Today, an odd connection between Bach and Handel.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A question recently sent me
off into an unexpected technological byroad. Since
Bach and Handel were born the same year, 1685, I
wondered if they'd ever met.
In fact, they were born only about 80 miles apart
-- Bach in the small state of Thuringia, and Handel
in nearby Saxony. Bach came out of a strong
Protestant choral tradition. Handel's father was a
court surgeon, so Handel grew up listening to the
fine music of the aristocracy. Each wore the
lifelong stamp of his origins.
Handel studied at the university in Hamburg. He
went to Italy in 1707 where he established himself
as a first-rate composer. He moved to London in
1710 and spent the rest of his life as an English
citizen. Bach learned music by apprenticeship in
several church posts, none very far from his
birthplace. In 1723, at the age of 38, he moved to
Leipzig where he spent the rest of his life. So
Handel and Bach lived separate lives, and they
never did meet.
But they came close. In 1719 Bach's work took him
to Halle, where Handel was home on a visit. Bach
learned of Handel's visit and tried to look him up.
Handel had, alas, left the day before. Bach made a
second attempt to contact Handel ten years later,
and that also failed to pan out.
So the two greatest composers of their age worked
at their art without meeting. Handel created some
of the most festive baroque music and Bach some of
the most introspective. Both worked until their
eyes failed. And here we meet a third character:
Taylor, born the son of an apothecary in 1703,
studied medicine and specialized in ophthalmology.
He soon rose to the post of eye doctor to King
George II and became a shameless self-promoter.
By the time Bach and Handel began losing their
sight, Taylor was traveling widely on the
continent. During a visit to Leipzig in 1749,
Taylor operated on Bach's ailing eyes. When the
first operation failed, he tried a second one.
After those operations, Bach's blindness was total
and his health failed. He died less than a year
later. Taylor had probably killed him.
By then Taylor's unsavory reputation was well
known. As early as 1740, an anonymous comic opera,
The Operator, ridiculed him. Samuel
Johnson called him "an instance of how far
impudence will carry ignorance."
You'd think that Handel, the surgeon's son,
would've known better. But in 1751 he too submitted
to Taylor's knife, and he too came out none the
better for the surgery.
So Bach's and Handel's closest connection, beyond
having together defined the end of the baroque
epoch of music, was having let the same quack
doctor work on their dimming sight. Taylor, by the
way, went blind before his own death in 1772.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds