The story of the classical Christmas masterwork

A statue of George Frideric Handel in London’s Westminster Abbey.

It’s surely possible to be somewhere in the United States in the Christmas season without ready access to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” perhaps in the middle of the Denali National Park or the Mojave desert.

The work is ubiquitous and deserves every bit of its popularity. It’s a Christian masterpiece known by everyone, a soaring work of genius that never loses its ability to astonish and inspire, whether at a performance of the New York Philharmonic or at a local church sing-along.

After hearing it performed on Christmas Day in 1843, Ralph Waldo Emerson described a common reaction, “I walked in the bright paths of sound, and liked it best when the long continuance of a chorus had made the ear insensible to music, made it as if there was none; then I was quite solitary and at ease in the melodious uproar.”

In his new book, “Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece,” Jonathan Keates traces the work’s history.

A native German who lived in London, G.F. Handel was extraordinarily prolific, composing roughly 40 operas and 30 oratorios. His towering status isn’t in question. Beethoven, born nearly 100 years later, deemed him “the master of us all.”

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