Handel’s Oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth is aptly described in the programme notes by Simon Heighes as ‘one of the last great effusions of baroque allegory’, an allegory certainly matched in the highly ornate allegorical ceiling of the Sheldonian Theatre; as a result the evening was a perfect historical conjunction of music and setting. It was performed by Oxford’s own early music group. Founded in 2014 to provide a platform for the many early music players based near Oxford, the name of the group, Instruments of Time and Truth, is inspired by this very Handel work.
The work itself manages to be both Handel’s first and last work. Originally composed in 1707 during Handel’s sojourn in Rome as the kapellmeister for Francesco Ruspoli, Il Triofo del Tempo e del Disinganno, (Time and Disillusion) had a libretto by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili. Pamphili’s other libretti seemed to follow a more religious path, centred on Christian themes of downfall and forgiveness. In contrast, this work was probably composed to celebrate the annual competition between painters, sculptors and musicians put on by the Accademia di San Luca, and the original Italian text refers at the end to the importance of the concept of ‘Beauty’ in each of these three art forms. After revisions in 1737, it was revived again in England fifty years after its first Italian performance and this latter version is the one we heard. Much of the music was re-purposed from Handel’s other works, especially the choruses, which were entirely absent in the first version. It is not clear how much input the composer himself had for this later version, however, the ‘irregular mixture’ of arias and choruses is idiomatic of Handel’s compositional style.
The five solo parts depict the typical literary conceit of the early 1700s in that they are allegorical personifications of Vice and Virtue. This pairing of course brings to mind the painting commissioned by the third Earl of Shaftesbury and now in the Ashmolean museum, of The Choice of Hercules (between Pleasure and Virtue) , which is almost exactly contemporary with the earlier version of the Oratorio. Indeed, Time sings an aria comparing the very same choice between the two contrasting routes, with the ‘short and easy way’ considered the route to pleasure. Compared to the painting however, in the Oratorio the moral is complicated with additional characters: yes, Time battles against Pleasure, over Beauty, but they are supported by their ‘seconds’, Counsel (Truth in the original) and Deceit. Instead of finishing with an aria on the ideals of beauty in art, as in the earlier Italian version, the English version ends with a Christian moral, with Beauty praying to ‘Guardian Angels’ for redemption.
The interpretation of the orchestra, The Instruments of Time and Truth, under their director, Edward Higginbottom, was superbly stylish and convincing. The choir, the Oxford Consort of Voices, is a relatively new group made up of selected members of Oxford’s college choirs. They were outstanding – well disciplined, and expressive. They also supplied several smaller solo parts within choruses, all aptly performed.
The evening was full of musical treats. The arias themselves seem to embody the various affekts understood in Baroque art and music, including love, rage, terror and despair. For example, the bass aria for Time, sung powerfully and convincingly by Matthew Brook, expressed the terror of death by means of an increase in harmonic intensity over a sinister detached bass line. Pleasure’s aria ‘Like clouds, stormy’, sung with virtuoso panache by the tenor Nick Pritchard, was accompanied by semiquaver runs in both strings and voice, evoking both anger and finally despair. Another effective and affective moment was the conjuring up of a carefree pastoral landscape, evoked by paired oboes and Bassoons, both in the hunting chorus, ‘How great the glory, / That crowns the hunter’s toil’, and the pastoral aria, sung by Pleasure and chorus. Counsel was sung by the counter tenor Alexander Chance, whose singing was thrilling in tone; the role seems to be one of an ethereal god, floating in to give good moral advice. This mood was echoed in the wonderful aria blending the counter-tenor voice with two treble recorders, ‘Mortals think that time is sleeping’. Finally we come to Beauty, sung with a limpid tone and delicacy of phrasing by the soprano Katherine Crompton. Again, there were many beautiful arias for Beauty, but perhaps the highlight musically was her final aria, with its extraordinary harmonies, and a soaring oboe obligato played by Frances Norbury.
Rather than being seen as an anachronistic Baroque work, the varied music of The Triumph of Time and Truth deserves to be more widely heard, as do the performances of this exciting and historically convincing orchestra.
This performance was possible thanks to generous support from a number of benefactors, including John Osborne. Future concerts with this group, Instruments of Time and Truth, can be found on their website.
 U. Kirkendale, ‘Handel with Ruspoli: New Documents from the Archivio Segreto Vaticano, December 1706 to December 1708’, Studi Musicali 32, no. 2 (2003): 301
The Triumph of Time and Truth was performed at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, on 20 October 2018.