George Frideric Handel: A New Appreciation

Patient Expert

I was planning on writing yet another piece about lithium, but something funny happened on my way to the keyboard. I made myself a sandwich and switched on the latest TED Talk.

Lithium can wait. Let's talk about a composer who is not associated with the piano ...

Why I take my piano on the road ... and in the air, was the title of tonight's TED offering. Daria van den Bercken, a Dutch pianist, professed her love with George Frideric Handel.

We know of Handel as that guy who wrote The Messiah. As a composer, he enjoyed rock star status. Over a span of five decades in London, he ruled the roost, chalking off one success after another and accruing numerous honors. When he died in 1759, some 3,000 people attended his funeral. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

His output included operas in the Italian style, plus numerous oratorios, not to mention popular works such as Royal Fireworks and Water Music. His influence on his contemporaries and those who came after was profound.

By contrast Bach, who was born the same year, in 1685, labored in virtual obscurity in the town of Leipzig. His body wound up in an unmarked grave.

But time has been much kinder to Bach. Yes, Handel has the blockbuster Christmas hit, but it is Bach's Second Brandenberg Concerto and a piece from the Well-Tempered Clavier that was shot off into space as part of the Voyager mission.

The Well-Tempered Clavier is de rigueur for serious piano students. And Glenn Gould's 1955 piano recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations is a staple of most classical music collections. As for Handel, Ms van den Bercken confessed to not even knowing he wrote for keyboard.

Then, two years ago, she found out he did. Curious, she downloaded some sheet music and started playing. "What happened next was that I entered this state of pure, unprejudiced amazement," she told her audience.

She sat down at the piano and recreated that transformational first moment.

Pure, unprejudiced amazement (on my part, this time).

She stopped playing and turned to her audience. "Well this sounds very melancholic, doesn't it?" she said. Then she related how she turned the page and encountered something completely different. She played part of the second page.

Listen to Ms van den Bercke's take:

Well, this sounds very energetic, doesn't it? So within a couple of minutes, and the piece isn't even finished yet, I experienced two very contrasting characters - beautiful melancholy and sheer energy. And I consider these two elements to be vital human expressions.

Does this sound a certain condition we all know inside-out and backward?

It is no secret that Handel had bipolar. Kay Jamison, in her 1993 Touched with Fire, included the composer in her exhaustive list of creative people with the illness. What comes up in a quick Google search is "life of tumult" and "impassioned." Mozart said of him: "Handel understands affect better than any of us."

No kidding.