The Maltese folk hero
Peter Farrugia speaks to young academic Albert Garzia about the privileged role played by composer Charles Camilleri in preserving Malta’s musical heritage.
Charles Camilleri (1931-2009) was a young composer at a time when Malta was forming a new social identity.
In the words of Mario Frendo, artistic director of the Malta Arts Festival, “We believe Camilleri’s creative journey is of extreme importance to Malta’s cultural heritage. Hence we thought of dedicating this year’s edition of the Malta Arts Festival to him in gratitude.”
Camilleri’s parents owned a business in North Africa and he travelled across Egypt, emigrated to Toronto and lived in the US and England. He was an utterly cosmopolitan composer yet with roots that ran deep into the Mediterranean.
“He had a talent for giving a good image of himself,” says Albert Garzia, whose academic dissertation on Camilleri’s work has brought new focus to the composer.
“But his real concern was the music and establishing himself as a composer in the European sense. He created avant-garde music when he got older but never forgot his home.” Indeed, Camilleri’s Malta Suite (first written in his teens) was continually revised right into the last decades of his life.
Through Camilleri’s music, an audience is brought into an awareness of Mediterranean inflections via Sicilian, Arabic and ultimately Maltese tradition. The texture and style of the work is threaded through with an elusive spirit of ‘Malteseness’ which goes beyond a superficial imitation of Maltese melodies. Camilleri’s whole career was a deep look into the still waters of Maltese music.
It is a collage-effect of inspiration drawn from diverse sources, a process of thematic juxtaposition, with which Camilleri creates the inimitable Mediterranean quality explored throughout his oeuvre.
While grass-roots movements were building a new social reality formed on centuries of foreign rule, early in his career Camilleri seized the opportunity to create this classically oriented music inspired by folk melodies. The popular Romantic technique (using folk elements) was initially seen as novel in Malta, where folk music was somewhat disparaged in cultured circles.
During the second part of the 20th century, as Malta shifted from a colonial to a post-colonial identity, Camilleri sought a sense of universality through these elements in his music. Emerging socio-political changes did not jeopardise his earnest connection with tradition. In fact, Camilleri managed to combine tradition with his search for new means of expression.
By these experiments, Camilleri began to realise that the true beauty of folk music was not so much in the melodies but the performance itself. He began to wonder, how best to capture the universal folk spirit without fixing it. How could one transcribe the music without destroying its shifting quality?
“Throughout his career, Camilleri recontextualised his music, repeating similar sounds and rhythms, reversing old themes and giving new insight to folk standards. You can hear the same variations in different music,” says Garzia.
“This fact seems to have been avoided by other writers on Camilleri. For example in the New Idea Symphony he quotes himself a lot. There’s not much new material but you could say it’s given a new context, the puzzle produces a new end result.”
Camilleri was a complex composer, whose work contains all the friction of folk ethnicity within Classical constraints. In continually juxtaposing pieces, he rarely developed any one idea. The form of Camilleri’s work relies on a displacement of time and sound, collages that skip and jump ahead.
“It’s like Malta skipping from an older style of music into contemporary. We never had a really modern phase in the 1900s,” Garzia says.
“But Camilleri was proud of all that juxtaposing. He would say, “Mediterranean people are like that!” With all his energy, he was always a Classically trained musician.”
Acting as a folk musician but operating in a classical environment, Camilleri is perhaps best remembered for the earlier pieces that helped give form and substance to Malta’s musical identity.
“Just like an għannej can quote the same melody for a lifetime and still make it fresh,” says Garzia, “Camilleri shifts the context and makes something totally new.”
Camilleri’s last major orchestral works, the New Idea symphony, will be performed on the opening night of the Malta Arts Festival on Friday by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Brian Schembri. Schembri conducted all previous performances of the symphony, including its World premiere in Brussels 2010.