Bach and Handel to go head-to-head in Massey Memorial Organ mini-concert

Though Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel never met in person, the legendary composers will go head-to-head in the Amphitheater Wednesday.

This isn’t the first year Jared Jacobsen has staged what he calls a “smackdown” on the Massey Memorial Organ, but he said it has been a crowd favorite, so he’s bringing it back. At 12:15 p.m. Wednesday in the Amp, Jacobsen will perform three pieces from each composer in what he called a “clash of the titans.”


“The two titans who summed up an era of music were Bach and Handel,” said Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music.

Both of the artists were born in 1685 in Germany and were successful in life — Handel more so than Bach — but there is no evidence that they met, Jacobsen said. Although they are both now considered greats of the Baroque period, Jacobsen said, they created distinctly different-sounding music.

Bach was more of a specialist and preferred to make music the way he wanted, which was a complex style. This, combined with the fact that Bach stayed relatively isolated in northern Germany, meant he did not achieve as much fame during his lifetime, but had many commissions.

Jacobsen said he will start Bach’s selections with “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” which he argued was the best piece of organ music ever written. “St. Anne” Fugue in E-flat major will come next, as well as “Air” from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, which Jacobsen said was originally designed to be played on one string of the violin.

Handel was able to gain more acclaim during his lifetime than Bach partially because he moved to London early in his life, Jacobsen said. As the “darling of Europe,” he was commissioned for major works, Jacobsen explained, and he usually made those more accessible to the average person than Bach’s complex works.


“Hallelujah,” arguably Handel’s most recognized piece from his master oratorio, Messiah, will start off his time on the Massey. Jacobsen will follow with “Music for the Royal Fireworks,” which England commissioned from Handel to be played by an orchestra floating on the Thames River during a fireworks show with a massive audience.

“You wouldn’t go to Bach with a commission like that because he was too provincial,” Jacobsen said.

Finally, Jacobsen will close Handel’s pieces with “Largo” from Xerxes, which Chautauquans will recognize from the closing of every Sacred Song Service.

Jacobsen noted that, while it was extraordinary that these musical geniuses never met, these songs could be entirely different if they had.

“Imagine if they had met, what they would have sprinkled into each other’s music,” Jacobsen said.

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The author Delaney Van Wey

Delaney Van Wey is reporting on the Interfaith Lecture Series this summer. Although she is from Gowanda, this is her first time at Chautauqua Institution. She is studying journalism and international relations at Syracuse University, where she previously worked as assistant news editor at The Daily Orange. Contact her at or on Twitter, @DelaneyVanWey.