Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Opera - Part 18 - Carmelo Pace

This week Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin talks about a Maltese opera composer from the twentieth century – Carmelo Pace.

Carmelo Pace was born into a musical family in an apartment situated near the Parish Church of Porto Salvo and St. Dominic in Valletta on 17 August 1906, one of seven children, four of them dying in their infancy. In the same household resided his mother's brother, Vincenzo Ciappara, the prominent, highly gifted band-master, arranger and composer, who was to influence greatly his nephew's choice of a professional career in music. In fact Pace’s first musical studies were with him before continuing them with Antonio Genova and Thomas Mayne in harmony and composition and with Carlo Fiamingo in violin, later switching to viola. Between 1921 and 1938, he was viola leader in the Teatru Rjal orchestra.

After obtaining the Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music (Teaching) in 1931, and later, the Fellowship, Pace started giving private lessons in music. His excellence in this demanding field quickly spread and his students rapidly increased. Through his teaching, Pace influenced tremendously the next two generations of Maltese composers for most of them were among his students, often guiding them to obtain their FLCM.

Teaching thus became, almost up to his death at age 86, his life-long career, earning the means for his day-to-day living. "I consider myself, first and foremost, a teacher", he used to say and indeed it is basically as an extension of his work as an educationalist, as part of innate desire to spread musical knowledge and musical appreciation in his native land, that one must regard Pace's activities in such fields as writing, broadcasting and the organisation of concerts.   Thus his long association with the Malta Cultural Institute, between 1948 and 1987, enabled him to provide a concert platform for emerging vocal and instrumental soloists and a chance for students to practice playing within the discipline imposed by the M.C.I. Orchestra which he founded and directed.

But it is chiefly as a composer that Carmelo Pace will be remembered and honoured in the shifting annals of his country's musical history. He started composing at a very early age but destroyed most of his juvenilia. He continued composing all his life, side-by-side with his teaching, scrupulously utilising those few free hours when a student failed to turn up for his lesson, or the quiet early morning hours when he believed that his mind was at its freshest. He used to wake up regularly at 5.00 a.m. and soon afterwards was to be found busily composing and orchestrating in his study, the front room of his family’s house in Tonna Street, Sliema, where the family had relocated during the terrible years of the Second World War.

His compositions are without unnecessary tinsel, for his natural inclination was for a musical idiom that was sympathetic and honest, ignoring all that was merely bravura and deliberately provocative. His art was direct, but was underpinned by a firm patriotism, a deep-seated Catholic faith, and a strong sense of intention.

His creative work, diverse and distinctive both for clarity of style and sincerity, consisting of more than 500 often multi-form compositions, contributed to a broadening of national musical horizons. Thus he can be credited with composing the first symphonies, concertos, ballet music, tone poems, variations and scherzi in Maltese musical history. He was at his most adventurous in his chamber compositions where musical conflict is worked into an eloquent exploitation of brooding timbres.

Pace also enjoys the distinction of being the first in Maltese musical history of composing not because he was supplying a commodity as part of his employment as maestro di cappella, the established practice before him, but that of a creative persona whose existence took meaning exclusively through writing music. His continuing regret was that, as a result of the facility with which he composed, the resources that would have been necessary in order to realise the performance of all the works in his vast output were simply not available in his small island home.

Pace was also eager to compose operas and he wanted these to be on story lines that focused on Maltese history. He wrote four such: Caterina Desguanez (libretto: Ivo Muscat Azzopardi, 1964) based on the Great Siege of 1565; I Martiri (Vincenzo Maria Pellegrini, 1966) with a storyline that takes place during the French occupation of Malta from 1798 to 1800: a dramatization of the abortive conspiracy during January 1799 by a group of Maltese, led by the charismatic Dun Mikiel Xerri, to attack the besieged French garrison from within Valletta itself but only lead by shooting to the death of the conspirators; Angelica (Pellegrini, 1971) whose historical basis is a razzia by the Moors who raided and sacked the village of Mosta in 1526, taking almost 400 prisoners, including Angelica, a bride, together with the guests all dressed up for the wedding; Ipogeana (Pellegrini, 1974) with a plot highlighting Malta’s Neolithic era. Notwithstanding this choice of episodes from Maltese history, Pace still bowed to the Maltese historic norm of composing them to libretti in Italian and along post-Puccini lines. These operas were all successfully performed several times at the Teatru Manoel.

A quiet unassuming man, invariably calm, dignified and reticent, Pace had one of the longest creative spans in history, his first acknowledged composition being dated 1926 and his last 1992, a few months before he died, an extraordinary 66-year record of sustained productivity.   His last work was Moto Ritmico per Viola.   His life had come full circle for playing the viola at the Royal Opera House when still a teenager had started his life as a music professional. But in the interval, he had superlatively enriched his country's musical heritage and sculptured his name in its evolving annals.

Next week we shall take a break from Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin’s blogs on Maltese composers of operas as we have a very interesting blog by a Maltese professional soprano.