Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Opera - Part 14 Paolino Vassallo

This week we again take up Mr. Joseph Vella Bondins' series of blogs on Maltese Compsosersof opera . In this week’s blog Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin talks about one of the most talented and prolific figures in classical Music at the end of the ninteenth century – Paolino Vassallo.

One of the outstanding musical personalities of the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth was Paolino Vassallo. Composer, teacher and church musician, he was the first of the great Maltese composers to move away consciously from the dominating Italian influence on Maltese music. For after local studies with Luigi Fenech, Giuseppe Spiteri Fremond and Domenico Amore, in 1875 he left to refine his music studies in Paris instead of imitating those before him in Italy. He remained in Paris, then at the height of French Romanticism, for 10 years, studying in the Conservatoire de Paris mainly with Ernest Guiraud and Jules Massenet. His later work, as a result, exhibits a Gallic line of elegance, grace and verbalisation in its harmonic structure and mystical feeling that is even more evident in his non-sacred works, particularly his three operas where Massenet’s example is quite evident.

On his return to Malta in 1885, Vassallo founded in Valletta his extremely successful Music Institute, which offered comprehensive courses ranging from the basics to advanced compositional and orchestral techniques. His teaching significantly influenced the development of Maltese music for his students included the most important composers of the first half of the twentieth century, among them Giuseppe Abdilla, Vincenzo Ciappara, Pietro Paolo Galea, Salvatore Scicluna, and, more importantly, Giuseppe Caruana, Carlo Diacono, and Josie Mallia Pulvirenti.

Through his example and teaching, he succeeded in revitalising church music, leading it away from the heavily operatic Italian idiom of the last decades of the 19th century into renewed liturgical reverence and innovative directions. The peak of his importance as a church musician came with the issue of Pope Pius X’s Motu proprio on church music when, in the heated battle with incumbent maestri-di-cappella and their partiti who stubbornly contested any change in the status quo, his guidance was central to the eventual local implementation of the changes mandated by the Motu proprio. He immediately started producing effective liturgical music in line with the Pope’s instructions and taught his students its rules and guidelines. His compositions gained the approval of the local ecclesiastical authorities, who, in 1912, appointed him maestro di cappella of the two cathedrals, a position he held until his death.

Besides for the Catholic liturgy, Vassallo also wrote numerous works for the theatre and the concert hall including an acclaimed Symphony in four movements, now lost, which, according to a contemporary critic, was ‘similar to those of Beethoven’. Fortunately, his three operas are still extant and were all premiered in the Royal Opera House to sustained and merited applause from public and critics.

Amor Fatal was a two-act reworking of his one-act opera Francesca da Rimini whose only staging was its première on 1 May 1888. The revised opera, with a performance time of just over an hour and a half and with five characters (Francesca da Rimini, soprano; Madre di Francesca, contralto; Gianciotto Malatesta, baritone; Malatesta’s brother Paolo, tenor; and Il Genio del Male, bass) and no choir, was premièred with significant success in the Teatru Rjal on 3 May 1898, and such was its favourable reception that it was repeated 8 times, always to full houses.

Frazir, in four acts on a libretto by cellist, opera aficionado, and lawyer Mikelangelo Refalo, based on Ġuże Muscat Azzopardi’s novel Susanna, narrates a story set in Malta in 1551 during the reign of the Order of St John when the Turks made frequent razzias on the island. The beautiful Susanna, although betrothed to Matteo, a captain in the Maltese Militia, falls in love with Frazir, a leader of Moslem troops. In revenge, Matteo vows to kill the Turk. During a stormy and dark night, Susanna goes to seek Frazir in Wied is-Sewda in Qormi, and Matteo, mistaking her for Frazir, strikes her ferociously with a dagger. Frazir hears Susanna’s moribund cries, and she dies in his arms. The opera was premièred on 15 March 1905, and its success, abetted by its Maltese background and a story-line supplied by an admired Maltese author, was such that it was staged eleven times,

Vassallo’s third opera Edith Cavell (1923) was his last major work. A melodrama in three acts to a libretto by poet Alfonso Giglio, it received its première at the Teatru Rjal on 21 March 1927, four years after Vassallo’s death and was an immediate sensational triumph. It tells the tragic true story of the British nurse Edith Cavell (1865-1915) whose strong Anglican Christianity compelled her to save the lives of soldiers from both the British and German lines during World War I. In spite of her ‘neutrality’, she was arrested by the Germans for helping Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium, was found guilty of treason, and was executed by a German firing squad on 12 October 1915.

Vassallo composed it in the style now designated post-Mascagnian verismo. In line with this, he adopted a true-to-life approach in dealing with the contemporary reality of the subject of his libretto and its musico-dramatic structure. As a result, much of Edith Cavell’s music has a poignant idiom and an expressive intricacy far removed from the more traditional rhetoric of Frazir. Its musical development is underpinned by a dramatic continuity that alternates passages of passionate tension with others of emotive languor. The melody is never banal and the harmonic combinations and progressions, mostly tonal, (but on occasion, when necessary, atonal), reveal the sure hand of a master.

Reading the local papers of the day, one gets the impression that Vassallo’s remarkable success in whatever area he practised had come to him very easily. There is, however, nothing easy in the field of music, even if one is as talented as he palpably was. Any success has to be earned, and the greater it is, the harder the tensions and burdens involved; Vassallo had to suffer and to work hard, both mentally and physically, to achieve it.

In next week’s blog Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin talks about Carlo Fiamingo a composer of the late nineteenth / early twentieth century.