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Maltese musicians interviewed

Laurence Mizzi: Mużiċisti mill-qrib: ġabra ta’ intervisti
Horizons, 2017. ISBN978-99957-63-89-3

This volume contains a collection of interviews Laurence Mizzi conducted with Maltese musicians – composers and performers – and published  in the newspaper Il-Ġens between 1988 and 1996. The only person he did not interview was Ġużeppi Caruana, best known for the unforgettable music he wrote for Dun Karm’s greatly loved hymn T’adoriam Ostia divina (Maltese version entitled Nadurawk ja Ħobż tas-Sema), who died in 1931 before the author was born.

The items on people like Ġużeppi Caruana, Carmelo Pace and Oreste Kirkop, whose careers are fully covered by Mizzi, are  more useful than those for, say,  Dun Ġwann Galea, Charles Camilleri  and  Joseph Sammut, who remained active long after they were interviewed. This is even more so with Joseph Vella, whose achievements until the present day are notable. Mizzi gives brief accounts of post-interview careers in the biographies with which he introduces the interviews Mizzi is not a musician or musicologist, so his interviews and attached biographies are fairly short and never go deeply into the technical achievements of the 11 composers he has included. However, he always gives a good idea of the significant part they played in the history of 20th century Maltese music.

The author is well known for his ardent Catholicism, and this comes out clearly in some of the interviews, such as that of J. B. Caruana (1922-2000), a successful composer of popular songs who was also very active in the Legion of Mary and in spreading devotion to the Virgin.

Mizzi gave this interview the title, Mużika u Fidi.  This interview, and a few others like that with Antoinette Miggiani, do show Mizzi trying to get at the person underneath the musician. But my impression is that he had not always carried out enough previous studies of the personalities of the interviewees before he actually conducted the interviews.

Many readers will be specially interested in the interview with Oreste Kirkop (1923-1998), at one time an internationally celebrated tenor who sang operas in famous English and American opera houses and starred in the big Paramount musical The Vagabond King, about the exploits of the French poet François Villon.

The film had some success and Kirkop, who was under contract to Paramount, was asked to consider other film roles, all of which he refused. He told Mizzi he did not like any of the offers, but  perhaps he also realised he may have been a fine tenor but not much of a film actor.

Released from his contract, he did some more very succesful opera singing, but after some years decided he should give up performing. Was the life proving too stressful? This we are not told, but what we do know is that what he had earned enabled him to retire early at the age of 37 in comfort, so he came back to Malta, married a Maltese girl and lived on for a good many years.

Charles Camilleri the composer (1931-2009) also achieved a degree of celebrity in Canada and subsequently in the UK before he settled in Malta, where he became an influential figure as a composer, conductor and academic. His strong friendship with Peter Serracino Inglott  made it easy for him to become culturally acceptable. His composition of the music for operas with librettos by Serracino Inglott, and especially for the very successful oratorio Pawlu ta’ Malta with a fine libretto by Oliver Friggieri, made him a national icon for a while.

It was, I think, also Serracino Inglott who got him interested in the Catholic philosoper Teilhard de Chardin as an intellectual source for his music. Another source was that of Middle Eastern music.  Much of his music he published in the UK, and a good many of his works were recorded on CD. Mizzi quotes him as saying: “In my music I broke with most of what I had learned. I created a space in which I could accept new ideas ruled out by my training.”

Interviews and attached biographies are fairly short and never go deeply into the technical achievements of the 11 composers

Other composers in this book are Carmelo Pace (1906-1993) and his much younger contemporary Joseph Vella (1942-  ). Pace’s fame now probably depends on his four operas Angelica, Caterina Desguanez, I Martiri and Ipogeana though, since his death, few have been revived – the fate of most operas by Maltese composers.

He had a high reputation as a teacher of harmony and composition, and retains the high respect of the many students he had, but he also busied himself as a conductor of orchestral music. Mizzi says he composed over 30 works, some lengthy, of a religious nature, of which it seems his favourite was his setting of the Stabat Mater.

Mizzi does not seem to have tried to find out what he felt about being supplanted in popular opinion by the arrival of Charles Camilleri or the rise of Joseph Vella.

The author does not mention Marcel Degabriele  and Georgette Caffari’s weighty thematic and annotated catalogue of Pace’s many works. This appeared in 1991, two years after Mizzi’s interview with him, but it could have been added to the present book as a very useful reference work for those interested in his compositions.

Joseph Vella is still very active as a composer and even more so as the director of the very well-known Victoria Arts Festival, an annual event that reached its 20th edition in June 2017. As  a composer, Vella has been prolific, his works ranging from early works like his traditional and much-loved Mass sung at the feast of St George in Victoria every July, to several modernistic works.

Victoria-born Vella is closely tied up with musical and cultural activities in his native town and with his associates, George Frendo and his sister Maria, has made the festival a very important weeks-long item in Malta’s musical calendar.

He played an important role in the early history of Malta’s School of Music, in the development of what is now the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, and as a conductor he introduced the Maltese public to works like Orff’s Carmina burana; in the present century he has been the regular conductor of the opera productions at Teatru Aurora in Victoria. He was also the first musicologist to edit some of the 17th and 18th century musical manuscripts in the archive of  the cathedral in Mdina.

Joseph Sammut, born in 1926, for many remains famous as the man who kept orchestral playing alive in Malta when after conducting the British Commander in Chief’s orchestra for some years, he was made conductor of the Manoel Theatre’s new orchestra in 1968.

He left this post only when he was replaced unceremoniously in 1993, an event he took very much to heart as he told Mizzi when interviewed. He remained proud of having created an orchestra with 40 musicians by 1993, that took itself seriously and formed a basis for what was eventually to be the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra.

Even after this event he was to do some conducting, but now he could dedicate himself to composition which he had studied in Britain. He composed a number of large works such as oratorios like Canticles of St Luke or L-Assedju l-Kbir ta’ Malta. The many singers who were members of the choirs conducted by Sammut remember with pleasure and affection the years they got to know him musically and as a good friend.

Of the remaining interviews the one with Antoinette Miggiani, born in 1937, a soprano with an exceptionally beautiful voice, who gave up what could have been a fine singing career in order to look after her ageing parents, is written with the author’s clear admiration for her admirable altruism.

That of Dun Ġwann Galea, for many years maestro di cappella at St John’s C-Cathedral, a great enthusiast of choral music and known also for his research in the Mdina music archives shows how a  good priest can enrich culturally his religious vocation.

In J. B. Caruana and in Paul Arnaud, Mizzi directs our attention to musicians both of whom won admiration in the composition and performance  of popular music, while George Spiteri, for many years the leader of  the Manoel Orchestra and Joseph Sammut’s right-hand man, is admired not merely for his dedication to helping the orchestra get through years of difficult development, but also for his non-musical activity in aiding the welfare of Malta’s sufferers from leprosy.

The book’s many black-and-white photographs, of varying quality, add value to Mizzi’s text.

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