Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Opera - Part 4 Nicolo Isouard

In the Fourth blog about Maltese composers of opera Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin gives us a detailed account of the third of the three great composers made possible by the Order of St John – Nicolo Isouard

Parish records reveal that the marriage between Fortunato Isouard Xuereb and Elena Maria Lombardo resulted in no less than fourteen children, all born in Valletta. The second child, a boy, was baptised on 17 May 1773, in the Parish Church of Porto Salvo the day after he was born, and was given the names of John Joachim Edward Nicholas, the fourth, Nicholas, in usage Nicolò, being chosen by the parents as the child’s proper name. Nicolò Isouard was therefore born on 16 May 1773. All the many other birth dates given in the literature, both local and foreign, should be ignored; they are not correct.

The most important factor in Nicolò’s early life was the patronage extended to the Isouard family by the Knights of Saint John, particularly by Grand Master Fra Emanuel de Rohan. Many factors accounted for this. Both Fortunato and Nicolò were freemasons, a society then led by the French Knights, many of whom actively supported Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. Also, the family belonged to the middle class, the class that had made itself indispensable to the Order. The Grand Master’s patronage of the Isouard family found concrete expression in the request dated 31 July 1786 he made to his ambassador in Paris, Admiral Comte Pierre André de Saint Tropez, recommending Nicolò for education in the military college of Tournon in France.

Isouard studied in Touron for about four years. His studies included music and piano with Henry-Noël Le Pin, famed harpsichordist and composer. He returned to Malta in 1790 when he was just under 18 with his already existing admiration for the French nation and its achievements make stronger.

Now began Isouard’s Malta phase as a composer. He continued his studies with Michel’Angelo Vella and Francesco Azzopardi, two of Malta’s leading music teachers. His first liturgical work, a large-scale Te Deum was the first concrete evidence of these studies. His very evident musical talent and charming personality increased the Order its patronage of the young composer. Two years later saw the performance at the Manoel Theatre of his first known theatrical work – the intermezzo, Casaciello perseguitato da un mago. Its success now encouraged him to leave Malta for Palermo, where he had further studies with composer Giuseppe Amendola, and then in Naples, with the famous Nicola Sala.

These studies resulted in his comic opera, L’avviso ai maritati, performed in Florence in the spring of 1794, and his opera seria, Artaserse, re di Persia, in Livorno during September of the same year.

He now returned to Malta where he started his work as organist of St John’s, initially as auxiliary to the ailing Vincenzo Anfossi, and, on the latter’s death on 5 January 1796, as incumbent organist with an annual salary of 252 scudi. Grand Master Emanuel de Rohan also promised him the future post of maestro di cappella as soon as it would become vacant. But this promise was never realized since the serving maestro, Melchior Sammartini, was still alive in June 1798 when the invading French took over Malta.

It was during these very busy years that Isouard wrote all the liturgical music he ever composed and, additionally, a lot of other non-sacred music, including 6 operas for the Manoel Theatre.

By contrast, during the two years of the French occupation, he composed nothing. But his willing and active fraternization with the French quickly brought him to high public prominence and earned him the friendship and patronage of General Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois, Commander-in-Chief of the French forces. On 19 September 1798, Vaubois appointed him Commissioner of the Manoel Theatre.

The very turbulent French period only lasted 2 years, terminated with the help of British forces, destined to be Malta’s new and last colonizers. The evacuation of the French garrison took place on 9 September 1800. Dubbed a traitor by many Maltese for actively supporting and hobnobbing with the French, Isouard seems to have taken the only possible course now open to him: he left with the French, taking with him all his musical compositions, never to return. But it was this astute, albeit polemic, move that in the end formed Isouard into one of the great European composers of operas.

He settled in Paris where, under the continuing patronage of General Vaubois and others, including violinist and composer Rodolphe Kreutzer and playwrights François-Benoît Hoffman and Charles-Guillaume Étienne, he soon made a name for himself as an outstanding composer of opéras comique, a genre of French opera that contains musical numbers separated by dialogue. One has to emphasize that an opéra comique story-line can be of any nature and mood, from comic to tragic (Bizet’s tragedy Carmen, Gounod’s grand opera Faust and Offenbach’s opéra fantastique Les contes d'Hoffmann started life as operas comique).

Isouard’s composed some 34 of them during the 18 years he was in Paris. His genius and capability were acknowledged not only in France but all over Europe. Thus, to give one example, performances of Les rendez-vous bourgeois in the original French were also mounted in Brussels, Berne, Brunswick, Moscow, Vienna, New York, Berlin, London, Turin, and Barcelona; other performances with the libretto translated in German were held in Vienna, St Petersburg, Berlin, and Stuttgart; in Russian in St Petersburg and Moscow; in Swedish in Stockholm; in Dutch in Amsterdam and The Hague; and in Polish in Warsaw.

In the end, Isouard’s success was his ruin. For his sense of self-esteem had become vastly elevated. He applied to fill the post vacated by composer Etienne-Nicholas Méhul’s death on 18 October 1817 in the prestigious Institute de France, an honour that he coveted. But it was awarded to François-Adrien Boieldieu a native French composer.

Isouard’s mortification was devastating for he felt that he had been denied an honour that should have been his. His reaction was probably one to be expected – he plunged into a sustained bout of self-destructive debauchery and inebriety that quickly led to his death on 23 March 1818, at the age of only 44.

Isouard lies buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery of Paris, near the tombs of Méhul, Luigi Cherubini, and Fryderyk Chopin. Père Lachaise is the cemetery where outstanding personages who lived, honoured, and died in France are buried.

The Maltese Nicolò Isouard is one of these.

Click the link below to view a complete list of the operas compsoed by Nicolo Isouard.



List of Operas by Nicolo IsuoardList of Operas by Nicolo Isouard


In next week blog, Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin will give us the details about another Maltese composer of operas - Alessandro Curmi. 





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