Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Opera - Part 10 Giuseppe Malfiggiani

In last week’s blog Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin gave us details about the life and work of the Bugeja family of composers. In this week’s article we take a look at the life of composer Giuseppe Malfiggiani.

Another talented musician who exercised his profession in music in an impressive variety of ways was Giuseppe Malfiggiani.

He was born in 1828 into a very poor family living in Valletta, and his early life was not easy. During his youth, however, he started to exhibit the strong determination that was to guide him throughout his life. He was able to study music with Giuseppe Burlon, an adept and conscientious maestro di cappella, who, understanding Malfiggiani’s talent and determination, gave him a wide-ranging schooling that helped him to develop into a composer, a valued maestro di cappella, a conductor, a theatre impresario, a sought-after teacher, a proficient singer, also able to play the piano, the flute and the double-bass with consummate technique.

It was as a flutist that he made his début. During a Philharmonic Society concert on 20 June 1844 at the Auberge de Provence (now the National Museum of Archaeology) he played some intricate variations for the flute during the interval between the first part and the second. He was only 15 at the time. Three years later, in September 1847, we find him double-bassist of Mdina Cathedral’s cappella di musica, a role he continued to fill until August 1864. He also taught piano and singing mainly from his home at 5 Strait Street, Valletta.

He was appointed maestro di cappella of a number of churches, including the parishes of St Lawrence (Vittoriosa), St Catherine (Zurrieq) and St Andrew (Luqa), and available information indicates that the popularity of his cappella was only surpassed by those of the Bugeja and Nani families.

Equally impressive was his much eulogised work as a bandmaster of various British military and Maltese civic bands. Among the latter and perhaps the most prestigious, was his appointment in 1886 as bandmaster of La Nazionale Vincitrice of Valletta, now King’s Own. As bandmaster of British military bands, he was particularly associated with that of the Second Battalion of the Eighth (King’s) Regiment. His engagement as its bandmaster from 1863 to 1868 resulted in much improved musical standards that made it one of the best of the many military bands stationed in Malta during the nineteenth century.

We also find Malfiggiani as an impresario for a good number of opera seasons at the Manoel (1858-62), at the Teatru Rjal (1866-70, 1881-5, 1890-4) as well as at the illustrious  Théâtre Zizinia (1875-9, 1886-9) in Alexandria, Egypt, the only known Maltese who assumed this demanding activity abroad. While impresario, he ably directed a number of operas.

And let us not forget that while he was doing all this, he was also composing and we are not talking here about one or two ephemeral pieces but about a substantial oeuvre. An indicative list is given by Pietro Paolo Castagna in the appendix to the second edition of his book L-Istorja ta’ Malta bil-Gżejjer Tagħha, published in 1890 (p. 243) while Malfiggiani was still living.

His sacred compositions include all those liturgical pieces which his cappella di musica needed to service commissioning churches, including solemn masses and vespers, responsories, psalms, canticles, hymns, antiphons. Much praised was a Messa funebre (1872) that was consistently performed during funerals of leading personalities, and was also used by the Cappella Nani before Antonio Nani composed his own setting in 1879.

For the concert and dance halls, he composed various piano pieces, 5 waltzes, 6 polkas, 2 quadrilles, 2 mazurkas, songs for various voices and piano while his band music includes many military, festive and funeral marches.

For the operatic theatre, he set to music a number of humorous short sketches in Maltese, which were generally performed during benefits, and which (understandably) proved immensely popular with the Maltese among the audience. He also composed three operas: I due dottori, L’Isle Adam and Coriolano. Of these, only I due dottori, a comic opera in two acts to a libretto by Carmelo Crocco, was ever performed. It was given three highly applauded executions at the Manoel in June 1848. Given the year of his birth and the date of its production, Malfiggiani must have composed it when he was only 19! The scores of these three operas are no longer extant, a not uncommon state of affairs in Malta.

One has to ask: how did Malfiggiani find the time to achieve all that he did? Probably, he was strongly motivated by the deprivations he had to face during his childhood. However, his over-exertion did put a strain on his health, and he died quite unexpectedly on 19 October 1893. The beginning of his demise occurred in Milan where he had gone to contract singers for the final year of his 1890-4 impresa. While there, he contracted a high fever that kept him in bed for three days, after which he seemed to have recuperated. When he and his company arrived in Malta on 16 October 1893, they had to undergo the obligatory two-week quarantine at the Lazzaretto on Manoel Island. The next day, the fever returned, and within three days he was dead.

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