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Handel: The Man and His Music by Jonathan Keats (St. Martin's: $19.95; 346 pp., illustrated) : HANDEL by Christopher Hogwood (Thames & Hudson: $19.95; 312 pp., illustrated)

October 13, 1985|Laura D. Kuhn | Kuhn is a musician, free-lance writer and critic. and

The tercentenary of George Frederic Handel's birth (1685-1759) has given rise to two reverent musical biographies by British authors--"Handel: The Man and His Music" by Jonathan Keats and "Handel" by Christopher Hogwood.

Both are comprehensive and chronologically ordered, with musical works and events treated cumulatively, and through the use of correspondence, bills, programs and press clips, both add to extant knowledge of this still "imperfectly known" composer's early years in Halle and Hamburg, apprenticeship in Italy, and commercial success in London.

Stylistically, however, the two couldn't be more different. Hogwood, internationally known conductor, performer and musicologist, has produced a meticulous, scholarly work, weighted toward Handel's dramatic stage compositions. The edition is further enhanced by a chronological table compiled by Anthony Hicks, and more than 100 illustrations (10 in color). The closing chapter, "Handel and Posterity," is a thoughtful essay on performance practice through the ages, augmented by photographs and sketches from recent productions.

As a reference work, the book is to be lauded, but in terms of sheer readability, one might desire more--Hogwood's command of his subject matter and cautious musicological approach causes critical comment to be occasionally dry and underdeveloped.

Not so with Keats, whose musical naivete and inquisitive, almost voyeuristic approach make this work valuable less as a scholar's tool than for the rich, overall impression provided. Keats is a Handel enthusiast with a strong narrative style. From the opening, one is carried forward as in a novel, entering an 18th-Century musical world replete with incompetent librettists, temperamental castrati and conniving rivals.

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