Beauty and Pleasure, Time and Disillusion
WILFRID MELLERS examines Handel's oratorio
'Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verità'
Handel is, with Mozart, the supreme humanist in European music, for all
his work was dedicated to the god-like potential latent in every man and
woman, given rational enlightenment and a decent respect for other people,
as well as fanatical regard for ourselves.
His morality is ethical rather than religious, since it turns on how
to live the Good Life that allies personal fulfillment with communal responsibility.
He seems to have been aware of this from adolescence: certainly from the
time when, in his early twenties, he lived and worked in Rome under the
patronage of a bevy of cardinals who admired his precocious talents. Born
in Germany, trained in Italy, nurturer of the theatrical arts, and soon
established professionally in England, he was the quintessential European,
celebrating human life here and now: which is why he was fundamentally an
opera composer who told sung stories about human creatures in their personal,
social, and political relationships.
The technical virtuosity of his music, even whilst he was
still a teenager, is attested by his astonishing setting of the Dixit
Dominus, which became famous, and slightly infamous, for the sheer physical
energy that made it an early 18th century Rite of Spring. It's probably
not fortuitous that in the same year (1707) Handel embarked on a large-scale
oratorio describing Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verità: for
although this piece is cast as a dialogue between abstract personnifications
of Beauty and Pleasure, Time and Disillusion, these abstractions have the
immediate 'presence' of operatic characters in ever-shifting guises. Indeed,
they make a quasi-philosophical statement of what all Handel's theatre music
is 'about': namely, the simple but sublime paradox that our laudable courage
must always be frustrated by our impermanence since willy-nilly, however
god-like our pretentions, we grow old and die.
Copyright © 18 May 2000 Wilfrid Mellers,
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