Much of Malta’s rich heritage can be found in the island’s churches. The visible treasures seen by the visitor include the paintings and the fabric of the building, but one aspect is usually only given a cursory glance which, like an iceberg, is 90 per cent hidden – the organ.
This is usually perceived in the form of ornate casework high above the observer. The beauty of this instrument only comes alive when it is played and, unfortunately, we do not always have the opportunity to appreciate this aspect of its beauty.
Maltese churches contain some important examples of historic pipe organs, many dating back to the 18th century. Unfortunately, a significant part of this heritage is, at present, unplayable and has been left to decay due to lack of use, incorrect maintenance and lack of interest which has rendered them virtually unplayable. Several of these organs have unique features that give them historic value and make them irreplaceable.
There has been a tendency for churches to dispense with the use of the pipe organ in favour of electronic ones, and even to replace it with guitars. There have been many reasons put forward for this decline, including the relatively high cost of a professional restoration of these instruments, coupled with the lack of local professional restorers which meant that foreign organ builders had to be brought over.
Many repairs on historic organs have been carried out in the past by amateurs, and organs have been modified as not to represent the original instrument. One case in point is the 1778 organ at Qrendi parish church which was mutilated in the 1950s. Another such organ is the 1774 Rossi organ at Mdina Cathedral which was given a similar treatment in the 1930s.
Over the past 15 years, however, Malta has been fortunate to have her own talented and dedicated local restorer in Robert Buhagiar, a graduate in engineering who trained and worked in Italy with the renowned Mascioni organ-building firm. Together with sponsorship by leading organisations and public subscription, it has been possible to raise the required money to enable professional restorations to be realised.
Why is it important to restore these magnificent organs and revive their use? As mentioned, several are rare items and historically significant as they are part of a few surviving examples. Over the past few years, there has also been an increase in the knowledge and awareness of early Maltese music, which dates from a time when local music was equal to any in Europe. The character of this music cannot be fully conveyed unless it is performed on a pipe-organ which is consistent in style to the music.
There have also been several examples of restorations by foreign restorers, including the organ in the oratory of St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, carried out by Fratelli Ruffatti in 2006. The 17th-century pipe organ in St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral, in Valletta, originally built in 1676, has been recently restored by the Irish firm Kenneth Jones and Associates through a project partly funded by the HSBC Malta Foundation.
As a celebration of this unique heritage, a two-week organ festival is being planned this summer, during which several of these examples of historic pipe organs will be used, together with other 20th-century organs around Malta and Gozo.
The Organ Festival starts on August 28.