Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Opera - Part 8 Emanuele Galea

Last week’s blog was about the second part of the composer Francesco Shira’s life. In today’s blog we shall take a look at the life of a Maltese composer of operas active in the first part of the nineteenth century – Emanuele Galea.

Emanuele Galea composed only one known opera but also wrote one of the most familiar works in the Maltese collective memory – the justly famous and still performed Sinfonia pastorale (c.1825) which he wrote for performance before the Christmas Midnight Mass in Valletta’s Parish Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck.

This sinfonia da chiesa, in B flat, is in Galea’s favoured two-movement French traditional configuration. The first section is a largo in compound duple time (6/8) and flaunts an attractive rising theme in a classically pastoral vocabulary. The theme is first expressed by the solo oboe, and then passes to other instruments in an ostinato of five repetitions. The captivating melody makes this movement such a brilliant creation that it undermines the attention that the second section, an allegro, deserves. If the first section is played on its own, as sometimes happens, the work loses the balance that makes it one of the outstanding works in the Maltese orchestral repertoire.

 A rather enigmatic figure in the romantic manner of the times, Emanuele Galea’s biographical details are still obscure but, like Curmi and Schira whose lives were reviewed in my two previous blogs, he is known to have journeyed from one location to another in search of opportunities to express his musical talent.

According to Pietro Paolo Castagna (L-Istorja ta’ Malta bil-Gżejjer Tagħha, 1890, p. 241), Galea was born in 1790 and died in 1850, and these dates have been adopted by later writers though not yet authenticated. His family hailed from Valletta and he was baptised in the Parish Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck, which establishes grounds for his close connection with that parish’s liturgical music. His initial studies were with Pietro Paolo Bugeja, later moving to Naples to refine them in the Real Conservatorio di Musica of Naples. On his return to Malta in 1825, he was appointed organist and maestro di cappella of St Paul’s Shipwreck. This period was marked by a number of important compositions still preserved in the parish’s archives.

Galea’s achievements at St Paul’s were immediately recognized, and he soon started to receive commissions to provide music in other churches. But a potentially influential and successful career was abruptly terminated in 1838, for reasons that seem to have been somewhat seedy.

He left Malta with a letter of recommendation to Count Mikhail Woronzow, governor general of New Russia and Bessarabia. Maltese commercial connections with that region of Russia were then quite strong so it was not unusual for people from Malta to travel there. Galea disembarked in Odessa where he was welcomed by the Count and nominated Professor of Music and Singing in Odessa’s famous Imperial and Real Conservatory for Young Noblewomen.

Between 1821 and 1855 Italian opera – provided, as it was in Malta, by companies imported from Italy, – dominated the stage of the municipal Odessa Opera House. Galea’s only known opera, Lo sposo di provincia burlato, a comic drama in two acts (libretto credited to Andrea Leone Tottola), was presented there during the Autumn Season of 1839. It was, of course, given in Italian and was interpreted by an excellent cast of Italian singers.

Although research has failed to discover Galea’s complete score, Milan’s Biblioteca del Conservatorio di Musica Giuseppe Verdi archives a few extracts (Noseda Q.42.2), namely the opening sinfonia, a substantial and exhilarating piece of orchestral music, and three numbers from Act 2.

How long Galea remained in Odessa, and whether he composed other operas, is not known. Vincenzo Caruana dei Conti Gatto in his book Malta Artistica Illustrata – Parte Seconda: Musica (1910, p. 45) provides a rather laconic summary of his subsequent travels, unfortunately without going into details or divulging his sources: ‘from there [Odessa], Galea went to direct theatres in Constantinople; but even from that city in the Bosphorus  he was obliged to move and proceed to the main cities of the Balkans, and even to St Petersburg, always leading a romantic life.’

Castagna (op. cit.) states that, while he was in St Petersburg, Galea came under the protection of the Czar, for whom in 1842 he composed a Hymn of Praise. The Czar at that time was Nicholas I, Emperor of Russia from 1825 to 1855. Under his controversial reign, Russia experienced a flowering of literature, music, and the arts in general.

It was probably in St Petersburg that Galea died.  

Galea’s life was turbulent, spent in flitting from one place to another, as if the longed-for auditorium of his dreams was never where he was residing but could only be embraced in the firmament of another country. What is certain, however, is the quality of his surviving compositions and the sweet, audacious melodies with which he was able to clothe them.

Next week’s blog is different from the rest because it is about a whole family of composers not just one individual – The Bugeja Composers.