Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Operas - Part 9 'The Bugeja Composers'

In last week’s blog we looked at the colourful life of composer Emanuele Galea. In today’s blog Joseph Vella Bondin gives us an insight into the life of not just one composer but a whole family of musicians. 

Patronage refers to the encouragement and financial backing that an organisation or individual bestows on another; it tended to evolve wherever a royal or ecclesiastical structure and an aristocracy dominated a society, a significant share of whose resources they controlled. Until virtually the end of the 19th century, the only way musicians could support themselves was under the patronage system, and, even up to the present time, patronage still plays an important role in the realization of musical compositions and their eventual performance.

In the case of Malta, the patronage system was crucial to the shaping of its musical legacy. Throughout the ages, the only consistent and effective patron for Maltese composers was the Catholic Church. Its demands were for liturgical and other forms of sacred music to be executed in churches during its evangelisation and parochial work. This fact explains why the bulk of the Maltese heritage contributed by Maltese composers active only in Malta consists of ecclesiastical works since it was inevitable that most of their oeuvre was intended for performance in churches.

Fortunately for Maltese music and its composers, ecclesiastical patronage continues to the present day. But in the last half century or so, the Malta government, similarly to those in other countries, is also expected to shoulder the burden of providing music for all its citizens.

Maltese church music during the 19th century was dominated by two great families – the Bugeja and the Nani dynasties of musicians and composers. Most remarkable was the hold they exercised over the most important and for many decades the only economically viable full-time profession which music in Malta then offered – that of maestro di cappella.

The Bugeja family of Valletta, a family with a musical repertoire among the finest in the Maltese musical heritage, consisted of four generations and five musicians:  Pietro Paolo (1772-1828), his son Vincenzo (1805-1860), Pietro Paolo’s brother Filippo (1809-1891) who managed the Bugeja family cappella di music between 1860 and 1869 while Riccardo was studying in Naples, Vincenzo’s son Riccardo (1844-1926), and Riccardo’s son Censinu (1910-1967).

The only member of this illustrious family that wrote an opera was Vincenzo.

However, Pietro Paolo Bugeja was engaged as opera conductor by Manoel Theatre impresarios for a number of seasons, including 1806-7, 1812-3, 1815-6. Operas he conducted, an eclectic mix, included Cimarosa’s Le trame deluse, Generali’s Adelina, Pietro Carlo Guglielmi’s La guerra aperta, Paisiello’s Andromaca and Nina, Palma’s Lo scavamento, and Elisa, which Mayr had written for the Manoel in 1801.

Given his association with the Manoel, it is not surprising that Pietro Paolo’s oeuvre includes works for that venue. Most important was the sacred oratorio Gioas, re di Giuda (1813), a setting of Metastasio’s renowned text. Performed during the 1815-16 season, it was the composer’s closest approach to the writing of an opera.

His son Vincenzo, who inherited his father’s occupation as maestro di cappella, refined his musical studies in the Conservatorio di musica San Pietro a Majella in Naples between February 1829 and September 1831 at a time when Niccolò Zingarelli was the institution’s director and, given that Zingarelli was a major operatic composer, Neapolitan opera was one of the Conservatorio’s favourite pedagogical fields.

Clearly stimulated by the environment in which he was studying, Vincenzo composed his semi-serious opera in two acts Lodoiska, text by Francesco Malagricci. On his return to Malta, Domenico and Luigi Amore, then the Manoel’s impresarios, agreed to present it as the first opera of the Theatre’s 1832 spring season. The impresarios also honoured Vincenzo by giving him a cast of extraordinary quality including soprano Camilla Darbois (Lodoviska), tenor Filippo Tati (Lovinski), baritone Carlo Leonardis (Boleslao), and bass Francesco Malagricci (Tisticano), also the libretto’s author.

Lodoiska excellent musical insights and well-merited success encouraged the impresarios to present it again during the following (1832-33) season when it enjoyed an even greater triumph.  Thus all indications were that Vincenzo Bugeja would be motivated to compose more operas. This was not to be for his increasing involvement in liturgical music does not seem to have left him space and whatever new works he found the time to compose had to be in line with his liturgical requisites.

In the period of a century and three-quarters since its initial executions, Lodoiska has never enjoyed even a single revival. Instead it has been gathering the pitiable dust of neglect in the Archives of the Maltese Dominican Province, the recipient of the musical archives of the Family Bugeja, in keeping with the last will and testament of Ċensinu Bugeja, the last of the Bugeja musicians.


Next week we shall take a look at the life and works of nineteenth century composer Giuseppe Malfiggiani.