The "Case" of George Frideric Handel
New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 321, no. 11 (14 September 1989), pp. 765-9
Copyright 1989, Massachusetts Medical Society,
All rights reserved
George Frideric Handel was the first of the great entrepreneurial composers. Giants often become the centers of myth, and Handel was no exception. The Handelian myths include serious solemn religiosity, an asexual life in the service of his music, two bankruptcies, in 1737 and 1745, a series of paralytic strokes, and mental disorder. Keynes suggested, for example, that Handel had clear depressive episodes in 1729, 1734, 1737, 1743, and 1745.(1) Slater and Meyer concluded that he had cyclothymia to a marked degree and was probably genetically disposed to manic-depressive illness.(2) I do not believe there are data to support any of these myths.
Handel was born in 1685 to a middle-class physician's family in Halle and was well brought up and educated. In 1703 he moved to Hamburg, then a center of German musical life. His previous musical exposure, to German church music, was now supplemented by opera and ballet. He played violin in the opera house and occasionally conducted. In 1706 he departed for Italy "on his own bottom"(3) - that is, without princely sponsorship. Handel remained there until 1710, visiting Florence, Rome, Naples, and Venice. He performed and composed for cardinals and Medicis, the princes of both church and state, and he was quickly acclaimed "il caro Sassone," the beloved Saxon. At the age of 25 he returned to Germany with an established reputation as a virtuoso keyboard performer and a composer of importance. Mainwaring has left us a description of his playing: "but what distinguished him from all other players who possessed these same qualities [an uncommon brilliancy and command of finger] was that amazing fullness, force, and energy, which he joined with them."(3)
He made his way to Hanover, where he was appointed kapellmeister to the elector, who later became King George I of England. The Dowager Electress Sophia wrote to the queen of Prussia on June 16. 1710, "Here there is no news save that the Elector has taken into his service a kapellmeister named Handel, who plays the harpsichord marvellously.... He is a good-looking man and the talk is that he was the lover of Victoria."(4) With the elector's permission he went to England several times and then remained there until his death, although he did make a few trips to the continent -- to see family members, to recruit singers, and to visit Aix-la-Chapelle for the cure -- and he traveled to Dublin. His last public performance was eight days before his death. He then took to his bed for the composed, dignified death that was considered standard in the 18th century.
In summary, his was a life of early and generally sustained success, earned reputation, and continuous productivity. His setbacks were transient, and he responded to them with active and successful attempts to recoup.
Unfortunately, considerably less information is available about Handel's inner life than about his public activities and professional career. On the other hand, the information we do have is remarkably consistent.
He was clearly intelligent, well brought up, and well educated. "No man ever told a story with more effect. But it was requisite for the hearer to have a competent knowledge of at least four languages -- English, French, Italian, and German, for in his narrative he made use of them."(5) Early in his life he was described as well built and comely. As later portraits show, his well-known delight in the joys of the table resulted in a degree of corpulence. People who knew him early in his life, such as Mattheson, and those who knew him late all commented on his wit: "His natural propensity to wit and humour.... Had he been as great a master of the English language as Swift, his bon mots would have been as frequent, and somewhat of the same kind."(6) On the failure of the oratorio Theodora, he is said to have remarked, "the Jews will not come to it... because it is a Christian story; and the Ladies will not come because it [is] a virtuous one."(7)
Despite the social ambiguity of his position in a hierarchical world, Handel apparently mixed easily in a variety of settings: the upper reaches of the Vatican, the royal court, the pleasure palaces of rich nobles, the strange, stage-set world of the opera house, and ordinary middle-class households. There are, I believe, clear indications in letters and diaries of an easy social conviviality that made him a welcome guest at country houses and parties. He seems to have been appreciated as a person and as a performer. Certainly his friendships and working relationships with other musicians were close and lasting.
Handel was no saint. There were people he did not like. A number of contemporary anecdotes comment on his temper: "[H]e was irascible, impatient of contradiction, but not vindictive; jealous of his musical pre-eminence, and tenacious in all points, which regarded his professional honour."(8) All the anecdotes, however, are set in the context of music making and Handel's concern for the music produced.
He also had nonmusical interests. He amassed an extensive and varied collection of prints and paintings, some by gift, but probably most at auctions. He bequeathed his two Rembrandts to Lord Granville and two of his portraits to his assistant, J.C. Smith. The remaining 67 works were sold at auction a year after his death. The catalogue of the sale (9) lists among the artists S. Ruysdael, Watteau, Poussin, F. Brueghell (sic), Andrea del Sarto, Canaletto, and Caracci; and among the subjects landscapes, genre scenes, still lifes, and a series of paintings of Jupiter with a number of his sexual partners - Leda, Danae, Io, and Ixion. Perhaps Semele, which Jennens described as Handel's "bawdy opera," was partly stimulated by this purchase. Unfortunately, with the exception of his portraits, none of Handel's paintings can now be identified .
Handel never married, and his sexual life was discreet. I referred earlier to the dowager electress' comment on the rumor of his liaison with Victoria. This appears to be a contemporary confirmation of Mainwaring's later statement that the soprano Vittoria [Tarquini] was interested in him.(3) The only other comment regarding Handel's romantic life is a marginal note written into a copy of Mainwaring's 1760 biography. The copy comes from the royal library, and the note is thought to have been added by George III. "G.F. Handel was ever honest, nay excessively polite but like all men of sense would talk all, and hear none, and scorned the advice of any but the Woman he loved, but his amours were rather of short duration, always with[in] the pale of his own profession "(10)
He was well known for his generosity. He was one of the founders of the Fund for the Support of Decay'd Musicians and Their Families and a major benefactor and governor of the Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children, and he donated music and services to charities in Dublin, Oxford, and elsewhere. Although he was genuinely generous, it may also be true that Handel, now increasingly successful, was beginning to behave like the gentility. This wish to be seen as belonging to the upper class may also account, in part, for his purchase of paintings.
Contemporary accounts of Handel record no unusual religiosity. He wrote music for Anglican, Calvinist, and Roman Catholic services, as well as for his own Lutheran church. Handel's shift from Italian opera to English oratorio was probably based on economics rather than religious belief. Opera was expensive. The singers were very highly paid, the sets and stage machinery were complex, and costumes were costly. Oratorio eliminated costumes and sets, relied more heavily on a relatively cheap chorus, and did not require expensive imported castrati. The shift permitted Handel to escape from the patronage of the nobility to that of anonymous ticket buyers -- to combine the support of the middle classes with that of the nobility. Handel's tactical decision to shift from secular opera to sacred oratorio permitted his later apotheosis as the musical master of solemn Victorian religiosity .
Both his contemporaries and his music attest to the fact that he was capable of strong feelings and quick emotional response. Except in his episodes of physical difficulty, however, I find no contemporary evidence of noteworthy mood swings. Although he did have outbursts of enormous creative productivity -- finishing, for example, his 12 concerti grossi at the rate of about 1 every two days and finishing Messiah in less than three weeks -- I would suggest that much had already been worked out in his head or while improvising, and that some of the task involved merely copying from his mind's eye. His rate of composition is evidence of incredible energy. Certainly, some of his contemporaries, such as Bach and Telemann, were known to write at a similar pace. I have suggested elsewhere that such creativity may look like but not be like manic excitement.(11) Certainly, there is no clear annual variation in productivity similar to that of Robert Schumann, who was manic-depressive.(12) Although there are some short blank periods, these appear to be due to external exigencies -- the Jacobite uprising or a royal death resulting in closed playhouses, a trip to recruit singers, or clear physical illness. In any event, in the absence of the other necessary symptoms of cyclothymia,(13) I hesitate to make a diagnosis.
One other aspect of Handel's personality should be noted. He was effectively, not neurotically, compulsive. At his death his financial and business affairs were in good order, his will and its codicils clear and to the point. Perhaps most important for his musical posterity, his musical affairs were also in order. Both his composing and performing scores were complete and ordered.
In summary, I believe Handel had a rich, normally neurotic personality. He was capable of passion and of lasting close relationships. Rather than ponderously religious, he remained a serious communicant but could tolerate other beliefs and disbeliefs. He was enthusiastic, even demanding, in his art, but his commitment and focus were leavened by his wit, broadened by his other interests and by personal generosity, and protected by an adequate mixture of obsessivecompulsive defenses.
Until the months preceding his death at the age of 74, Handel appears to have led a vigorous and essentially healthy life except for two medical problems. The first was recurrent and was variously referred to as rheumatism, a palsy, or a paralytic disorder. The second was his blindness, first noted in 1751, when he was 66.
Mainwaring describes the first illness as he comments on the failure of an opera in 1737, when Handel was 52: "His right-arm was become useless to him from a stroke of the palsy; and how greatly his senses were disordered at intervals, for a long time, appeared from an hundred instances, which are better forgotten than recorded."(3) He had lost the use of the four fingers of his right hand. Mainwaring goes on to describe Handel's visit to Aix-la-Chapelle, where he had a rapid and total recovery. The most striking evidence that Handel may have sought help at this time is in his own hand. At the bottom on an early manuscript version of the air "Vanne che piu ti miro" from the opera Faramondo, composed in 1737, is written, "Mr. Duval medecin in Poland St."(14) This was almost certainly Francis Philip Duval (1701-1768), a French Protestant who received his doctor of medicine degree from Leiden in 1726 and who by 1728 was resident in London.
The first known public notice of this illness is found in the London Daily Post of April 30, 1737.(15) On May 5, James Harris wrote to the earl of Shaftesbury:
Your lordship's information concerning Mr Handel's Disorder... gave me no small concern... I heartily regret the thought of losing any of the executive part of his merit [presumably his performing and producing functions] ... we are assured of the inventive, for tis this which properly constitutes the artist, and separates him from the multitude.(16)
This seems to suggest that despite physical difficulty, there were neither cognitive nor affective problems at this point. Mainwaring's statement that symptoms returned in 1743 is confirmed in a letter from Horace Walpole to Horace Mann dated May 4, 1743.(17) Again, recovery was rapid and complete. Between June 3 and July 4, Handel composed Semele, in July and August he composed the Dettingen Te Deum and Anthem, and in August and September he composed the oratorio Joseph.
Surely Keynes is right in pointing out that these descriptions are unlikely to represent a disease of the central nervous system. "There is no history of speech defect, difficulty in walking, or other physical disablement other than loss of the use of his right arm for a period. The portraits of the time show someone very fit for a 60-year-old and without any facial asymmetry.(1) His handwriting was unchanged until his last illness, he returned to virtuoso performing, and he recovered completely. He probably had a muscular disorder, some kind of arthritis, or a peripheral neuropathy, due perhaps to cervical arthritis. All of these overuse syndromes are common in performing musicians.(18) It is also possible that he suffered from saturnine gout,(19) the gout induced by lead poisoning. The 1703 Treaty of Methuen opened England to the importation of fortified wines from Portugal. These ports and madeiras, in contrast to their modern equivalents, had a high lead content, presumably from piping reinforced with lead that was used in distilling the brandy with which they were fortified. That Handel drank port can be seen from this penciled note in one of his manuscripts: "12 gallons port, 12 bottles French Duke Street, Meels" (perhaps the name of the wine merchant).(20) While staying at a continental spa like AixlaChapelle, he would probably not have drunk fortified wines. A lowered blood lead level would permit the excretion of uric acid by the kidneys instead of its deposition in the joints, and would lead to recovery. A return to fortified wine and the lead poisoning that accompanied it would result in another attack of gout. The associated mental disorder cannot be identified because the descriptions are so incomplete. It was probably a secondary response to his disability and the threat it presented to the central focus of his life, music, and to his fiscal integrity. It should be noted that despite the common use of the terms "melancholia" and "hypochondriasis" during the period, no contemporary report affixed either label to Handel.(21) There is also no evidence of mental illness in his family.
There are additional comments on Handel's health in later years in a variety of letters and diaries: on August 29, 1745, "I met Handel a few days since in the street.... He seemed highly pleased.... He talked much of his precarious state of health, yet he looks well enough"(22); and on February 23, 1746, "Handel call'd on me this morning, his Spirit and genious are astounding."(23) On February 13, 1750, the earl of Shaftesbury wrote:
I have seen Handel several times since I came hither, and think I never saw him so cool and well. He is quite easy in his behavior, and has been pleasing himself in the purchase of several fine pictures particularly a large Rembrandt, which is indeed excellent.(24)
Whatever the mental difficulties, they appear to have cleared completely and not to have interfered with his relationships or -- except for the periods of "palsy" -- with his musical activities, either performing or composing.
Let us return to Handel's other major illness, his blindness. Partway through composing the score of the oratorio Jephtha, Handel wrote in German, "got as far as this on Wednesday 13th February 1751, unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye."(25) His difficulties quickly became known. On March 14, 1751, Sir Edward Turner wrote: "Noble Handel hath lost a eye, but I have the Rapture to say that St. Cecilia makes no complaint of any Defect of his Fingers."(26) He consulted Samuel Sharp (1700?-1778), surgeon to Guy's Hospital. Sharp probably operated on Handel for one or more cataracts, a procedure known as couching.
James' three-volume Medicinal Dictionary, published in 1745, quotes extensively from Sharp's description of the procedure:
Having placed your patient in a convenient light and in a chair suitable to the height of that you yourself sit on, ... let the assistant lift up the superior eyelid, and yourself depress a little the inferior one: This done, strike the needle thro' the tunica conjunctiva, something less than one tenth of an inch from the cornea, even with the middle of the pupil, into the posterior chamber, and gently endeavor to depress the cataract with the flat surface of it.(27)
The operation was apparently not successful, or at least not permanently so, for on August 17, 1752, the General Advertiser noted, "We hear that George Frederick Handel, Esq; the celebrated Composer of Musick was siezed [sic] a few Day's ago with a Paralytic Disorder in his Head, which has deprived him of Sight." The same journal informs us on November 4 that Handel had been "couched" by William Bromfield (1713-1792).(28) Again the improvement was at best transient. In the summer of 1758, Handel was "couched" a third time, again unsuccessfully. The surgeon this time was a well-known, self-promoting quack, John Taylor the elder (1703-1772) known as "the Chevalier." Samuel Johnson described him as an example of the triumph of impudence over ignorance.
I think it reasonable to assume that Handel was indeed "dejected, wan, and dark" at the onset of his blindness. Certainly, whatever his initial emotional response, Handel seems to have regained his equilibrium. Burney tells us that "like the great poets, Homer, and Milton, [Handel] was afflicted with blindness; which, however it might dispirit and embarrass him at other times, had no effect on his nerves or intellects... "(29) The countess of Huntington wrote that she had had "a most pleasing interview with Handel ... He is now old, and at the close of his long career; yet he is not dismayed at the prospect before him."(30)
The Whitehall Evening-Post of April 7,1759, wrote:
Last Night ended the celebrated Mr. Handel's Oratorios for this Season, and the great Encouragement they have received is a sufficient Proof of their superior Merit. He began with Solomon, which was exhibited twice; Susanna once; Sampson three Times, Judas Maccabaeus twice; and the Messiah three Times. And this Day Mr. Handel proposed setting out for Bath, to try the Benefit of the Waters, having been for some Time past in a bad State of Health.(3l)
It is only in relation to these last months of illness that I can find any indication of loss of appetite and difficulty in sleeping. Handel's memory remained intact. At the age of 74, he had played the organ at each of the season's 11 performances. He died on April 14 without a chance to "try the Benefit of the Waters."
Handel lived a generally healthy life despite his afflictions and died an easy and peaceful death. He suffered from an episodic mental disturbance that occurred for the most part and perhaps entirely in conjunction with physical illnesses of the sort most likely to be threatening to his music. His "palsy" interfered with both performing and composing, and his blindness with composing. His mental disturbances seem clearly reactive and secondary, and they were rapidly overcome when he recovered or adapted to his disability. I find no direct contemporary evidence of primary depression, mania, or any other primary major mental illness.
If, as I suggest, there is little real evidence of either cyclothymia or major affective illness, how can we understand the appearance of such claims by modern writers? Several factors may play a part: the attitudes of Handel's contemporaries, an adulation of his genius accompanied by changing views of the meaning of genius, and creeping inaccuracies uncorrected by any reference to the full range of original data.
Handel's social role was at best ambiguous. Neither nobleman nor servant, he used the front door and stood his ground in defense of his music, even against king, prince, and nobility. His anger was accepted and it was excused by his genius. However, it was probably seen as inappropriate and arrogant and perhaps as evidence of a disordered mind.
More important is the changing meaning of genius. Socrates and Plato spoke of the divine mania or inspiration of poets, but it was clearly distinguished from clinical insanity. Similarly, Aristotle's association of unusual talent with the melancholic temperament did not associate genius with insanity, for "melancholic temperament" described a personality type, not a pathology. Not all people with melancholia were mad. The Enlightenment's view of genius was one of balance. For example, Voltaire saw genius as imagination in conjunction with memory and judgment; Kant viewed it as a favorable proportion of sensibility, judgment, creative spirit, and taste; and to Moses Mendelssohn, genius was a state of perfection in which all mental powers worked in harmony.
With the rise of the Romantic Movement, reason was downgraded to give increased freedom to the aesthetic imagination. The goal of the artist shifted from the recreation of nature -- or the classical masters' image of nature to originality. Artists began to link their genius to madness and permitted their eccentricities to bloom. Genius was seen as a form of degeneracy, and the statistically abnormal was seen as diseased. In 1859 Moreau suggested that genius was similar to idiocy, and 10 years later Lombroso concluded that genius was a degenerative psychosis of the epileptiform type. The Insanity of Genius(32) reached its fourth edition in 1900, and The Great Abnormals,(33) brief vignettes of "mad geniuses," appeared in 1925. Clearly such thinking affected the new biographers. With regard to Handel this reached its apogee -- or perhaps nadir -- in a book by Newman Flower(34) that appeared first in the 1920s and in a revised edition in 1947. This highly imaginative work contains the following descriptions: in reference to Handel's trip to Italy, "this wild strain of adventure"; "Handel in his youth, as in his maturity, was all moods"; "The knowledge [of his blindness] crushed his heart. It broke his spirit ... great deeps of despondency"; "that depression, caused by fluctuating hopes and disappointments with regard to his sight, wrapped him as in a shroud"; and "Broken sentences from his lips ... as if the mind had temporarily left its earthly abode." This last, Flower's description of Handel's death, is in striking disagreement with a contemporary description by an eyewitness. In a letter dated April 17, 1759, James Smyth wrote to Handel's friend Bernard Granville,
He was sensible to the last moment.... He took leave of me, and told me we "should meet again"; as soon as I was gone he told his servant "not to let me come to him ally more, for that he had now done with the world." He died as he lived -- a good Christian, with a true sense of his duty to God and man, and in perfect charity with all the world.(35)
In fact, a return to the documented sources provides no support for any of Flower's descriptions.
Each generation is entitled to rewrite history, but the historian, medical or otherwise, should begin by examining the original source material. As I have indicated, the data available suggest that Handel was a generally healthy man both mentally and physically, with great gifts greatly used, who overcame both internal and external difficulties through perseverance and adaptability as well as through his genius. As far as we know, Handel kept no diary, and his few remaining letters are generally formal and businesslike. Perhaps for other composers, particularly the Romantics or those who have written about their works, one can argue from their music to their minds, from the product to the psychology of its creation. However, Handel has not left us data to define the personal musical vocabulary of his states of feeling. Furthermore, I do not believe that he experienced the act of composition in the self-expressionistic way that was so characteristic of Berlioz, for example.(36) Handel's expressive freedom was probably most apparent in his lost improvisations. Unfortunately, the materials needed for a study of the deeper psychology and meaning of Handel's creativity are thus unknown, and it is in fact unlikely that they exist.
Cornell University Medical College
Address reprint requests to Dr. Frosch at
Department of Psychiatry