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Second Sight - Music with Wilfrid Mellers

10. Time and Truth.
A new recording of a Handel oratorio

'The conductor, Rinaldo Alessandrini, handles the band with fierily precise discipline ...'


In 1707 Handel, aged 21 and approaching his twenty-second birthday, was already feted in his native land as a composer of audacious imaginative enterprise as well as one of astonishing technical virtuosity. He'd already assayed the fashionable medium of Italian heroic opera which, in the spirit of the High Baroque, paid homage to Man in the Highest; and he probably decided to visit Italy to display his powers, as well as to steep himself in the Italian vein, thereby becoming a European, rather than merely a German, composer. He was to produce several brilliant operas whilst living in Rome, where he was received with adulation alike by illustrious musicians and by very rich patrons -- especially Cardinal Pamphili, a pillar of Church and State who was an amateur poet and music-lover, as well as a professional theologian.

Pamphili's ecclesiastical background explains why Handel's first major Italian commission was not for an heroic opera but for an oratorio to a text by Pamphili himself, presenting a philosophical theme in the form of dialogues between on the one hand Beauty and Pleasure, and on the other hand Time and Disillusion. If this seems a stern assignment for so youthfully full-blooded a composer, we must remember that the theme epitomizes the heart of Baroque Heroism: La Bellezza and Il Piacere incarnate our desire to live in our burgeoning senses, even if the Cardinal thought it his duty to warn us that temporal pleasures, given the remorselessness of Time, can end only in disillusion. In any case, young Handel relished the theme's audacity rather than its moralistic counter-subject -- in the same year (1707) he composed two more brilliant works on devotional texts in Latin -- the recently rediscovered Gloria and the psalm Dixit Dominus  in which the Dominus asserts Power and Privilege as though he were a secular Louis XIV, or any other mundane dictator, creating a Rite of Spring proudly to confront the dawn of the presumptively rational new century.

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Copyright © 28 July 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK







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