much assistance, a thorough musical education at Lüneburg, where he studied in the gymnasium and sang in the cathedral choir; and at the age of eighteen we find him court musician at Weimar, where a few years later he became organist and director of concerts. He had in the meantime studied the organ at Lübeck under the celebrated Buxtehude, and made himself thoroughly a master of the great Italian composers of sacred music — Palestrina, Lotti, Vivaldi, and others.

At this period Germany was beginning to experience its musical renaissance. The various German courts felt that throb of life and enthusiasm which had distinguished the Italian principalities in the preceding century in the direction of painting and sculpture. Every little capital was a focus of artistic rays, and there was a general spirit of rivalry among the princes, who aspired to cultivate the arts of peace as well as those of war. Bach had become known as a gifted musician, not only by his wonderful powers as an organist, but by two of his earlier masterpieces — “Gott ist mein König” and “Ich hatte viel Bekümmerniss.” Under the influence of an atmosphere so artistic, Bach’s ardour for study increased with his success, and his rapid advancement in musical power met with warm appreciation.

While Bach held the position of director of the chapel of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, which he assumed about the year 1720, he went to Hamburg on a pilgrimage to see old Reinke, then nearly a centenarian, whose fame as an organist was national, and had long been the object of Bach’s enthusiasm. The aged man listened while his youthful rival improvised on the old choral, “Upon the Rivers of Babylon.” He shed tears of joy while he tenderly embraced Bach, and said — “I did think that this art would die with me; but I see that you will keep it alive.”

Our musician rapidly became known far and wide throughout the musical centres of Germany as a learned and recondite composer, as a brilliant improviser, and as an organist beyond rivalry. Yet it was in these last two capacities that his reputation among his contemporaries was the most marked. It was left to a succeeding generation to fully enlighten the world in regard to his creative powers as a musical thinker.


Though Bach’s life was mostly spent at Weimar and Leipsic, he was at successive periods chapel-master and concert-director at several of the German courts, which aspired to shape public taste in matters of musical culture and enthusiasm. But he was by nature singularly retiring and unobtrusive, and recoiled from several brilliant offers which would have brought him too much in contact with the gay world of fashion, apparently dreading any diversion from a severe and exclusive art-life; for within these limits all his hopes, energies, and wishes were focalised. Yet he was not without that keen spirit of rivalry, that love of combat, which seems to be native to spirits of the more robust and energetic type.

In the days of the old Minnesingers, tournaments of music shared the public taste with tournaments of arms. In Bach’s time these public competitions were still in vogue. One of these was held by Augustus II., Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, one of the most munificent art-patrons of Europe, but best known to fame from his intimate part in the wars of Charles XII. of Sweden and Peter the Great of Russia. Here Bach’s principal rival was a French virtuoso, Marchand, who, an exile from Paris, had delighted the king by the lightness and brilliancy of his execution. They were both to improvise on the same theme. Marchand heard Bach’s performance and signalised his own inferiority by declining to play, and secretly leaving the city of Dresden. Augustus sent Bach a hundred louis d’or, but this splendid douceur never reached him, as it was appropriated by one of the court officials.

In Bach’s half-century of a studious musical life there is but little of stirring incident to record. The significance of his career was interior, not exterior. Twice married, and the father of twenty children, his income was always small even for that age. Yet, by frugality, the simple wants of himself and his family never overstepped the limit of supply; for he seems to have been happily mated with wives who sympathised with his exclusive devotion to art, and united with this the virtues of old-fashioned German thrift.

Three years before his death, Bach, who had a son in the service of the King of Prussia, yielded to the urgent invitation of that monarch to go to Berlin. Frederick II., the conqueror of Rossbach, and one of the greatest of modern soldiers, was a passionate lover of literature and art, and it was his pride to collect at his court all the leading lights of European culture. He was not only the patron of Voltaire, whose connection with the Prussian monarch has furnished such rich material to the anecdote-history of literature, but of all the distinguished painters, poets, and musicians whom he could persuade by his munificent offers (but rarely fulfilled) to suffer the burden of his eccentricities. Frederick was not content with playing the part of patron, but must himself also be poet, philosopher, painter, and composer.

On the night of Bach’s arrival Frederick was taking part in a concert at his palace, and, on hearing that the great musician whose name was in the mouths of all Germany had come, immediately sent for him without allowing him to don a court dress, interrupting his concert with the enthusiastic announcement, “Gentlemen, Bach is here.” The cordial hospitality and admiration of Frederick was gratefully acknowledged by Bach, who dedicated to him a three-part fugue on a theme composed by the king, known under the name of “A Musical Offering.” But he could not be persuaded to remain long from his Leipsic home.

Shortly before Bach’s death, he was seized with blindness, brought on by incessant labour; and his end was supposed to have been hastened by the severe inflammation consequent on two operations performed by an English oculist. He departed this life July 30, 1750, and was buried in St. John’s churchyard, universally mourned by musical Germany, though his real title to exceptional greatness was not to be read until the next generation.


Sebastian Bach was not only the descendant of a widely-known musical family, but was himself the direct ancestor of about sixty of the best-known organists and church composers of Germany. As a master of organ-playing, tradition tells us that no one has been his equal, with the possible exception of Handel. He was also an able performer on various stringed instruments, and his preference for the clavichord led him to write a method for that instrument, which has been the basis of all succeeding methods for the piano. Bach’s teachings and influence may be said to have educated a large number of excellent composers and organ and piano players, among whom were Emanuel Bach, Cramer, Hummel, and Clementi; and on his school of theory and practice the best results in music have been built.

That Bach’s glory as a composer should be largely posthumous is probably the result of his exceeding simplicity and diffidence, for he always shrank from popular applause; therefore we may believe his compositions were not placed in the proper light during his life. It was through Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, that the musical world learned what a master-spirit had wrought in the person of John Sebastian Bach. The first time Mozart heard one of Bach’s hymns, he said, “Thank God! I learn something absolutely new.”

Bach’s great compositions include his “Preludes and Fugues” for the organ, works so difficult and elaborate as perhaps to be above the average comprehension, but sources of delight and instruction to all musicians; the “Matthäus Passion,” for two choruses and two orchestras, one of the masterpieces in music, which was not produced till a century after it was written; the “Oratorio of the Nativity of Jesus Christ;” and a very large number of masses, anthems, cantatas, chorals, hymns, etc. These works, from their largeness and dignity of form, as also from their depth of musical science, have been to all succeeding composers an art-armoury, whence they have derived and furbished their brightest weapons. In the study of Bach’s works the student finds the deepest and highest reaches in the science of music; for his mind seems to have grasped all its resources, and to have embodied them with austere purity and precision of form. As Spenser is called the poet for poets, and Laplace the mathematician for mathematicians, so Bach is the musician for musicians. While Handel may be considered a purely independent and parallel growth, it is not too much to assert that without Sebastian Bach and his matchless studies for the piano, organ, and orchestra, we could not have had the varied musical development in sonata and symphony from such masters as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Three of Sebastian Bach’s sons became distinguished musicians, and to Emanuel we owe the artistic development of the sonata, which in its turn became the foundation of the symphony.



To the modern Englishman Handel is almost a contemporary. Paintings and busts of this great minstrel are scattered everywhere throughout the land. He lies in Westminster Abbey among the great poets, warriors, and statesmen, a giant memory in his noble art. A few hours after death the sculptor Roubiliac took a cast of his face, which he wrought into imperishable marble; “moulded in colossal calm,” he towers above his tomb, and accepts the homage of the world benignly like a god. Exeter Hall and the Foundling Hospital in London are also adorned with marble statues of him.

There are more than fifty known pictures of Handel, some of them by distinguished artists. In the best of these pictures Handel is seated in the gay costume of the period, with sword, shot-silk breeches, and coat embroidered with gold. The face is noble in its repose. Benevolence is seated about the finely-shaped mouth, and the face wears the mellow dignity of years, without weakness or austerity. There are few collectors of prints in England and America who have not a woodcut or a lithograph of him. His face and his music are alike familiar to the English-speaking world.

Handel came to England in the year 1710, at the age of twenty-five. Four years before he had met, at Naples, Scarlatti, Porpora, and Corelli. That year had been the turning-point in his life. With one stride he reached the front rank, and felt that no musician alive could teach him anything.

George Frederick Handel (or Händel, as the name is written in German) was born at Halle, Lower Saxony, in the year 1685. Like German literature, German music is a comparatively recent growth. What little feeling existed for the musical art employed itself in cultivating the alien flowers of Italian song. Even eighty years after this Mozart and Haydn were treated like lackeys and vagabonds, just as great actors were treated in England at the same period. Handel’s father looked on music as an occupation having very little dignity.

Determined that his young son should become a doctor like himself, and leave the divine art to Italian fiddlers and French buffoons, he did not allow him to go to a public school even, for fear he should learn the gamut. But the boy Handel, passionately fond of sweet sounds, had, with the connivance of his nurse, hidden in the garret a poor spinet, and in stolen hours taught himself how to play. At last the senior Handel had a visit to make to another son in the service of the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, and the young George was taken along to the ducal palace. The boy strayed into the chapel, and was irresistibly drawn to the organ. His stolen performance was made known to his father and the duke, and the former was very much enraged at such a direct evidence of disobedience. The duke, however, being astonished at the performance of the youthful genius, interceded for him, and recommended that his taste should be encouraged and cultivated instead of repressed.

From this time forward fortune showered upon him a combination of conditions highly favourable to rapid development. Severe training, ardent friendship, the society of the first composers, and incessant practice were vouchsafed him. As the pupil of the great organist Zachau, he studied the whole existing mass of German and Italian music, and soon exacted from his master the admission that he had nothing more to teach him. Thence he went to Berlin to study the opera-school, where Ariosti and Bononcini were favourite composers. The first was friendly, but the latter, who with a first-rate head had a cankered heart, determined to take the conceit out of the Saxon boy. He challenged him to play at sight an elaborate piece. Handel played it with perfect precision, and thenceforward Bononcini, though he hated the youth as a rival, treated him as an equal.

On the death of his father Handel secured an engagement at the Hamburg opera-house, where he soon made his mark by the ability with which, on several occasions, he conducted rehearsals.

At the age of nineteen Handel received the offer of the Lübeck organ, on condition that he would marry the daughter of the retiring organist. He went down with his friend Mattheson, who it seems had been offered the same terms. They both returned, however, in single blessedness to Hamburg.

Though the Lübeck maiden had stirred no bad blood between them, musical rivalry did. A dispute in the theatre resulted in a duel. The only thing that saved Handel’s life was a great brass button that shivered his antagonist’s point, when they were parted to become firm friends again.

While at Hamburg Handel’s first two operas were composed, “Almira” and “Nero.” Both of these were founded on dark tales of crime and sorrow, and, in spite of some beautiful airs and clever instrumentation, were musical failures, as might be expected.

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