SECOND THOUGHTS / A little dinghy bobbing with joy: Jonathan Keates on why his biography Handel: The Man and his Music (Gollancz pounds 7.99) struck a discordant note

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The Independent Culture
I ALWAYS wanted to write a life of Handel, not just because the available biographies were so sketchy, but, precious as this may sound, because I was grateful to him for having so consistently gladdened and inspired me. Combining a synthesis of recent research with an act of personal homage, the enterprise seemed harmless enough - or so I thought. As it turned out, the book's progress towards publication was distinctly nail-biting. One panjandrum at Collins, the original publisher, was dead against it from the start, and seized the chance, when my own loyal commissioning editor moved on, to rubbish the all but completed text with help from a tame expert.

The latter's nitpicking notes, a mixture of crazily vitriolic bitching and one or two genuinely useful corrections, gave me a sinister foretaste of what I might expect from the world of musicology.

By the time Gollancz picked up the book, we were nearing 1985, tercentenary of Handel's birth, and, as is the way, it emerged side by side with other biographies: a handsomely illustrated study by H C Robbins Landon and Christopher Hogwood's meticulous documentary record.

With two slightly charmless exceptions, the reviews were laudatory, and I ought, I suppose, to have been satisfied at seeing my little dinghy bobbing merrily beside two fully-armed professional dreadnoughts.

In one quarter, however, the silence hung as heavily as on Kipling's Road To Mandalay. Not a single musicological trade paper bothered to notice my work. The gossip ran that scholars thought it stank. What on earth was the matter? Even with a sprinkling of minor factual errors and no original research, it was a serious biography, linking the man with his epoch and the music with contemporary trends, the first to offer, however hamfistedly, a critical assessment of the major works.

I was guilty, it seems, on two counts, that of making a private domain more accessible to the general music lover and for showing a selective but fervent enthusiasm. Scholarship shrinks from emotional engagement, but how, in Handel's presence, are we not to communicate a little feeling? A second edition has patched up a hole or two, but I see no reason to moderate the excitement which makes the pundits wince. 'What do you want?' said one appreciative reader to a sneering musicologist. 'A book for people who love Handel, or cold rice pudding for pompous buggers like you?'

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