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Handel Gets Clean Bill of Health--At Last : Psychiatrist Studies His Papers, Concludes Composer Was 'Normally Neurotic'

September 14, 1989|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

Arguing that too much has been made of the theory that most creative people are crazy, a New York psychiatry professor examining the life and health of George Frideric Handel has taken issue with a widely accepted belief the composer was a manic depressive.

The challenge to the conventional mental health wisdom about Handel is contained in an essay by Dr. William Frosch, of Cornell University Medical College in New York City. In sum, said Frosch, the belief that Handel had acute mental health problems is nothing more than "a bum rap."

Frosch reached his own conclusions about Handel during a six-month sabbatical in London in 1986, during which he sought out the composer's own papers and other primary resource materials from his time. The Frosch essay is being published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Frosch is also an amateur oboist. He said he was drawn to the study because scholars have assumed that Handel, who suffered from paralysis and blindness in the months before he died in 1759, also had numerous "clear depressive episodes."

Handel's mental health, so the speculation has it, influenced his music and led him to an asexual life obsessed with music. But, said Frosch, close examination does not support such a diagnosis. "I do not believe there are data to support any of these myths," Frosch concluded. "I believe Handel had a rich, normally neurotic personality.

"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 . . . obsessive-compulsive defenses."

Frosch said Handel was in good health until just a few months before his death, but his prior medical history included apparent paralysis of the right arm, from which Handel seemed to recover after visiting a health spa.

But while Handel may have suffered from arthritis, Frosch said, another explanation may be that Handel is known to have had a taste for Port wine, which at that time contained high levels of lead. Because Handel would have been required to abstain while visiting the health spa, a cure would appear to have been achieved.

The composer also suffered from acute vision problems--probably cataracts--starting in about 1752 that eventually led to complete blindness. Primitive surgery was attempted at the time, without success.

He had occasional loss of appetite and insomnia, but Frosch said these disorders seem to be part of a normal emotional response to deterioration of physical health and the impending end of life. "His mental disturbances seem clearly reactive and secondary," Frosch concluded. "I find no direct contemporary evidence of primary depression, mania or any other primary major mental illness."

In a telephone interview, Frosch said the significance of this finding may be that it scotches an assumption popular about artists and the arts--that many creative people have an at best tenuous hold on sanity.

Frosch said there clearly are creative people who suffer from mental disorders--composer Robert Schumann and painter Vincent Van Gogh, for instance.

"But I think the whole idea of creativity being tied to madness has been a recurrent theme," Frosch said. "I think it is often just wrong and to think that one has to be mad in order to be creative, I think, sets people off on the wrong track, both in terms of evaluating what is creative and a creator--and in setting standards for how people who think of themselves as creative should behave."

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