Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Opera - Part 16 - Carlo Diacono

This week Mr. Vella Bondin talks about Carlo Diacono, a composer from Żejtun who, like Fiamingo was active during the change from the 19th to the 20th century.


Born in Żejtun on 1 April 1876, Carlo Diacono was one of the very few of the great Maltese composers that did not study abroad. His first teacher was his father Orazio, from whom he acquired his proficiency in the high clarinet, the piano, and the organ; between 1892 and 1902, he was taught by Paolino Vassallo  from whom he assimilated the Gallic elegance that was to imbue his major works.

In 1899, he was appointed organist of the Żejtun Parish Church, the first concrete appointment in the path he wanted to follow. The promulgation of Pius X’s 1903 Motu proprio on church music offered him the possibility to perform works that he had composed in accordance with its strictures, firstly during the 1904 Passion Week in Żejtun and, subsequently, in an expanding circle of other prominent churches. To fulfil these commissions, he founded his own cappella di musica, which ultimately outstripped in popularity even the traditional Bugeja and Nani cappelle. More than anything else, this popularity was the result of his refined compositional talents. On 9 February 1923, following Paolino Vassallo’s death, he was appointed maestro di cappella  of the two Cathedrals, a logical progression from his earlier achievements.

A most prolific composer, a full thematic catalogue of his works is unfortunately not available, but as a result of his lifetime commitment to church music, his sacred compositions far outnumber his secular ones. That many of these are spiritually satisfying, technically brilliant and sensitive, harmonically inventive, melodically captivating and thematically varied is a mark of a superior talent that triumphed over the musical limitations imposed by the Motu proprio. They include a number of excellent festa antiphons, among the most important written by Maltese composers, and such outstanding exemplars as Preghiera alla B. V. Maria (1924), Il cantico di Frate Sole (1927), Laudate pueri (1937), and Messa di Gloria in E flat (1938). There is also San Paolo evangelizza i Maltesi, an oratorio in three parts on a text in Latin by Mgr Giovanni Formosa.

Diacono’s non-sacred works consist mainly of concert songs, works for the piano, short orchestral pieces (pastorals, preludes, overtures, church sonatas), and band music. He composed his songs either with piano or orchestral accompaniment to Italian texts (Il canto del costritto, L’ave della sera, etc.) with the exception of one or two which have a Maltese lyric. The latter includes the outstanding Malta ġawhra tal-Mediterran for high voice, cello and piano to a patriotic poem by Dun Karm Psaila. Among his piano pieces one finds the well-known Fantasie-Impromptu (1928), dedicated to his friend, the Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti, and published by A & G Carisch of Milan.

But his musical ability probably fully blossomed in an extended work intended for the theatre: his opera L’Alpino, on a libretto by Ramiro Barbaro di San Giorgio staged at the Teatru Rjal to enthusiastic houses for 9 executions during April 1918. The libretto is based on a contemporary tale of love, betrayal and revenge narrated against the background of what is known as the Italian Front, the series of mountain battles initiated by the Italian nationalist movement, Italia irredenta, through which Italy sought to annex those Austrian territories that were inhabited by Italians.

The Daily Malta Chronicle (2 May 1918) is here worth quoting:

“It is with pleasurable pride that we chronicle the musical success achieved by our fellow-countryman, Mro Carlo Diacono, in the new opera L’Alpino recently staged at the Royal. It is not one of those successes d’estime by a partisan public blinded by enthusiastic patriotism but a genuine success for real musical worth, independently of any other consideration… The work is polyphonic in structure, in which all the devises of daring modernism are availed of, not excluding the unnatural modern scale, which subdivides the octave into six equidistant notes. The orchestration rather than a subordinate accompaniment to the voices takes in the musical conception a firm stand of equality with the vocal parts, commenting, ornamenting, and, sometimes, leading with charming and vigorous effect. Though abounding in melody, both original and beautiful, yet the elaboration of the contrapuntal structure renders more than one audition necessary before the opera can be understood and its beauties realized.”

After L’Alpino, it was expected that Diacono would give the Maltese public other operas. It seems he did not do so as he could not find a libretto in which he truly believed. He even requested Sicilian magistrate and writer Giacomo Armò to provide him with one. The result was Villa Azzurra, a one-act romantic story that takes place in a luxury villa on the Mediterranean coast where sea-planes are undergoing flight trials. The libretto does not convince and all that Diacono composed was a skeleton piano-vocal score. Later, he requested opera composer Felice Lattuada, whom he knew well, for his suggestions. In the end, L’Alpino remained his only completed opera.

Diacono died at Lija on 15 June 1942 aged 66. Like in the case of other great Maltese composers, his merit is not fully appreciated by most Maltese.

In 1946, Carlo’s son, Frankie, who had inherited his father’s cappella di musica, conducted a successful revival of L’Alpino with three performances in Ħamrun’s Radio City Opera House. It was also Frankie who in April 1997 decided to donate the opera’s full score together with six other orchestral works to the Manoel Theatre, the hope being that such a donation might encourage the Manoel to put on performances of the opera and of the other donated works, a hope which regrettably never materialized.

At that time the Manoel Theatre Music Archives also possessed, besides various works by Maltese composers, the full score of these other operas: Agostino Camilleri’s Delia, a one-act bozzetto drammatico; Antonio Nani’s I cavalieri di Malta; Paolo Nani’s La mezza note; Carmelo Pace’s Caterina Desguanez, I martiri, Angelica, and Ipogeana. What use is being made of these works (if they are still extant)?

Next week Mr. Joseph  Vella Bondin will delight us with details about the composer Emanuele Caruana.