Edward Higginbottom on Handel’s many Triumphs

The oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth is the last of Handel’s works in the genre, and perhaps the most neglected. Unlike the customary setting of a Biblical narrative, it adopts an allegorical theme, in this instance a text concerning the struggle of virtue over the pursuit of pleasure. The work was assembled in 1757, and assembled is the right word, for all of its music had already been composed, and much of it a long while back.

When Handel was living in Italy (1706-1709), Cardinal Pamphili commissioned an oratorio entitled Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, performed early in 1707. It was a two-act work, for strings, woodwinds and five solo voices, these being the personages of Time (bass), Counsel (alto), Beauty (soprano), Deceit (soprano) and Pleasure (tenor). In essence a chamber work, Il Trionfo  unfolds in a sequence of alluring arias in which the competing claims of Pleasure and Time fight for the soul of Beauty. She is inclined to follow the voices of Pleasure and Deceit, until she heeds, virtuously, the advice of Counsel and Time. The work shows Handel in his early brilliance, fluent and brimming with ideas. Italy at this time was the backdrop to his first operas, his large-scale Latin church music and his many Italian cantatas. There is no doubting the young composer’s imagination and zest: the arias of Il Trionfo  are wonderfully characterised and varied. The somewhat static allegory takes wing in Handel’s music.

© Nick Rutter

The moralizing theme was apt for a Cardinal, and for post-Tridentine Rome. And the scale of the work was apt for a private audience. In 1737, now firmly ensconced in London, Handel returned to the score, producing an English version, still in two acts, and for the same forces. However, the notion of making of it something bigger and more accessible to the general public came to him only towards the very end of his life, in 1757. At this stage, his physical powers had declined markedly; he was infirm and could not see. But his amanuenses were at hand to assist, and Thomas Morell, who had written libretti for previous oratorios (including Judas Maccabaeus  and Jephtha) obliged by translating and adapting the text. The composer’s motivation may have been mixed. On the one hand, here was an excellent score little known to the English public, a score that with the addition of choruses might make its way as Handel’s next oratorio. On the other hand, Handel was himself thinking about his mortality, writing his will, and maybe also reflecting on a life lived. Indeed, it was a life lived all too well, given in part to the pleasures of the table, as unkindly observed by the satirical caricaturist Goupy. The allegory of the work, now called The Triumph of Time and Truth, played into Handel’s own circumstances. And its moral message was perhaps weighing on his mind.

© Nick Rutter

There is some truth in the observation that the revised score was somewhat ‘cobbled together’. Clearly, no one starting out on an oratorio would write only one movement (the first) for trumpets and drums, putting them aside for the whole of the rest of the work. The curious appearance of one of the movements from Handel’s Anthem for the Foundling Hospital  (1749), has also been criticised for its irrelevance. In response, it could be said that it stands as a reference to Handel’s philanthropy (he was a donor to and governor of Thomas Coram’s newly created Foundling Hospital). It speaks autobiographically, as testament to the composer’s state of mind: he was indeed heeding the advice of Counsel, and following the words of Time, turning his back on the pursuit of pleasure for the pursuance of good works.

Broadly speaking, the chorus additions, the sine qua non  of an English oratorio format, sit with surprising ease and relevance inside the original structure, speaking not only of Beauty’s journey through life, but also Handel’s. The dates at which Handel turned to his allegorical subject, 1707, 1737, 1757, ring out as the beginning, middle and end of a prodigiously prolific career. This oratorio, more than any other, speaks of the breadth and compass of Handel’s work as a composer of large-scale vocal compositions. It deserves more attention than it ordinarily gets. And this October it gets its merited attention from the eponymous Instruments of Time and Truth and Oxford Consort of Voices.+

Edward Higginbottom

+Performances on

  • October 7th – St Mary’s Church, Tetbury
  • October 19th – King’s Place, London
  • October 20th – Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

More information is available at www.timeandtruth.co.uk.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*