Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Opera Composers - Part 20 - Unperformed Operas - The Vella Family

In this week’s blog, Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin talks about operas by Maltese composers which have never been performed starting with that of Giuseppe Vella and his sons.

The blogs I have written so far have dealt with Maltese composers whose operas have been performed either in Malta or abroad. But unfortunately, there are others who were not given this opportunity, in spite of efforts made, sometimes even by the media, to encourage their production. My next three blogs, which will end this series, will deal with a few of these ‘unsuccessful’ composers.

The present blog involves another dynasty of Maltese musicians and composers – that of the Vella family.

Giuseppe Vella, born in Valletta on 14 July 1827, was the son of master mariner Lambert Paul Vella and Maria Francesca née Camilleri; he studied astronomy and navigation, and, like his father, graduated as a sea captain. His parents encouraged him to utilise his qualification by enlisting in the Austrian Navy. But Vella, instead, entered the University of Malta to study jurisprudence. In 1850, aged 23, he graduated as a lawyer and practiced the profession for seven years. Concurrently with the courses, he was following in astronomy, navigation, and law, he was also studying music first with Don Giuseppe Scicluna, then with the Spaniard Gonzales, at that time a resident of Malta. Later studies were with Davide Bini in Italy, with whom he perfected harmony and counterpoint.

It was in music that Vella finally decided he really wanted to make his permanent career and it was in its teaching that he began it. He was appointed music teacher to a number of public and private schools and also taught it to an increasing number of more mature students among them Carlo Fiamingo, Luigi Barbera, Ruggiero Carabott and his son Vincenzo, Rinaldo Carbonaro, Giorgio Fabrizio Engerer, and Giovanni Battista Mattei.

At the same time, he also was contracted to do music in a small number of churches, his first major appointment in this field being maestro di cappella of the Jesuits’ Church in Merchant Street, Valletta. His admired work in this demanding sphere seems to have drawn the attention of the ecclesiastical hierarchy for, on Vincenzo Bugeja’s death on 20 October 1860, he was appointed maestro di cappella of both the Cathedral in Mdina and the co-Cathedral in Valletta and remained in this post until his retirement in October 1902.

He now became a prolific composer, his output numbering about 300 works, the absolute majority being liturgical works for his own use in the two Cathedrals. His oeuvre also includes about 24 non-sacred works, mainly songs and dance and band music. He never, however, composed an opera. It was two of his three sons that ventured on this difficult field.

Alberto (1866-1931), Luigi (1868-1950), and Paolo (1873-1948) studied music with their father who, when his health declined during the last 14 years of his employment as metropolitan maestro di cappella, was able to perform the many duties involved only with their assistance. This situation was made official through a decree of Mgr Pietro Pace, Bishop of Malta, dated 23 June 1899, which empowered the three sons to assist, co-operate and replace their father as needed.

During this period and afterward, the three sons composed a lot of liturgical music which, on its performance, gained the high praise of the public and the critics. However, this was not the case with the operas since these were never performed.

In addition to the assistance he gave his father in the two Cathedrals, Alberto is also known as a music teacher, pianist and as organist of St Paul’s Shipwreck Parish Church in Valletta for about 30 years. His liturgical compositions number about 220, mainly meant for the two Cathedrals and St Paul’s. He only composed two works intended for the theatre, both in the nature of overtures: Pretoria: Sinfonia per il XX Secolo (1901) and Cecilia (1902).

The most prolific of Giuseppe Vella’ sons was Luigi. He gained a high public profile particularly during the time he was secretary to the short-lived Camera Degli Autori e Compositori di Musica Maltesi, an institution which he himself had founded on 16 December 1923 to promote and defend the interests of Maltese composers and musicians.

Luigi’s know oeuvre consists of 248 sacred (mainly liturgical) works; 54 chamber pieces; 11 compositions for band; a secular oratorio La Lampada (1901) to a text by Ferdinando Fontana performed under the direction of the composer in the Teatru Rjal in May 1915; 3 cantatas: The Shepherds of Bethlehem (1916, text H. W. Davey), Dante e Carducci (1921, text Luigi Billion), Sliema for voices and band (1924, text Luigi Billion); and 3 operas.

Here are some details about these never-performed operas:

  1. Giordano (1913), musical drama in a prologue and 2 acts to a libretto by Enrico Golisciani.
  2. Notte nuziale (1917), lyric opera in 2 acts to a libretto by Enrico Golisciani.
  3. Rosamunda oppure La figlia di Simon (1928), an opera in 4 acts, libretto attributed to R. E. Serge.

Although Paolo, like his brothers, spent his life in music, as a composer he was the least prolific of the three, his oeuvre consisting of only 27 liturgical works and 22 secular pieces, among the latter being his comic never-performed opera in 2 acts I carbonari to a libretto by Enrico Golisciani

In next week’s blog, Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin talks about more unperformed operas by Maltese composers.