Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Opera Composers - Part 22 - Unperformed Operas - Magri, Camilleri

In this third and last blog in the series about unperformed operas by Maltese composers, Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin talks about the Magri and Camilleri composers.

Born at Vittoriosa into a musical family, Giuseppe Magri (1875-1947) was gifted with a natural talent, erudite and versatile. His musical knowledge was mainly self-taught but his knowledge of operatic techniques was honed by the many years he was a member of the Teatru Rjal choir, his good tenor voice often earning him solo secondary roles in many performed operas. He lived most of his life in Ħamrun and was nominated maestro di cappella for Floriana’s Parish Church in 1918 for whose liturgy he composed many fine works. His oeuvre also includes three operas.

An attempt to stage the earliest of these, Violetta de la Court (1897), at the Teatru Rjal, failed, but not before he had laboriously penned all the orchestral and vocal parts in his very neat and well-defined hand-writing and drew sketches for costumes and sets. Unfortunately most of his work finished as fodder in the mouth of a baker’s oven soon after the composer’s death but luckily the score of Violetta de la Court, together with those of his other two operas, three operettas, and a few other mainly liturgical compositions survived and now form part of the Music Archives of the Mdina Cathedral Museum. I Vizir (1902), in a prologue and three acts, is, in all probability, a significant work, able to stand with the best by any Maltese composer.

Using conventional Italian, Magri also wrote his own libretti and that for his last opera, Jacopo Robusti ovvero Il Tintoretto, a lyric drama in a prologue and three acts based on a 1538 Venetian episode in the famous painter’s life, is dated ‘Hamrun, 23 November 1939’. After completing a piano sketch, he began the full score. The stringent Second World War conditions of the time resulted in a dearth of proper music manuscript paper. Magri had to make use of normal foolscaps and had, therefore, to rule himself, using Indian ink, the required staves, a time-consuming process. A rough calculation indicated that he ruled 5,600 lines for the prologue, 5,400 for Act I, 12,350 for Act II and 8,580 for Act III, a staggering 31,930 lines in all, days and days of monotonous work before he could actually sit down and start orchestrating using the self-ruled manuscript paper! Moreover, he had also to contend with the constant air-raids which Malta was then experiencing. On the last page of Act II he wrote the following note:  ‘As a consequence of the Italian and German air raids Malta is now facing, I would have liked to delay the orchestration of this act to more peaceful times; but this was not possible and as I am finishing it today, 19-12-1941, 10 am, I can hear enemy bombs dropping and hissing all around me.’

And he composed the opera when he knew that his previous efforts had not been performed and that what he was writing in his 67th year of existence would very likely have the same bitter fate!

Magri also composed the music for three operettas, Nannetta (1899), Miss Lizzy (1915) and Intermezzo (1920).

The Camilleri dynasty: This highly gifted and dynamic family of, at least, 3 generations was perhaps the most numerous dynasty of (professional) musicians and composers in the annals of Maltese music. Of these, 7 achieved well-merited national recognition. The known paterfamilias was Vincenzo (1821-1897). Born in Valletta, he married Maria Grazzja Fava from the village of Luqa in 1845 and his place of residence now seems to have alternated between Luqa where two of his sons, Enrico and Ferdinando, was born, and Valletta, the birthplace of Gavino, Emanuele and Lucia, the other three children.  A musician by profession, mainly as a clarinetist with orchestras of British Navy ships, he integrated easily into Luqa’s dynamic social life and gave birth to the village ’s civic Union Band, composing for it Marcia Unione in 1880. His four sons followed in his footsteps as professional musicians in various fields (church, band, playing instruments) and composers. But this blog is concerned with two of Vincenzo’s grandsons – Agostino, son of Enrico, and Giuseppe, son of Ferdinando.

Agostino Camilleri (1886-1976) studied violin with his father, piano, and composition with Alberto Vella and also advanced studies in harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration with Giuseppe Abdilla and in Paolino Vassallo’s Istituto di musica in Valletta. As a celebrated violinist, he worked with the Teatru Rjal orchestra and the Metropolitan Cappella di musica. His compositions are of various kinds but include sacred, chamber and theatrical works, the outstanding piece among the last being his opera Delia (1920).

Delia, a one-act bozzetto drammatico, composed to a fine libretto by the Italian writer and academic Vincenzo Laurenza, was one of five operas entered in the 1925-1926 Opera Competition open to Maltese composers organised by the Teatru Rjal impresa. It did not win any prize but the judges, the German Carl Maria Artz and the Italian Arnaldo Schiavone, praised it highly.

Giuseppe Camilleri (1903-1976) was one of the most gifted complete musicians in the vacillating history of Maltese music, excelling in its three fundamental divisions: that of composing, conducting and performing particularly on the piano and the organ. He studied with his cousin Agostino Camilleri, with Giuseppe Abdilla and with his father Ferdinando, founder of the Cappella Camilleri which used to provide liturgical music to various parishes and churches. For many years, he helped his father to manage and direct the family cappella, assuming sole responsibility for his father’s death on 8 March 1942 until his own death which occurred on 19 August 1976.

Besides being a fine pianist and organist with a sophisticated technical and high interpretative ability, Giuseppe was an inspiring conductor with the rare skill of making even the simplest and most basic resources at his disposal sound much better than might have been reasonably expected. In this field, his involvement with the operatic theatre took several forms, the most visible being his appointment as the Teatru Rjal’s maestro sostituto for the 1931-32 operatic season, a function which he was still expertly fulfilling when, due to the escalating instability in Europe and the clear signals from Germany of an approaching World War II, the customary Italian-powered annual opera seasons were brought to a termination on 28 February 1939. When the Theatre was devastated by enemy bombs on 7 April 1942, Giuseppe also set up the Malta Amateur Opera Company consisting of a group of amateur singers whom he expertly coached mainly in operas presented in a number of make-shift theatres spread across the island and in the Radio City Opera House in Ħamrun when this opened in 1945. The orchestra for these productions consisted mainly of professional instrumentalists who had been members of the Teatru Rjal orchestra. They continued until 1948, the year when Government passed legislation permitting all foreign singers to return.

Giuseppe was also bandmaster for a number of civic bands, his iconic appointment coming on 28 April 1937 when he was appointed maestro direttore of the Società Filarmonika Nazionale La Valette, an appointment which he proficiently fulfilled until May 1968 when he retired.

As a talented composer, Camilleri possessed an outstanding innate gift of melody, a quasi-Puccinian strain that imbues all his works, making them among the most melodious and consequently exceptionally attractive in the Maltese musical heritage. Given his role as a maestro di cappella, his liturgical works are many and complete and augment as needed the oeuvre of his father in this field.

His non-liturgical works range from short, salon-type works like the waltz Bellagio, the tarantella in A minor, and the lyrical songs O Dreams come true for soprano and piano, and Tell me for tenor and piano, to the operetta Shalti-Nar in English. But especially significant is his three-act opera Monna Bianca (1936) to a libretto in Italian by poet and author George Zammit (1908-90). Unfortunately, Monna Bianca has never been performed, with the exception of some pages heard in various venues and which reveal the composer’s highly melodic inventions and perceptive knowledge of operatic techniques, finely honed by the many years he spent working in the Teatru Rjal.

Next week’s blog is the last by Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin for this series about Maltese composers of Opera.

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