A joyous but far from superficial paean to Handel's beloved masterwork. Only very occasionally does there appear a book about great music that doesn't wind up somehow diminishing the music itself. This is such a book. Luckett, the librarian at Magdalene College, Cambridge, modestly disclaims breaking any new scholarly ground, but the wealth of erudition that illuminates his description of the backdrop (musical and social), composition, and performance history of Messiah is truly impressive. All the familiar material is here, and a good deal more besides. Even the more quirky references (e.g., Dr. Johnson's patronizing remarks about Dublin, which heard the first performance in 1742) add to the superb texture. And the writing is beyond praise: Describing Handel's retreat from opera to the new form of oratorio, Luckett articulates the difficulties of saying farewell to ``...the irrational element, the pull of opera for its own ephemeral sake, the love affair that persists despite and because of the sweat and the greasepaint, the squalls and squalor, the cliques and cabals, for the sake of that one shudder of the realized dream.'' By the time that the aging, financially beleaguered master combines his earthy sense of rhythm and melody with a lifetime of musical learning to create his immortal treatment of the most sacred of religious subjects, the reader understands what makes ``classical'' music a living as well as lively art. Moreover, Luckett, going past Handel's death, provides a smart, wry history of emendations, ``improvements,'' and performances up almost to our own day. A book worthy of its subject and its subtitle, and one that deserves far more than a specialist readership. A Handelian home run.