George Frideric Handel

    Handel was born on the 23rd February, 1685, and died on the 14th April, 1759, aged 74. There is some evidence that he suffered from paralytic strokes in 1737 and again in 1743, and that, either at these or at other times, his mind was affected. The principal authority for this belief, which is almost universally accepted, is the biography of Handel by Mainwaring, published in 1760, at a very short interval after his death. There are reasons for doubting the reliability of Mainwaring as a witness. He rushed into print at the earliest moment, while the name of his hero was still fresh in the minds of the public. His biography is full of apocryphal stories, e.g. about Handel's youth, many of which have since been disproved or dis­credited. There is no suggestion that he ever knew Handel per­sonally. The relevant passage in his biography, relating to the events of 1737, reads:

"The observation that misfortunes rarely come single, was verified in Handel. His fortune was not more impaired than his health and his understanding. His right arm was become useless to him, from a stroke of the palsy; arid bow greatly his senses were disordered at intervals, for a long time, appeared from an hundred instances, which are better forgotten than recorded. The most violent deviations from reason, are usually seen when the strongest faculties happen to be thrown out or course.

    In this melancholic state, it was in vain for him to think of any fresh projects for retrieving his affairs. His first concern was how to repair his constitution. But tho' he had the best advice, and tho' the necessity of following it was urged to him in the most friendly manner, it was with the utmost difficulty that he was prevailed on to do what was proper, when it was in any way disagreeable. For this reason it was thought best for him to have recourse to the vapor‑baths at Aix la Chapelle, over which he sat near three times as long as bath even been the practice. Whoever knows anything of the nature of those baths, will, from this instance, form some idea of his surprising constitution. his sweats were profuce beyond what can well be imagined. His cure, from the manner as well as from the quickness, with which it was wrought, passed with the Nuns for a miracle. When, but a few hours from the time of his quitting the bath, they heard him at the organ in the principal church as well as convent, playing in a manner so much beyond any they ever had been used to, such a conclusion in such persons was natural enough.

    Tho' his business was so soon dispatched, and his curejudged to be thoroughly effected, he thought it prudent to continue at Aix about six weeks, which is the shortest period usually allotted for bad cases."

    The version given by Hawkins in 1776 is a summarised form of Mainviaring's story, with a significant embellishment, i.e. that the loss of power in the right arm was "sudden". The story is re‑hashed again in the anecdotes of Coxe of 1799, with further embroidery by which the affair has become a "violent illness, even attended with fits of lunacy".

    A century later, in the biography of Handel by Rockstro of 1883, there is further magnification:

    "He did in time recover perfectly. But for several years the effect of this serious iltnt'ss was perceptible in his changed hand‑writing; and in the score of Berenice he who was generally so methodical in his dates, has made a mistake of a whole year, a circumstance which, though hitherto unnoticed by any of his bio­graphers, is extremely and sadly suggestive when considered in connection with the reputed effect of his paralytic attack."

    In the biography by Leichtentritt of 1924, there is yet a further addition, that the apoplectic insult paralysed the whole of the right side. A second less severe stroke of 1743 is referred to, and a nervous breakdown in the summer of 1745.

    Since all these biographers repeat one another, without going back to original sources, we are faced with the growth of a legend on which it is desirable to make some check. In Deutsch's monumental collection of all contemporary documents (1955) the references to Handel's illness are very scanty. There is a note in the London Daily Post of the 30th April, 1737, that Handel is indisposed with the rheumatism, but is now in a fair way of recovery. On the 5th May, a letter from James Harris to the Earl of Shaftesbury, after referring to Handel's having been ill, comments on the great strength of constitution to be so soon getting rid of so great a shock, and that a weaker body would hardly have borne the violence of medicines. On the 14th May, the London Evening Post reports Handel's indis­position, it is thought with a "Paraletick Disorder, he having at present no use of his right hand". And on the 7th November the London Daily Post reports that Handel is back from Aix, greatly recovered in health. Deutsch denies that the illness was rheumatic, apparently on the authority of Mainwaring; he gives the date of the stroke as the 13th April, states that Handel went to Aix in Septem­ber, 1737, and returned to England at the end of October or the beginning of November.

    With regard to the supposed stroke in 1743, there is only one reference in Deutsch, that is in a letter from Horace Walpole of the 4th May of that year. Walpole remarks that they are likely to have no opera that year, as Handel has had a stroke and cannot compose.

    If Handel did in fact have a cerebro‑vascular attack on two occasions, in 1737 and 1743, and on the earlier occasion did lose the use of his right hand, the course of his illness was most anomalous. It was preceded by much physical illness of a different kind, in that he was subject to rheumatism for which he had taken the waters at Tunbridge in 1735, and probably also in 1736. We do not know what authority Deutsch had for putting the date of the stroke as the 13th April. Handel was not absolutely incapacitated for some time after that, as he continued in London, and later apparently tried the waters at Tunbridge before going to Aix in September. Deutsch states that he did not conduct Dido on the 13th April, nor Berenice on the 18th May, but may have directed Giusrino on the 4th and 11th May. There are no references in Deutsch to Handel's ill health between the newspaper references of the 14th May on his "Paraletick" Disorder, and another on the 28th October, heralding his return from Aix. But there are references to operatic performances which would normally be conducted by Handel, to the publication of Berenice, and to Handel's withdrawing money from his bank. It looks as though he was not actually laid up.

    If the lapse into incapacity is unwontedly gradual for a stroke, so is the recovery surprisingly abrupt. The accounts speak of this occurring in the course of a few days, and being very complete. It is true that the completeness is denied by Rocksero, who writes of changes in handwriting and of an error in memory. This latter is of an unconvincing kind. Early in January, 1737, Handel wrote the date 1736, a mistake such as is frequently made by even careful people in normal health. With regard to the handwriting, Dr. H. Hierons has shown us letters from the well‑known musicologist, Mr. William C. Smith, stating that there is no change in Handel's handwriting between the manuscripts of Berenice, 1731, Trionfo of March, 1737, and Fararnondo and the Funeral Anthem of December, 1737, this last being one of handel's masterpieces.

    Although abundant notice was taken of Handel's oddities, including his Germanic accent and guttural consonants, there is no hint of a dysphasia at any time. Aphasia, particularly of the sensory type, would have been unlikely since, as has been pointed out by Alajouanine (1948), its presence profoundly affects the creative ability of musicians though not of painters. Hawkins noted that Handel walked with a rocking movement, which distinguishes those whose legs are bowed, but makes no reference to a hemiplegic gait.

    It is difficult to arrive at a definite conclusion as to the nature of the neurological disease. If it was, in fact, a cerebro‑vascular affection, one can dismiss all progressive or rapidly fatal conditions such as cerebral arteriosclerosis, malignant hypertension, thrombo­angiitis obliterans. Embolism, apart from requiring a serious under­lying cause (of which nothing is known), is likely to leave permanent sequelae. Carotid artery insufficiency, though at first giving rise to transient signs, would soon prove fatal without surgical inter­vention. Transient hemiplegias may occur in the course of encephali­tis, allergic encephalopathy and demyelinating disease; but they are hardly ever isolated phenomena, and as a rule have a serious prog­nosis. This leaves benign (essential) hypertension and cerebro­vascular syphilis as possible aetiologies.

    In benign hypertension lesions are caused by vascular spasm rather than degeneration of the vessel wall. This must have been the variety from which Pasteur suffered (Vallery‑Radot [1948]). He suffered a left‑sided stroke when he was 46, associated with slight drowsiness for one day, followed by permanent weakness in his left arm. He was then well for twenty years, in the course of which he did some of his most outstanding work. Then a new series of strokes occurred which led to progressive mental deterioration until his death in 1894, about eight years later. In contrast, though Handel is alleged to have had two strokes with physical and mental changes shown over sonic time, 110 permanent sequclae of any kind were ever detected, nor did he die from cerebrovascular degeneration.

    The possibility of a syphilitic aetiology has been briefly dis­cussed by Young (1947) and at some length by Klovekorn (1957). Nothing is known of infection, although Klovekorn attaches sig­nificance to a remark made by Hawkins: "that he had no female attachment of another kind may be ascribed to a better reason".

    Aachen, up to the end of the 19th century, specialised‑among other treatments‑in the mercury ointment therapy of syphilis. The sulphuric waters, though having no antisyphilitic effect, by their action on metabolism and perspiration facilitated excretion of mercury, whose exact dosage was unknown and whose toxic effects were much feared. If Handel's paresis is to be ascribed to cerebro­spinal syphilis, it would have to be a rather circumscribed lesion such as a gumma; wide‑spread endarteritis or paretic dementia are out of the question. A syphilitic illness might be thought to account for the curious vagueness in the contemporary reports and a com­plete absence of expression of medical opinion. Moreover, in bio­graphies of the 18th and 19th centuries, the authors might tend to ignore veneral illnesses as much as possible, as happened for example in the case of Schubert (Brown [1958]). On the other hand, such a complete cure as Handel obtained must have been very rare after mercury treatment; and on a syphilitic hypothesis the recurrences in 1743 and possibly 1745 would be difficult to explain, especially as they must have subsided without further stay in Aachen or any other resort with similar facilities. Klovckorn attaches significance to Handel's switch from opera to oratorio, which he interprets as an "innere Wandlung", due to the impact of this serious and depressing disease. This argument is, however, far from convincing, as Handel wrote two more operas immediately on his return home from Aachen.

    Since there is no clear evidence that a hemiplegia ever existed, and since, if it did, an exceptional course would have to be postulat­ed, it is legitimate to consider alternative diagnoses. Handel may have suffered from a lesion not of the central, but the peripheral nervous system, for example brachyalgia; or he may have had acute attacks of muscular rheumatism. This interpretation would fit the clinical facts very well, especially in the insidious onset of symptoms, the association with pain, and the eventual rapid recovery without after‑effects of any serious kind. It will be remembered that the first descriptions confined the complaint to the right arm. It would be entirely in accordance with the deficient knowledge of medicine of the time if the incapacity to use a hand were misdiagnosed as the result of a stroke, especially in the mind of a layman. A syphilitic cause of painful peripheral symptoms simulating neuritis or rheumatism cannot be entirely excluded. In the case of Schubert, who beyond doubt suffered from syphilis, Deutsch (1946) quotes from a letter written by Moritz Schwind on the 14th April, 1824:

    “Schubert is not very well, He has pains in his left arm, so that he cannot play the pianoforte at all…". According to Beissel (1889) antisyphilitic treatment was frequently given in Aachen for non­syphilitic nervous complaints.

    In the dearth of factual information, and total lack of infor­mation from medical sources, no final decision on the differential diagnosis is now possible.

    The mental disorders (if this is not too strong a phrase) which accompanied the physical ailment are not likely to have been of an organic type. Handel had phases of depression in 1737, 1743 and 1745; but there is no suggestion that his intellect suffered then or at any later time. There are numerous references to his liability to severe moods of depression. These are closely associated with the ups and downs of his professional affairs. The depression and the physical illness of 1737 occurred at a time when he had suffered a severe defeat at the hands of the friends of the Prince of Wales, had had to close his theatre and was being dunned by his creditors. Yet in 1738 he was in tremendous form, and completed two of his greatest oratorios in four months. Israel in Egypt was written in twenty‑seven days. Flower (1943) notes another period of inactivity in 1743, at the time when he is supposed to have had his second palsy; he produced nothing new for some months, and he kept the completed manuscript of Semele in his drawer for eight months. Other times in his life when he may have had depressive phases are in 1729 and 1734. Flower records that in his depressed phases he suffered from sleeplessness, and dropped the usual over‑indulgence in food and drink.

    Just as striking as the depressive phases are the overactive ones. Indeed, most of his life Handel seems to have spent in a slightly hypomaiiic state. He has all the virtues of a hyperthymic extravert. (Young [1954]). He had tremendous energy, persistence and resilience. He was nearly ruined twice in his life, in 1735 and 1745, and each time returned successfully to the battle. He produced an enormous volume of work, and at peak would write his operas more quickly than the librettist could provide the words. His courage was on a heroic scale, undaunted by powerful aristocratic enemies. His business enterprises were grandiose. In 1735 he inves­ted his entire personal fortune of £ 10,000 in an operatic company. He was a man of great generosity and goodheartedness, and, for instance, gave all benefits from his Messiah to the Foundling Hospital.

    Physically, he conformed to an extreme pyknic or endomorph type. One of his few failings was an excessive love of food and drink.

    There can be little doubt that Handel was of the cyclothymic temperament to an unusually marked degree. Whether one should go further, and say that he did at any time suffer from a depressive episode of psychotic intensity, is a more difficult question. He was never hypomanic to the point that one would think he should have been under medical care. In some of his depressive phases he was incapacitated, but on those occasions he was physically ill too, and the incapacity may have been predominantly physically caused. It seems illegitimate to number him among the composers who suffered from a psychosis, though he should be placed among those who may have carried the genetical predisposition to manic‑depressive dis­order.