The most iconic work of the English choral tradition, and the most famous, with its rousing 'Hallelujah' chorus, is surely Handel’s Messiah (1741), the subject of Jonathan Keates’s new and excellent brief study ... Keates, a distinguished biographer of Handel, sets out to examine the origin and afterlife of the piece, and to establish what an eighteenth-century critic might have called its 'sublimity.' Keates celebrates its 'emotional range, the ways in which it embraces the multiplicity of existence, the directness of its engagement with our longing, our fears, our sorrows, our ecstasy and exaltation, giv[ing] the whole achievement an incomparable universality.' Keates recognizes that Handel was as spiritual a composer as J.S. Bach, his Messiah as rooted in that spirituality as Bach’s Passions were in his; Keates will have no truck with the tradition that 'pigeonhole[s] Handel as a cynical opportunist, a shrewd entertainer with an eye on the market.'
Biographer Jonathan Keates enlightens readers to this fact and so much more in his new work, 'Messiah': The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece ...a quick, delightful read for any season. The book is amply illustrated with portraits and presentations of historic letters, scores, settings and concert brochures. Mr. Keates deftly introduces the reader to a George Frideric Handel with whom the reader may not be familiar, a cosmopolitan man 'who in his younger days once fought a duel with a fellow composer' ... Mr. Keates portrays the man as opposed to the myth behind the popular masterpiece.
Keates would like his readers to believe that although the 'Messiah,' and indeed Handel, was never entirely forgotten — particularly in his adopted home, England — his immense output, and especially his operas, suffered neglect ... Keates constructs a history of two centuries of misuse and misinterpretation from which we have now, thankfully, been rescued ... This makes for a neat and tidy story, but it is based on a prejudice. Keates is all too persuaded by the objective correctness of the 20th-century effort to define original, authentic Baroque performance practices ... Jonathan Keates’s short book is designed to give the general reader a succinct introduction to the 'Messiah' and to illuminate why it has retained its hold over us.