Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Operas - Part 12 The Nani Dynasty

In this week’s blog Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin talks about a whole generation of composers – the Nani Dynasty.

In many ways, the Nani dynasty of musicians, maestri di cappella and composers was more colourful and innovative than its distinguished rival, the Bugeja dynasty. Its musical activities covered two centuries and 5 generations: Angelo (1751-1844), his son Emanuele (1769-1860), Emanuele’s nephew Paolo (1814-1904), Paolo’s son Antonio (1842-1929), Antonio’s son Paul (1906-1986).

The Nanis appeared in Malta in early 1766 when 16 year-old violin virtuoso Angelo ( born in the Republic of Venice on 16 March 1751) while performing in Malta as part of a concert tour with flutist Jean-Dietrich Rapp, was appointed chamber musician to Grandmaster Emmanuel Pinto. Angelo’s marriage on 11 April 1768 to Ninfa Schembri resulted in 12 children, and his musical work involved mainly the operatic theatre. He was a regular member of the Manoel Theatre orchestra and the Theatre’s impresario for six years (1783-87, 1791-93).

The first important Nani compositions were by Angelo’s son Emanuele born in Valletta on 15 March 1769, where he also died on 26 February 1860. A student of his father and Vincenzo Anfossi, probably his greatest claim to fame lies in his achievements as a violinist. His reputation spread abroad where he was much in demand, particularly in Sicily as first violinist in various theatres and Catania’s cathedral. Of particular importance was his engagement as primo violino e direttore dell’orchestra of the first municipal theatre in Catania, the Teatro Comunale, between 1821-22 and 1832-1835. There are also indications that in May and June 1845 he was in Egypt’s Alexandria as primo violino e direttore d’orchestra at the Italian Theatre when he also composed his 6 ouvertures in pot-pourri. His other work for the theatre was the complex and virtuosic Trois duos concertants pour deux violons. The rest of his 25 extant compositions are all liturgical.

Emanuele’s musical life in church and theatre seems to have influenced his nephew Paolo. Born in Valletta on 18 November 1814, Paolo initially desired a life in jurisprudence, the other congenital Nani family profession. In fact he graduated as an advocate in Civil and Canon law from the University of Malta in December 1832, when he was only 18. His inclination to music, particularly as exercised by Emanuele, was also strong and even as a youth he had studied music with Giuseppe Burlon. In July 1833, he left for Naples to refine his musical studies under Niccolò Zingarelli and Gaetano Donizetti  at the  Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella. On 4 August 1838, he returned permanently to Malta a fully qualified maestro di musica.

Paolo’s family connections may have been influential in obtaining for him his first liturgical commissions and to be able to fulfil them he quickly formed his own cappella di musica on the lines of that of the Bugeja family. He also started composing very attractive and melodic liturgical works which he performed in the commissioning churches, among them  St Paul’s Shipwreck and the Carmelite Basilica  both in Valletta. His success was enormous and soon his music and his cappella di musica, became a national reality and as important as the Bugeja Family.

A fertile composer, Paolo wrote about 200 different works of which 188 were for the use of his cappella. Their language is purely operatic and during his lifetime he was accused of being disrespectful to the sacred liturgy by bringing pure opera into the local church. It is in fact true that he used wholly operatic techniques which were foreign to what was then regarded as music proper for the liturgy. However, it was the kind of music that struck a chord in people’s temperament and which brought the multitudes into the churches.

Paolo’s career in the theatre began when impresario Domenico Amore appointed him maestro concertatore for the Manoel’s 1840-41 opera season. His ability in this field was so impressive that he continued to do this work continuously until the 1888-89 season, first at the Manoel and then, from 1866, in the newly opened Teatru Rjal and under a host of different impresarios.

But Nani’s exceptional versatility was impressive, and he was ready to step in whenever the opera house needed him. Thus, in addition to his normal role as maestro concertatore, he frequently acted as regista, charged with guiding and co-ordinating the multifarious complex elements involved in opera staging.

For the 1842-3 and the 1856-60 seasons, he was also appointed principal conductor. He was furthermore often requested to edit operas to be staged in the Manoel. An example is Francesco Gnecco’s  comic opera La prova di un’opera seria for its presentations during the 1840-1 season when he cut some of Gnecco’s music and substituted it with his pithier interventions.

He also composed for the Manoel a comic opera in two acts La mezza notte, libretto by Francesco Malagricci, premiered before a full house on 22 May 1844, with an excellent cast that did full justice to the ingenious and melodious score conducted by the composer himself. Its success was such that this musical farce was put on again during the next season.  

Paolo Nani died on 24 March 1904 and his funeral was one of the most spectacular in the annals of Maltese history, almost a national manifestation, a sign of the respect and admiration the Maltese nation had for him and his music.

Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin's next blog will deal with Paolo Nani’s son Antonio and the Cappella Nani.