'Tis the season to play Handel. Or, rather, 'tis the season to play Handel's ''Messiah.'' To most music lovers the two statements are identical. That is, most people know Handel through his ''Messiah,'' and not much else. To be sure, the Water Music and Fireworks Music, in suite forms, reach the ears of many listeners. But Handel?
Of all the titans in music, Handel is perhaps the most neglected and abused. Yet this was the composer who drew the highest praise from Mozart and Haydn and who led Beethoven to say, ''He is the only one I can learn from.'' Not, certainly, for his ''Messiah'' alone. It is a great work, but it is not Handel's greatest effort. Not by a long shot.
All you have to do is listen to such oratorios as ''Saul'' or ''Jephtha'' and you will hear the Handel who could carry a musical idea through long, increasing development, work it into a noble posture, and fulfill it with brilliant energy. In these oratorios, and in such operas as ''Orlando,'' Handel emerges as the consummate architect of musical drama. Not until Mozart did anyone come along who could so convincingly paint dramatic situations around musically individualized characters.
Complicated people inhabit Handel's masterpieces, great people caught up in human passions and large events.
They are also mostly forgotten people. As his tricentennial approaches, Handel remains largely in the shadow of his own ''Messiah'' and of Bach, who is also celebrating his 300th birthday. What a pity! The loss is ours, because Handel's works for musical theater, largely unperformed in America, represent a watershed in a particular kind of opera and oratorio. The German tradition of structure-and-form-over-almost-everything was married in Handel with Italianate moods and lyricism.
But ''married'' is the operative word here. Handel employed the warmth and fervor of the Italians without sacrificing the strength and muscle of his own heritage, with its emphasis on structure and thematic development.
The result is musical theater in which everything contributes to the musical logic, and the force of ideas dominates the enterprise. Handel wrote, in these works, some of the most ravishing music in all of the Western literature. But his gift for melody almost always subserved his structural vision.
During his life, and immediately thereafter, these gifts earned him almost worshipful praise. Handel's genius was universally acknowledged. Even when a string of ventures would fail at the box office, almost no one suggested that Handel had lost his artistic preeminence.
So why does he have this bad rap from conductors today? Why do so many music directors think he is too difficult and unrewarding to program?
Some conductors complain that it is difficult to obtain clean, accurate scores for many of Handel's most complex works. And this is true. But if Handel's works were more frequently performed, the demand for better scores - along with the efforts of concerned conductors - might help to produce them.
There is, however, an underlying, deeper problem.
Biographers and critics suggest that Handel was done a disservice by the Anglican Church, which appropriated him as its own, dressed his work in dour garb, and performed it as an unmoving, spectacle-less church event. Many Handel supporters react to the ecclesiastical appropriation of Handel in this way:
''Nonsense! Handel was a hedonist of the first water. He was no church mouse. His operas and oratorios are pure drama. He only used religious subjects as a political expediency, following the ban on opera that led him into the oratorio in the first place. His real interest was showmanship.''
Well, this isn't entirely true. The greatness you sense in Handel's massive works is not merely a largess of theatrical power: It is moral force. When Saul consults a necromancer, the depths of the abyss open in the music - precisely because Saul was transgressing a profound moral law.
Reminiscences of contemporaries disclose a highly devout and spiritually aware Handel who wrestled with questions of God and man. And one of the penalties of the church-vs.-theater debate is that it draws attention away from the fact that Handel embraced both: His music runs through deep spiritual waters , even as it creates high dramatic effect.
Unfortunately this dual powerhouse in much of Handel will remain unknown to many, so long as conductors play from skinny editions of Handel's works.
So enjoy your ''Messiah'' this year.
But just imagine what you're missing.