The Organ

Jonathan Keates: Handel, the Man and his Music

Jonathan Keates: Handel, the Man and his Music
Bodley Head
ISBN 9780224082020

Since the first edition of this biography appeared in 1985, Jonathan Keates has been busy. Substantially revised to take into account new work on the composer, this second version is full of information. Keates presents it all with ebullient enthusiasm. Names and dates come thick and fast, and masses of details are dovetailed into complex sentences (A remarkable example, on p.307, contains 123 words.) The fourteen illustrations are mainly portraits, with three small reproductions of autograph scores, and the bibliography is substantial.

In a study that will probably be most appreciated by readers already acquainted with Handel, Keates likes to place the events and achievements of his early years in the context of his maturity. For instance, an account of his trip to Lübeck when Buxtehude's post was on offer, with the additional inducement of marriage to his daughter, leads immediately to a discussion of his sex life. Interesting mainly for what seems to have been its relative unimportance for him, the matter might have been deferred until a later point in the narrative.

The tale emerges, though not unexpectedly, but with much additional evidence, as the story of a man of pawky determination and prodigious industry. In the competitive world of 18th century music, he set out to make his mark and to reap financial rewards for efforts that threatened to exhaust him. His bankers saw the proof of his adherence to the Protestant work ethic, just as his performers found themselves called to order if they slacked.

It is a tribute to Handel's powers that even a long biography cannot devote many pages to the close examination of each masterpiece in turn. Yet all are mentioned and commented on. Most make better sense in context, some a lot better.