For most of the 19th and 20th centuries a similar myth prevailed: that the two masters of the Baroque in Northern Europe, J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel, both born in 1685, were quickly forgotten after their deaths in the 1750s. Felix Mendelssohn was given credit for rescuing Bach from oblivion. Every music textbook still recounts how Mendelssohn, merely 20 years old, triggered a 19th-century Bach revival with his historic performance of the “St. Matthew Passion” in Berlin in 1829. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that Mendelssohn’s great-aunt, Sara Itzig Levy, was an enthusiastic collector of Bach manuscripts well before Mendelssohn’s birth. Chopin’s teacher inculcated what would become a lifelong obsession with Bach in the young Chopin, Mendelssohn’s contemporary, in the early 1820s. Bach was never forgotten, but his massive choral masterpieces had fallen into obscurity as objects of public performance.
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. The popularity of the “Messiah” in various bowdlerized forms helped obscure the true range of Handel’s achievement. Keates is an enthusiast, not a scholar, and he clearly cherishes this particular work. Although he recognizes that indeed the oratorios and much of Handel’s choral music never fell out of favor, his allegiance to the myth of the unfortunate “afterlife” of the “Messiah” prevents him from telling the story of its composition and Handel’s career in a manner helpful to music lovers.
To realize how off the mark Keates is, consider Beethoven. He revered Handel’s music — and not only the “Messiah.” Handel was for Beethoven the greatest of all composers, and music’s finest dramatist. Beethoven cherished the edition of the complete works he received in 1826. He closely studied a wide array of Handel’s works, from his early 20s to his death. Vienna’s most important civic musical organization, the Society of the Friends of Music, celebrated its founding in 1812 with a grand performance of Handel’s oratorio “Alexander’s Feast.”
Later in the century, in 1868, the prominent German historian Georg Gottfried Gervinus published an influential book with the title “Handel and Shakespeare”; these two giants embodied for him the ideal essence of the German spirit. Brahms shared Gervinus’s view. He expressed it in music with his unmistakably Handelian 1871 choral “Triumphlied,” written to celebrate German unification. In 1861 he composed a brilliant set of variations on a theme of Handel. A century earlier, in 1789, Mozart went to the trouble to reorchestrate the “Messiah.” And the composer Adam Hiller completed his own version of the same work shortly before.
What justifies Keates’s book is a 20th-century conceit that there was something fundamentally wrong with the late-18th- and 19th-century editions and performances, Mozart’s included. Ponderously slow tempos prevailed. Excessive choral forces numbering over 300 voices and enlarged orchestras with added percussion and brass of the kind favored in England by Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Thomas Beecham were used. Corrupt editions abounded. 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. But are these the only legitimate ways to define and represent a work of music? Keates accepts the idea that between Handel’s death and the mid-20th century, the genuine “Messiah” had been betrayed, like a painting whose true colors and character have become obscured by tampering, repainting and the application of layers of varnish. But this may not be so. Brahms was one of the first to question the lush romantic approach to the “Messiah” — particularly as performed in Vienna by the handsome and not-too-adept Johann Ritter von Herbeck — but the quality and manner of performance did not prevent him from extolling the beauty and power of the music.
As Keates realizes, the “Messiah” rapidly assumed its undisputed place as the most popular and beloved choral work of all time. The iconic “Hallelujah” chorus that ends the second part of this three-part masterpiece has long been one of the very few universally recognized hit tunes in the history of classical music. The “Messiah” has had an unrivaled history of amateur and professional performance for well over 250 years. The old-fashioned approach to the work made this happen. And is the popularity of the “Messiah” as a Christmas season event significant? After all, it was written for Easter, not Christmas; it celebrates the resurrection of Christ. For Handel, as for Bach, that theologically indispensable miracle rather than the birth of Jesus represented Christianity’s essence. The “Hallelujah” chorus exults in the triumph over death. One good reason the “Messiah” has come to define the Advent season is because Part I of the work deals with biblical prophecy, and the prefiguring of Jesus’ birth. Handel may not have intended to write a Christmas oratorio but, still, we will never be able to separate the “Messiah” from Christmas. The sounds of Handel’s music in December may be the last recognizable civic remnants of authentic spirituality within the commercial circus Christmas has turned into.
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. But he seems unwilling to concede that no matter how the work is performed, or how predictable and even annoying its endless repetition every December has become, each year and in every performance, no matter how imperfect, it never fails to move its listeners and participants. Audiences are dissolved into tears by “Comfort Ye My People” and “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” exhilarated by “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” uplifted by “Unto Us a Child Is Born,” and brought to their feet by the “Hallelujah” chorus. Beethoven was right. No composer employed music as powerfully as an instrument of drama, sorrow, joy and collective enthusiasm. And overblown, grandiose versions of the “Messiah” can be as thrilling as any performance with a small ensemble of period instruments and a chorus of 20.
Keates is too selective in his use of modern scholarship. In his discussion of the role played by the librettist of the “Messiah,” Charles Jennens, Keates makes no mention of Michael Marissen’s controversial 2014 scholarly polemic about the anti-Semitic character of the work. Keates is content with a standard account of the relationship between composer and librettist, and the differences between the first Dublin version of 1742 and the later revisions for London performances that Handel made between 1743 and 1754. Nevertheless, this modest book contains the text of the “Messiah,” a useful timeline and a generous selection of illustrations. Its virtue lies in its capacity to provoke us to think about a work we too often take for granted each Christmas season.