Two Handel histories tactfully dispel myth of musical `Messiah'

Handel, by Christopher Hogwood. London and New York: Thames & Hudson. Illustrated. 312 pp. $19.95. Handel: The Man and His Music, by Jonathan Keates. New York: St. Martin's Press. Illustrated. 346 pp. $19.95. Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti: This has been a banner year in the musical almanac. Three tercentenaries (1685-1985) in one pair of back-to-back concert seasons have been larded with musical tributes to J. S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, and George Frederick Handel. The concerts have provided more than enough of a feast in themselves for the average concertgoer, radio listener -- and reader.

True Handelians (an identifiable breed, it seems) need no tercentenary to draw them closer to the object of their admiration. These two books, Christopher Hogwood's ``Handel'' and Jonathan Keates's ``Handel: The Man and His Music,'' complement each other nicely. Taken together, they make quite a refined addition to the Handeliana that already exists.

It is to some of that traditional and modern Handeliana that Christopher Hogwood partly addresses himself. Well known to the international public as an early-music specialist, conductor, and recording artist, Hogwood moves with confidence and wisdom in the writing of history. His book is very readable, and it is engaged to a fair degree in setting to rights the various legends and published biographies, comparing older sources while filling in with the light shed by more recent discoveries about Handel

and his times.

George Frederick Handel was a man of the theater, first and last -- Ye Ideale Pragmatist -- and a musical businessman if there ever was one. He was a shrewd operator with singers and producers, although his musical instincts and compulsions did keep him lagging behind musico-theatric fashion at several junctures.

Hogwood moves in and pierces every last Romantic bubble in our misty, reverential notions of Handel, the supposed artist-saint. In his crusading narrative, Hogwood reminds us that the man who wrote ``Messiah'' in 21 days completed a fair number of other big works in as little time, and that the oratorio that forever changed English religious music was completely unique in his output and was sandwiched in, almost like an extracurricular project, between works occupying more of his concern.

The title to Jonathan Keates's book might well have been ``The Man and His Music -- and the Music, Poetry, and Politics of Everyone Else at the Time Besides'' -- so full and running over is it with detail and in-depth analysis of individual theater pieces, their societal ambiance, etc. Here, everything is reported in far greater depth and inclusion than in Hogwood -- but not weightily or unreadably, for Keates is a most graceful stylist.

It is not that Hogwood's book is in any way lacking in historical heft. It is just that Keates is so much more obviously and ingenuously thrilled by setting down the wealth of facts. Hogwood is crisper; Keates is winning; both have produced engaging, rewarding chronicles; and neither cancels the other. Keates, by the way, is an astute critic, as witnessed by his exhaustive analysis of (what seems like) every stage work, oratorio, and concerto. Particularly penetrating are his remarks on Handel's ``Utrec ht Te Deum'' (1713).

But what is most salient about comparing these two books is that Hogwood goes into some of the societal reasons that Handelians such as Keates still abound in the United Kingdom. Even during the time (in George III's last years) when the mighty English choral society tradition was greening, there were those who sadly suspected the worst for musical growth in Britain.

They were right, for the unbeatable combination of church and state identity with the cultural symbolism of Handel's ``Messiah'' elevated Handel the man to a loftiness perhaps even beyond that of Shakespeare, managing to shut the gate on any music thereafter in England that dared to depart from the mold of aural Britannia.

The contrast between Handel's time and ours is stunning: Then, he could scarcely write fast enough to satisfy the public's appetite for new things; now, commerce and audiences avoid new musical art as they would a burning building! Food for thought about where the art is going, or has gone. But as for George Frederick's anniversary year, these two volumes are probably the literary highlight. And they'll be just as fine after it's over.

David Owens is a composer and free-lance writer living in Boston.

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