Handel: The Man and His Music by Jonathan Keates

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Handel: The Man and His Music by Jonathan Keates

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the 18th century composer, born in Germany though he spent most of his life in England, best remembered for 'The Messiah'.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: August 2008
Publisher: The Bodley Head Ltd
ISBN: 978-0224082020

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The chances are that most people who have any knowledge of classical music, even if it's only some familiarity with short soundbites, will have something by Handel embedded in their subconscious – probably a few bars from 'Hallelujah Chorus'. There are few other composers of whom the same can be said. The exceptions – Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mozart come to mind – also seem a little better known as historical figures, while Handel remains something of an unknown quantity.

Keates originally published a biography of him in 1985, but the discovery of new archive material and recent revaluation of his work have prompted a new, fully revised edition. He tells the story of the composer's life very readably, describing the music in some detail but avoiding too much immersion in the finer points of terminology which would put off all but the specialist. His early life in Germany, time in Italy and career in London as an almost adopted Englishman, are told very well. It is hard to read without a smile about the clavichord being smuggled into his bedroom in such a way that his disapproving father, a doctor, was unaware.

Keates also offers some interesting insights into the professional lives of 18th-century composers and the problems which many of them faced in getting their music published and performed. He makes the point that Handel was uniquely fortunate in not being dependent on a single employer or patron, and that his annual income based on pensions awarded him by two successive British sovereigns, employment as teacher to the royal princesses, and commissions to write pieces to celebrate important events, allowed him some artistic freedom without fear of starvation. The problems he faced in being caught up in the crossfire between King George II and his son Frederick, Prince of Wales, who bitterly detested each other and walked a tightrope so as not to offend either, are well handled.

It is also interesting to read that his career might have come to a premature end around 1740, after he suffered a probable stroke, and then had to give up operatic management after he had lost a small fortune. Had he done so, there would have been no 'Messiah' and no 'Music for the Royal Fireworks', two of the main works on which his reputation rests.

Among the plates which particularly caught my eye was a caricature of Handel, his profile replaced by a hooded pig's snout. This was the work of Joseph Goupy, the scene-painter and for a while his friend, who was entertained to supper by the composer at his home at Brook Street. Handel apologized for the frugal fare as he was temporarily out of funds, promising something better next time, then excused himself from the table 'for a moment'. Goupy waited awhile, then went into the next room and looked through the window to see him tucking heartily into 'claret and French dishes'. Apart from this little lapse, Handel seems to have been well-liked and his death in 1749 was much mourned.

The last chapter concludes with several pages on how Handel's reputation and the popularity of his music has fluctuated since his death, reaching its nadir in the inter-war years of the 20th century but now happily in the ascendant again. Anybody with an interest in 18th-century history or music will enjoy this book. For anyone with only a passing acquaintance with his music, it fills in the picture superbly.

Our thanks to Bodley Head for sending a copy to Bookbag.

For another classical composer biography, why not try Chopin's Funeral by Benita Eisler, or for another 18th-century life, King's Mistress, Queen's Servant by Tracy Borman. We can also recommend The Life of Handel by Victor Schoelcher (Author), Anton de Moresco (Editor), James Lowe (Translator).

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Buy Handel: The Man and His Music by Jonathan Keates at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Handel: The Man and His Music by Jonathan Keates at Amazon.com.


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