Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Opera - Part 19 - Charles Camilleri

In today’s blog, we return to Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin’s series of blogs about Maltese composers of opera. This week Mr. Vella Bondin talks about undoubtedly the best most prominent Maltese composer of the Twentieth Century – Charles Camilleri.

Charles Camilleri was the most cosmopolitan of contemporary Maltese composers, and from early childhood displayed impressive musical abilities. His early studies were with his father, Joseph Abela Scolaro, Paul Nani, and Carmelo Pace. His initial reputation was built on light music, and his virtuosity on the accordion, particularly through his frequent performances on Rediffusion when still a boy, attracted much popular notice. It was at this formative stage of his life, that he was also exposed to the folk music of his country, which, particularly before the devastating socio-economic shambles generated by World War II, was performed everywhere, and it was this folk music that influenced his first compositions, above all the obsessively nationalist Malta Suite for orchestra, whose first version was written when he was only 15, and, a year later, his Piano Concerto No 1, The Mediterranean, both works being revised later on.

In 1949, he and his family migrated to Australia, and for him, this was the start of many decades of travel and associated diverse and enriching musical experiences. Between 1954 and 1959, he was based for the first time in London, continuing his successful career in light music mainly with theatre producer Harold Fielding while continuing to compose, good examples are Times of Day (1959), a suite for piano in five movements, and the ten piano sonatinas (1955-57). He also composed a number of film scores and wrote the incidental music for the award-winning show Sailor Beware, which opened in the Strand Theatre in 1955, where it enjoyed a fantastic run of 1231 performances.

In 1959, he was in Canada, studying with John Weingweig at the University of Toronto. His musical activities extended to the United States and, additionally, stimulating contacts with a number of the great visionary composers of the 20th century (Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Kodály, Messiaen, etc.) continued to profoundly change his musical conceptions. Financially, this phase of Camilleri’s activities, although stressful and time-consuming, was professionally very fruitful and exciting but it was also for him a time of unease and disquietude for he inwardly felt that his burgeoning success was at the expense of composing in the way he wanted to compose which is what he really wanted to do. In the end, he resolved that the American dream was not meant for him!

In 1965, Camilleri returned to London where he now took up residence. It was for him initially a turbulent and arduous period of self-seeking when he immersed himself in researching and untangling the Afro-Arabic-European musical roots of the Mediterranean basin, so important for his native country’s inherited reality. His compulsive personal journey in music led to a deepening interest in philosophy, particularly in the writings of the Jesuit theologian and geologist-paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

The nascent totality of his new insights resulted in the composition of such powerful works as: Taqsim (1965) for 2 pianos, the second piano concerto Maqam (1968) based on effective parallels between Afro-Oriental improvisatory developments and Western harmony, the first symphony Earth (1969), the potent percussive Three Ritual Meditations (1972) for congas, bongos, and cymbals; in addition, there were two stunning pieces for organ considered the composer’s dynamic response to Teilhard de Chardin, namely, the five movement Missa mundi and the five-part Morphogenesis. Mention should be made also of the brooding Cosmic Visions (1974) for 42 strings, the meditative String Quartet No 2 Silent Spaces (1977), and the introspective Noospheres (1977-78) for piano. Additionally, he was again commissioned to write music for films, among them The House of 1000 Dolls (1967) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969).

He also composed a one-act chamber opera Melita (1966-67) to a libretto in English by the Malta-born Ursula Vaughan Williams, who had also written libretti for her husband Ralph and other composers. It was premièred in September 1968 during the Belfast Festival as part of a double bill with Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors.

During this period, he made frequent visits to Malta, and, finally, the unrelenting call of the land of his birth could no longer be resisted, and in 1983 he made his native country his permanent residence, at a time when he was still preoccupied with the soundscape of a region and with a composer’s ability to translate it into a meaningful musical language. His seminal treatise Mediterranean Music, written in the form of a dialogue with philosopher Peter Serracino Inglott, synthesizes these deliberations that found concrete configuration, in the years immediately after his homecoming, in his two ‘Maltese’ operas, Il-Wegħda (Teatru Manoel, 1984) and Il-Fidwa tal-Bdiewa (San Anton Gardens, 1985) both to libretti by Joe Friggieri and in his two ‘Maltese’ oratorios Pawlu ta’ Malta (1985) and L-għanja ta’ Malta (1989), both to texts by Oliver Friggieri and both premiered in St John’s co-Cathedral.

Opera composition continued to occupy his attention, and the very controversial Campostella (Teatru Manoel, 1993) and Maltese Cross (Mediterranean Conference Centre, 1995), both to English libretti scripted by Peter Serracino Inglott, have been the subject of a lot of heated debate on account of their unusual sonorities, together with a creativity that seeks to encompass the most permanent of human spiritual involvement. His last opera, unusual in its formation and vision, was premièred in a fully staged version on 3 August 2005 on the Valletta Waterfront. The exotic Elisabeth or To be a Mann, a 30-minute dialogue opera in five “acts” to another libretto by Peter Serracino Inglott, is scored for bass and soprano, and a chamber combination of violin, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and tuba.

In 1992, Camilleri was appointed the first Professor of Music at the University of Malta, a position he held till 1996. This gave him the opportunity to promulgate his intuitions about the importance of the Maltese soundscape as the catalyst for the production of a distinctive Maltese identity to help create a representative Maltese school of composition. His illuminated teaching made the younger generation of composers aware that, creatively, greater individuality can be found not in imitating foreign models, but in a regenerative use of indigenous endowments.

His death occurred at his home in Naxxar on 3 January 2009, and his substantial and precious contribution to the musical heritage of Malta and that of the world totaled more than 300 wide-ranging works written over a period of about 65 years. A detailed catalogue has still to be compiled and, when compiled, it should help to confirm the amazing talent of this exceptional Maltese composer.

Particularly after his death, very few of his works have been performed in his native land which should not be a surprise, given the way Malta continues to ignore its indigenous composers.

Next week, Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin’s blogs will not cover any particular composer but rather starts listing operas by Maltese composers which have never been performed.

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