[Reproduced with kind permission from Kairos Catholic Journal Vol 23, Issue 1 – 5 Feb 2012]
On their island fortress of Malta, the Knights of St John presided over a fascinating religious state. The Order of Malta, as the Knights are now known, is the third oldest of the religious orders of the Roman Catholic Church, being formally recognised as a totally exempt religious entity in a Papal Bull of 1113 AD by Pope Paschal II (Pie postulatio voluntatis).
The knights were patrons and benefactors of architecture and the visual arts, including their patronage of the knight painter, Caravaggio. Their Conventual Church of St John in Valletta, besides being an artistic wonder, maintained a music establishment, the size of that enjoyed by Mozart under the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg. Many composers, both Italian and Maltese, wrote hundreds of works of sacred music that supported the liturgy and religious life of the Conventual Church. Many of these manuscripts are safely preserved in church archives and libraries.
One of these Maltese musicians was Malta’s own national composer, Nicolò Isouard (1773-1818). Later in life, Isouard would have an extraordinary career, enjoying the favour of the Bonaparte family, as a composer of opéra comique. His fame was so great in his lifetime that his bust now adorns the Palais Garnier, the old Paris Opéra, a tribute only accorded to the elite of French operatic composers.
Before Napoleon’s invasion of Malta in 1798 that ended the rule of the knights, Isouard had been a minor member of the Order of St John, and eventually became organist at the Conventual Church. Although all of the operas from his Parisian period were published, a few years ago 33 of his manuscripts of previously unknown sacred music; masses, a Te Deum, Magnificat, Dixit Dominus and many antiphons, appeared in the Bibliothèque National in Paris. Like Mozart’s sacred music, these works by Isouard were composed for soloists, choir and orchestra and the entire collection comprised some 3,000 pages of manuscript. Since then several additional works have been found.
At the request of one of Malta’s finest historians, Mgr John Azzopardi, I edited all of these 36 works into print. I have previously edited into print some 150 pieces of Maltese sacred and secular music from the time of the Order on Malta.I was invited to Malta to conduct a concert sponsored by the APS Bank. Founded as a Catholic Church entity 100 years ago, the APS Bank is now one of the real success stories in the Maltese financial sector, and is a substantial and motivated sponsor in the areas of both cultural heritage and welfare.
The concert was presented in St John’s Cathedral, where these works had been originally intended to be performed, on 2 December, 2011. A capacity audience attended, including the two resident Archbishops, the Papal Nuncio, and the two emeritus Presidents of Malta. The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, five soloists and a fine choir participated and the concert was televised by Malta TV and a CD recorded in the preceding week.
As none of this music had been performed for over 200 years it was indeed an historic occasion, and one given in a grand visual and spiritual setting. Among the works performed were a large scale Te Deum of 1791, an extensive Gloria, and a Diffusa est Gratia, taken from Psalm 45 and composed as a solo aria for soprano castrato.
In being invited to Malta to conduct this concert of sacred music, I was privileged to visit the Sisters of St John in Valletta, (now an Ursuline community) who still wear the cross of the Order of Malta. I also participated in a special Mass concelebrated by Fr Anthony Robbie from the Sydney Archdiocese, (currently studying at the Gregorian University in Rome) and Mgr Azzopardi in St Paul’s Grotto at Rabat, the traditional site of the Saint’s imprisonment after his shipwreck on Malta.
In Victoria, (as in 120 countries around the world), the Order of Malta continues its 900 year old hospitaller vocation, and is active in palliative care, through Eastern Palliative Care, providing support to a school for refugee children and assistance to refugee families and the homeless, and spiritual assistance to aged Catholic Homes.
Frà Richard Divall is an Australian conductor and musicologist, Vice Chancellor’s Professorial Fellow at Monash University and one of 30 Knights of Malta in Solemn Religious Profession. He is currently undertaking a higher degree in Theology at Catholic Theological College on the sacred music of Isouard. He is a member of the Senior Common Room of Newman College at The University of Melbourne.