Jean-Francois Destry: Time revealing Truth, 1733

Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno

At some point during the autumn of 1706 a young Saxon composer employed as harpsichordist at the Hamburg opera left the city to make the long journey to Italy.

Not yet 22 years of age, Georg Friedrich Händel (as he was at this time; the usual English spelling is used hereafter) had already tasted success with his opera Almira, first given at the Hamburg Opera on 8 January 1705, after which it enjoyed a run of some further twenty nights. The journey taken by the youthful Handel was by no means unknown to north European artists of every discipline. Indeed, to sample the cultural heritage of Italy was widely considered by men of discernment and taste to be an essential part of the education not only of artists, but also of a gentleman. In the year before Handel set out on his travels, the English writer Joseph Addison enthused,  “Italy is the great School of Musick and Painting …”  It was on such grounds that Handel had been strongly encouraged to visit Italy by Prince Ferdinand de’ Medici of Florence when the two met in Hamburg during a visit there by the prince. So Florence was most likely an early port of call for Handel after he reached Italy, although the exact itinerary of the initial part of his visit is not certain.

Handel’s arrival at Rome in January 1707 was noted by the diarist Valesia, who recorded on the 17th that he “exhibited his prowess on the organ in the church of St John to the admiration of everybody”.  The young Saxon’s rare talent marked him out for the attention of aristocratic and academic Roman society, embodied above all in the great ecclesiastical figures of the city such as Cardinals Colonna, Pamphili and Ottoboni, but also in the secular Prince Francesco Maria Ruspoli. Entry to the society of such men brought with it not only valuable commissions, but, equally importantly for a developing young composer, introduction to some of the great names of Italian music resident in Rome at the time: Archangelo Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti and his son Domenico, and Antonio Caldara. Pitched into this febrile atmosphere, Handel’s burgeoning talent was stimulated into the production of a series of brilliantly inventive works, displaying a youthful vitality and Italianate exuberance some commentators believe he never excelled. Certainly the composer himself never forgot the music he composed in Italy between 1707 and 1710, using it as a source he constantly revisited for material to furnish his later compositions.

While many of the pieces composed by Handel during his Italian sojourn were small-scale chamber cantatas designed for the great aristocratic salons, there are also three major large-scale pieces: the Roman oratorios Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707) and La Resurrezione (1708) and the opera Agrippina, written for Venice in 1709. The geographical disposition of these works is significant, for we must recall that between 1698 and 1710 opera in Rome faced considerable hostility from the Vatican, to the point where the staging of secular dramatic works was restricted to a handful of privately mounted productions. Instead Roman patrons of music turned to sacred drama or oratorio; it is into this context that Il trionfo falls.

Handel’s first oratorio – also, as we will see, in much altered form his last – was composed to a text by one of his Roman patrons, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili and presumably given at his palace, possibly with some kind of scenic staging, although without dramatisation. The orchestra was led by none other than the great Arcangelo Corelli, at that time leader of Cardinal Ottoboni’s private orchestra.

For long largely ignored or dismissed by Handel scholars, the very features that contributed to such neglect have in more recent times led to re-examination of Il trionfo. Not the least of these concerns genre. The work fits into neither the context of the composer’s better-known English oratorios nor contemporary Italian examples; in its original 1707 form it had no chorus, the essential ingredient of the English oratorio invented almost single-handedly by Handel. It is not cast in the standard three-part structure of an oratorio, it contains no action, and, crucially, all its characters are allegorical, an overall scheme virtually unknown in oratorio.

The outline of the “plot” is simple enough. Bellezza (Beauty) gazes into a mirror, accepting that she will not remain beautiful. Piacere (Pleasure) assures her she will, while in return Bellezza swears eternal fidelity to Piacere. Tempo (Time) and Disinganno (literally “unillusion”, but better rendered as Counsel) dispute Piacere’s assurances, stating that beauty must fade. The two sides start a philosophical and spiritual argument for the soul of Bellezza, who gradually comes to the realisation that she must turn away from her life of vanity and hedonism in a spirit of true penitence.      

Such a topic was far from original. As noted elsewhere, Il trionfo stands in a tradition stretching back over a century to Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s moral drama Il Rappresentatione di anima e di corpo of 1600, which deals with a similar subject and includes characters named Consiglio (or good counsel) and Piacere. Indeed, Pamphili himself was no stranger to such a subject, as his oratorio libretto Il trionfo della grazia overo la conversione di Madalena, set by Alessandro Scarlatti in 1685, readily reveals. Such interest in the topic may today surprise us, but it would have surprised few Romans in the 17th century. Conversion and penitence were foremost among the concerns of the Counter-Reformation and in Mary Magdalene the church found its quintessential penitential heroine. In a penetrating interpretation of Pamphili’s libretto, Huub van der Linden convincingly argued that not only is Mary the designated penitent of Il trionfo della grazia, but that she is also the logical prototype of Bellezza, who resembles Mary both physically and in her struggle to turn away from life’s temptations and pleasures to spiritual redemption.[1] In a more controversial discussion of Pamphili’s libretto, Ruth Smith subjects it to modern psychological analysis, concluding that Il trionfo’s theme demonstrates that “to be able to live with oneself in the long term, one must go below surface appearances, face the truth about oneself, and achieve balanced self-perception”.

Whatever view one takes on the conclusions of authorities such as van der Linden and Smith, they are a far cry from those that dismiss “the frigid text” (Winton Dean) and [Pamphili’s] “complex, pompous and verbose style” (Rinaldo Alessandrini), verdicts that surely owe more to the present-day than an attempt to understand early 18th century thought. Accusations of verbosity and the lack of obvious drama were convincingly refuted by van der Linden, who noted that the libretto consists of “no more than the spun-out process of the main character making the decision to change. That might be deemed tedious, but it is exactly by dwelling on this so lengthily, that both the necessity and the difficulty of making the right decision are underscored”.

Following the opening orchestral Sonata, reputedly re-written in the Italian style when Corelli was unable to master the French-style of Handel’s intended introduction, we encounter Bellezza admiring her beauty in a mirror, at the same time recognising it will not last forever (“Fido specchio”). She is in carefree mood, the dancing triple-time and repeated semi-quavers underlining her high spirits. In the dotted rhythms and syncopations of the vivacious “Fosco genio” Piacere reassures Bellezza that her beauty will endure.  Tempo and Disinganno now appear. The stark message of Disinganno’s “Se la bellezza”, slow moving and accompanied only by unadorned continuo, is underpinned by a falling chromatic bass line, in Baroque music often a symbol for sin. The four decide on a trial of strength that will pit Bellezza and Piacere against Tempo and Disinganno.

Bellezza takes an almost childish delight at the prospect of the contest. Angered by her flippancy, Tempo decides on shock tactics, evoking the destruction of beauty in death (“Urne voi”). Fragmentary motifs, strong dynamic contrast and surging repeated note figuration combine to create imagery of stark horror. Bellezza is obviously shaken and needs the reassurance of a duet with Piacere (“Il voler nel fior”) to regain an unconvincing air of bravado.

Sensing that the argument is slipping from his control, Piacere transports Bellezza to images of his realm of pleasure. We hear pleasurable sounds, too; an instrumental Sonata with a brilliant obbligato organ part is introduced.  At its conclusion the words of Bellezza and Piacere leave no doubt that the performer pleasuring the senses is none other than Handel himself. Such a conceit is highly ambiguous, for Pamphili seems here to be allying the composer (and thus music itself) not with the high ideals of Tempo and Disinganno, but the baser world of Piacere. Enchanted, Bellezza responds with “Venga il Tempo”, a continuo aria with a florid obbligato part for cello. It will be her final show of confidence in her own powers. The first part of Disinganno’s “Crede l’uom” employs gentle recorders to illustrate man’s belief that time sleeps, but the B section’s florid outburst reminds us this is a ploy to create a false sense of security. The increasingly anxious Bellezza is now introduced by Tempo to a deeper truth: he is not omnipotent; to be blessed with eternal life beyond mere time, it will be necessary to gain admission to heaven. Part 1 concludes with a thrusting, urgent quartet “Se non sei più”, in which Bellezza concedes that “true pleasure” may lie in as yet undiscovered territory.

Part 2 opens with Tempo revealing to Bellezza a new concept of beauty - truth. In a languorously sensuous lullaby (“Chiudi, chiudi”) she is urged by Piacere to close her eyes to such images. Ignoring Piacere, Tempo continues to advance his (and of course Pamphili’s) argument with a reference to the Catholic doctrine of salvation through good works. Bellezza now realises truth will involve a denial of pleasure; she is plunged into fear in a continuo aria (“Io sperai”) whose uncompromising starkness, mournful oboe solo and tortured chromaticism lie at the opposite polarity to all she has previously stood for. Piacere realises he has lost Bellezza, petulantly threatening her with punishment (“Tu giurasti”). Tempo presses her for a decision, but in “Io vorrei” the distraught Bellezza can only reply that she wants both pleasure and to be a penitent. The continuo aria is shorn of all artifice and adornment; Bellezza has appeared in the plainest of clothes and without make-up. Sensing that she is increasingly responsive, Disinganno and Tempo advance further encouraging philosophy (“Più non cura” and “È ben folle”). Bellezza is now at a crossroads, her emotional turmoil articulated with great urgency in the quartet “Voglio Tempo”, her constant long pedal notes on the word “Tempo” perhaps a vain attempt to slow time itself.

Bellezza’s salvation is now close, as Piacere recognises with, “Lascia la spina”, an early version of what would become in Rinaldo (1711) one of the best known of all Handel’s arias, “Lasia ch’io pianga”. But even such a seductive appeal is doomed to failure. Bellezza bids Piacere a final farewell in “Voglio cangiar desio”, where the insertion of a curious presto rush of blood is strangely at odds with the body of the calm, hymn-like aria. Now brutally aware of her inner ugliness, Bellezza compares herself in “Ricco pino” to a ship that jettisons its treasure in order to make progress, while resolving in the following accompanied recitative to seek the solitude of the self-hating penitent. In a gentle duet her counsellors appear to deter such a course of action (“Il bel pianto”), although, as Ruth Smith noted, the text is ambiguous. There is nothing ambiguous about Piacere’s final aria di furia, a petulant outbust that inspires the most brilliantly florid music in the oratorio. In marked contrast, the Bellezza’s final “Tu del Ciel” has an extraordinary aura of near-ecstatic mysticism, enhanced by its solo violin part. The oratorio simply fades into silence, a quite astonishingly bold stroke for so young a composer. 

It is well known that Handel frequently returned to his early works for inspiration for later compositions, so it should not surprise us too much to learn that he would quarry from Il trionfo on more than thirty occasions. What is more surprising is that he should twice return to his early Italian oratorio after he had established in England a quite different form of oratorio. On the first of these occasions, in the spring of 1737, Handel retained the Italian name in slightly revised form, Il trionfo del Tempo e della Verita. Pamphili’s text was marginally tightened, but otherwise the major difference was the introduction of five choruses, thus bringing the work into line with English expectations. Twenty years later, just two years before his death, the composer returned to his first oratorio for a final time. This time the changes, based on the 1737 version, were far more radical, the piece being provided with a new English libretto by Thomas Morrell, who had already furnished Handel with five oratorio librettos. The Triumph of Time and Truth (Covent Garden, March 1757) included five new arias and there were now eleven choruses, although the new music was entirely culled from other sources, the near-blind Handel being by this time ill-equipped to compose new music.


This essay originally appeared in a German translation in the programme book of the Resonanzen Festival given in Vienna in January 2011. It is published in English for the first time with the kind permission of the Wiener Konzerthaus.

[1] Huub van der Linden, “Benedetto Phamphilj as Librettist: Mary Magdalene and the Harmony of the Spheres in Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno”, Recercare XVI (2004), 133-161. Ruth Smith “Psychological Realism in Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Handel Jahrbuch 54 (2008), pp. 219–228.