Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece
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Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece

Basic Books; 176 pp. $25 

Books Messiah Keates lg 118

HANDEL'S MESSIAH may not be appropriate for the December holidays, as Jonathan Keates makes clear in his delightful new handbook, but Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece is nevertheless the perfect gift for music-lovers. The association of the piece with Christmas is part of its strange legacy, along with its nineteenth-century image as a pious and uplifting church work, best served by a bloated ensemble of fervent performers.

Complementing Keates’s thesis that Messiah was an “audacious experiment” is the writer’s knack for tucking in background information, whether concerning Handel’s social and musical circles in London, the tolerant religious atmosphere in his native Halle or the definition of Jacobites (those who wanted to restore the Stuart line to the throne). Even closer to the book’s topic are remarks concerning Handel’s early experience with the scriptural texts of English anthems, the sophistication of the Dublin audience where Messiah had its premiere in 1741 and the eighteenth-century notion of “Entertainment,” as the work was originally advertised.

The opening chapter, “A Composer at the Crossroads,” provides rationale for Handel’s turn to oratorio in the 1730s: pirate productions of his earlier Esther and Acis and Galatea irked the businessman in him, and as the popularity of Italian opera faded in London, the composer explored English musical drama based on Old Testament stories. The chapter ends as Handel, recently recovered from a stroke and weighing his freelance options after the collapse of various Italian opera ventures, answers an invitation to present a concert series in Dublin; he brings along the newly composed Messiah

In an easy, clear style, Keates provides background to the oratorio genre, from its sixteenth-century Roman origins and Handel’s early settings of Italian-language works to his later manipulation of the form by emphasizing the importance of the chorus as a community of believers. 

Although Messiah was a success in Dublin, later London audiences were cool to the work, even with Handel’s many changes to accommodate both popular soloists such as John Beard and newcomers such as castrato Gaetano Guadagni (who would later create the role of Orfeo for Gluck). Once the work became linked to charitable performances at the Foundling Hospital, it grew in popularity, later being associated with Englishness itself and eventually with an “inherent democracy of choral singing.” If the Westminster Abbey commemoration of Handel’s centenary in 1784 (as was then thought) was overblown in scale, nothing topped the 1857 Crystal Palace performance, at which 3,000 voices and an orchestra of 460 represented Victorian England at its smug and solemn best.

In “Composing Messiah,” the author walks us through the piece, with an excellent overview of the solo and ensemble perspectives on the theological implications as they unfold. Emphasizing the universality of the drama and the stances of the soloists, Keates likens the Christian narrative to the lieto fine (happy ending) of opera seria, in which “the characters have to undergo near-death ordeals in order to obtain contentment.” Rather than a telling of the earthly life of Christ, Messiah projects spiritual mystery and revelation.

Well-chosen black-and-white illustrations bring the reader into Handel’s London music room; offer portraits of tenor John Beard and actress Susannah Maria Cibber, who sang in the work’s Dublin premiere; and display Handel’s autograph manuscript of the closing page of the Hallelujah chorus. A timeline of Handel’s life is included, along with the entire libretto, with biblical attributions for each number.  —Judith Malafronte 

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