HANDEL. By Christopher Hogwood. Thames and Hudson. 312 pp. $19.95.

IT IS CLEAR by now that Handel has been the big "discovery" of the grand tercentenary year. Of the famous birthday boys, only he -- not Bach (who was rediscovered for our time around 1950, the bicentenary of his death), not Scarlatti, certainly not Schutz -- is undergoing a major reassessment that will probably end with a great deal more of his work going over from the "canon" (the "Great Composers Club," as Christopher Hogwood has it, "initiated and defined by critics and historians") into the actual repertoire.

His operas, in particular, are staging a fantastic comeback that no one would have predicted as little as 10 years ago. They have found advocates not only among the "authenticity" avant garde, but even in our most establismentarian houses like the Met. And though, as Hogwood admits, "we have never seen Italian operas as Handel saw them, and never will," since the authenticity agenda is not likely to include, at least in the foreseeable future, the revival of the castrato voice, the genre of opera seria no longer seems irrevocably alien and dead, at least in Handel's hands. We are all terribly eager, it would seem, to make Handel our contemporary once again.

Why is the time so ripe for him? Put it down, if you will, to "post-modernism," the great -- and for all we know, epochal -- pendulum swing that has gotten under way of late from a producer-oriented to a consumer- oriented philosophy of art. "Serious" composers in particular are being exhorted everywhere, not just by critics and ticket- buyers but by eminent fellow-composers like George Rochberg, to come down from the Ivory Tower and live in the world again. In the so-called Minimalism of John Adms, Steve Reich and (especially) Philip Glass we are witnessing the phenomenon, unprecedented in the 20th century, of an authentically avant-garde movement (whatever we may think of it and whatever it may say about us and our culture) that has sought and won a mass audience. This is the reason, or at least a reason, why Handel seems all at once so close to us. For he was the prototype of the consumer-conscious composer, the great free lancer in an age of patronage, who managed to succeed -- where, two generations later, Mozart would fail -- in living off his pen, and living well. The book under review here emphasizes -- as did the London newspapers in 1759 -- that Handel died a wealthy man. And Hogwood, a shade embarrassed perhaps at the way the Handel story violates the romantic-cum-modernist ideal of great-composer behavior, is at pains to assure us that he did it without compromising his standards or his integrity. Take courage, post-modernists (it seems to say), you aren't selling out. Handel would have survived Reaganism and Thatcherism, and so will you.

Handel could only have made it as he did in England, where -- just as it was in every area of political, economic and social life -- the middle class was far ahead of its continental counterpart in the active support and consumption of the arts. And Handel had a genius for sensing and supplying what the market demanded, even, at times, before the market was aware of its demands. Hogwood's book reflects, in its chapter organization, the way Handel's career was shaped by market forces. After his prentice years in "Halle and Hamburg" (Chapter 1), he reached maturity and mastery during his four "Italian Years" (Chapter 2), which equipped him to ride the crest, in London, of the "Heyday of Opera" (Chapter 3). Later, faced with the "Decline of Opera" (Chapter 4) in the British capital, he rallied by composing "The Oratorios" (Chapter 5) that were his unique contribution to the heritage of Western music, being totally unlike all earlier works in that genre, but singularly suited to the tastes and temperament of his audience. Here again Hogwood tries to apologize for Handel's success by trying to persuade us of the composer's "apparent unconsciousness of public feeling." In his view "it is clear that while (Handel) doggedly pursued the dramatic ideals of oratorio, with or without an essentially Christian theme, his public were inevitably smitten by its sacred concept." The reader is not deceived. It was no lucky misunderstanding. Handel knew just what he was doing. And his audience, identifying with Handel's Israelites, were smitten as much by a national as by a sacred concept; indeed, as embodied in Handel's music, the two concepts were one. A letter to the editor of the London Daily Post, published the day after the premiere of Israel in Egypt (April 18, 1739) makes this clear:

"What a glorious Spectacle! to see a crowded Audience of the first Quality of a Nation, heaed by the Heir apparent of their Sovereign's Crown, sitting enchanted at Sounds, that at the same time express'd in so sublime a manner the Praises of the Deity itself, and did such Honour to the Faculties of human Nature, in first creating those Sounds, if I may so speak; and in the next Place, being able to be so highly delighted with them. Did such a Taste prevail universally in a People, that People might expect on a like Occasion, if such Occasion should ever happen to them, the same Deliverance as those Praises celebrate; and Protestant, free, virtuous, united, Christian England, need little fear, at any time hereafter, the whole Force of slavish, bigotted, united, unchristian Popery, risen up against her, should such a Conjuncture ever hereafter happen."

HOGWOOD has little or no new information to impart about Handel's none-too-eventful life. Since 1955, Handel biographies have all been souffl,es whipped up out of ingredients provided by the redoubtable Documentary Biography of Otto Erich Deutsch, and Hogwood's is no exception. But his souffl,e is one of the more tasty. It is a lean and elegant narrative, and it brims with insights Hogwood's close identification with Handel's music has vouchsafed. It is the sophisticated and sympathetic performer in him that leads the author to such a just and tactful handling of the delicate matter of Handel's "borrowings" and outright plagiarisms. Where other writers have waxed self-righteous, Hogwood is cool and penetrating: "To follow the subtleties of (Handel's) selective process," he writes, "is a route towards understanding the insight he had achieved into the kinds of psychological interplay that the operatic matrix could sustain." And, "it is more profitable to admire the skill in construction and recreation than to question the source of each unit of inspiration." On the puzzling matter of the English vogue for opera in an unintelligible language (something to which all the English-speaking peoples are still uniquely prone), he offers, instead of homilies or speculations, a garland of fascinating contemporary quotations (John Dennis, Roger North, Joseph Addison) that operagoers and producers might well ponder. One of his most acute perceptions is the observation that John Gay's Beggar's Opera, the reputed vanquisher of Handel's operatic enterprise, "killed not the Italian opera but the chances of serious English opera." He has a fine sense of irony, as when he remarks that "The present-day standing of Messiah makes it difficult for us to realize that for Handel its composition was an offbeat venture, unsure in its rewards and probably unrepeatable. It is the only truly 'sacred' oratorio he ever wrote, it was the only one performed during his lifetime in a consecrated building, and yet it was intended, in (librettist) Jennens' words, as 'a fine Entertainment.'"

In his "Decline" chapter, Hogwood comes to grips with the apparent paradox of our age's acceptance of Handelian works that even in the late 18th century seemed hopelessly outmoded, as attested by the strictures of historian Charles Burney. "What do we see that Burney missed?" he asks, then adds, with exemplary civility, "Or what are we prepared to accept that he found unworthy?" His immediate answer, that "Opera seria originated in the word book," to which Handel's contemporaries and immediate posterity were insufficiently attentive, seems ultimately less adequate than an answer implied throughout the discussion of the "Heyday," that it is our interest in Handel the man that sustains our interest in all his works. Here we hit some fairly rocky terrain. For it is one of the marks of our overly historicist and relativist age that we no longer judge the past the way the past judged its past. And Hogwood unwittingly puts his finger on what is for me a disquieting aspect of the "authenticity" movement in modern performance (of which he is one of the leaders) when he cites the remarks of a French traveler who heard an opera performance in London under Handel's direction: "Fourgeroux also comments on the way the chords in recitative are cut off -- invaluable evidence for a modern player, although Fourgeroux calls it in his opinion 'a bad style of accompanying.'" Fourgeroux (or Burney, for that matter), was entitled, it would seem, to his opinion, but the "modern player" is not. Uncritical acceptance of authority ("evidence") is no road to authenticity. Let's not forget, too, that when Haydn heard Messiah and other Handelian works in 1791 and (as his friend Carpani reported) "was struck as if he had been put back to the beginning of his studies and had known nothing up to that moment (but) meditated on every note and drew from those most learned scores the essence of true musical grandeur," he was responsive to performances we should now write off as "inauthentic" in the extreme.

But whatever one's reaction to this assertion or that inference, Hogwood's Handel is a stimulating and provocative book. Its final chapter on "Handel and Posterity," a subject obviously close to the author's heart, is quite the most original and insightful of all -- and remarkably tolerant and tactful, too. It remains to add that the book contains almost 100 illustrations covering every facet of the subject and ends with a reliable and very intelligently designed chronological table assembled by the prominent Handel scholar Anthony Hicks.