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A landmark publication

Joseph Vella Bondin:
The Great Maltese Composers: historical context, lives, and works.
APS Bank Ltd/Midsea Books Ltd, 2016. 864 pp.

This beautifully produced, authoritative book, in which we are introduced to no less than 80 different Maltese composers, is the first comprehensive study in English, and was commissioned by the APS Bank as part of its ongoing programme of cultural sponsorship. It is a work of rare scholarship, meticulous research and great erudition and, is without a doubt, the author’s magnum opus – a great work that will be difficult, if not impossible, to surpass.

In particular, the author’s vast experience gained over many years as a singer, has enabled him to offer unrivalled insights and perspectives that could never be obtained from a purely theoretical study of the partiture alone; these have greatly enhanced the narrative, transforming what might otherwise have been a dull academic thesis into an exciting, compelling book that really brings the subject-matter to life and holds the reader’s attention throughout – no mean feat considering its over 800 pages long.

Despite its great size, it is, nevertheless, a very readable book thanks to the skilful way in which it has been structured into essentially self-contained sections and because of the lucidity and fluency of the writing, through which the author infectiously communicates to the reader his own great passion and love for the subject.

He really does succeed in bringing the composers to life, even those who long predate the advent of press coverage. So much so that, after having encountered them in the course of the book, one almost expects to meet them even today on the streets of Mdina or Valletta.

The burgeoning press coverage during the 19th century provides a vast and hitherto largely untapped resource for enlivening textual narrative with first-hand, contemporary accounts, of which the author has made much commendable use. These, for me are part of the attraction of the book. The many extracts from newspapers and journals afford unique and fascinating glimpses not only into the composers and their works, but also into the prevailing socio-religious environment in which and for which the works were composed, and which, in turn, conditioned their reception by the public.

In this connection, immediately comes to mind what the author calls the Battle of the Cappelle – the fanatical partisan rivalry between the supporters of the two family cappelle that dominated church music in Malta during the 19th century, namely the Cappella Bugeja, and the Cappella Nani. The book is divided into four chronologically consecutive sections covering the pre-18th century, the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Another admirable feature of the book is the vast amount of background material provided

Each of these opens with a general chapter that sets the scene for consideration in the following chapters detailing those composers selected as especially representative of the particular era under consideration. For each such composer, a timeline is provided, enabling readers to see the main events and dates in the composer’s life, and making it easier for them to then navigate their way through the accompanying text.

Another admirable feature of the book is the vast amount of background material provided, which facilitates a much better understanding and appreciation of the main subject matter.

The book concludes with two chapters of a more personal nature, in the form of tributes to two musicians whom the author holds in particularly high esteem. These are Carmelo Pace who, in his day, was Malta’s most versatile composer and the author’s teacher for many years, and the conductor-composer Joseph Sammut.

The soul of the book, however, is undoubtedly the third part, dealing with the 19th century; this section is longer than the other three parts together and is broadly divided into a discussion of liturgical music and opera in Malta, with particular consideration as to how operatic influences came to infiltrate church music.

This was true particularly, after 1838, through the works of Paolo Nani, which were blatantly operatic in conception and orchestration. As the author recalls, it was this influence, not only in Malta, but also elsewhere, particularly Italy, which finally provoked Pope Pius X to issue, in 1903, his famous Motu proprio that laid down the criteria to which liturgical music must conform. These criteria were certainly not satisfied by most of the music used by the Cappella Nani, including that by Paolo’s son, Antonio, which represents the apogee of Maltese Romanticism. Other composers from this period, whose lives and works are considered in some detail, include members of the Bugeja dynasty, the Augustinian friar Giuseppe Spiteri Fremond, Paolino Vassallo and the lesser known Francesco Schira.

There are two recurring themes throughout the book: the importance of the role of the Neapolitan Conservatories in the training of many Maltese maestri di musica, and the role of the church as the principal patron of Maltese composers whose output was thus understandably dominated by sacred compositions – a patronage that furthermore ensured that these compositions received performance, quite contrary to the situation in the case of opera where, in consequence of a preference for Italian works, the majority of operas by Maltese composers, including those produced and premiered abroad, have never been performed in their native land. The Great Maltese Composers – which is available also as a box-set that includes digital extracts from the APS Bank’s collection of high quality CDs – leaves no aspect of the subject unexplored.

Thanks to this inspired joint initiative, knowledge of Malta’s immensely rich, but hitherto poorly known and under-appreciated musical patrimony, is now available internationally to a much wider audience than ever before.

This landmark publication will surely remain for many years the definitive account of the great Maltese composers and their works, and I unreservedly recommend it!

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