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Paolino Vassallo
1856 - 1923
P. Vassallo
Paolino Vassallo (24/07/1856 - 30/01/1923), a Maltese composer, born in Cospicua. He was one of the most prominent Maltese composers, the first to move away consciously from the dominating Italian influence on Maltese music. After local music studies in Malta, in 1875 he left for Paris, where he remained for 10 years and continued his studies mainly with Ernest Guiraud and Jules Massenet. On his return to Malta in 1885, he founded in Valletta his extremely successful Music Institute. His students included the most important composers of the first half of the twentieth century, among them Domenico Anastasi, Giuseppe Caruana, Carlo Diacono, etc. Vassallo composed both sacred and non-sacred music. His three operas, where Massenet’s example is quite evident, are very popular.
Paolino Vassallo studied music in Malta before going to Paris where he studied with Guiraud and Massenet. He is a very fine romantic composer and the National Orchestra of Malta is celebrating the anniversary (2006 is the 150th anniversary of his birth) of this important composer with a number of concerts spread throughout the year. The most important concerts are the symphonic concert held May 2006 at the national theatre (National Orchestra under the direction of Christopher Muscat performed orchestral works by Vassallo) and the Messa da Requiem that the National Orchestra again under the direction of Christopher Muscat will be performing on November 25, 2006 at the beautiful Co-Cathedral of St. John’s in Valletta.
Author:Christopher Muscat (General Manager of the National Orchestra of Malta)
Paolino Vassallo is one of Malta’s finest composers and his studies and contacts in Paris undoubtedly helped him in no small way to develop his innate musical talent and to broaden up his musical perspective. And this he did thanks to his illustrious teachers Jules Massenet (1842-1912) and Ernst Guiraud (1837-1892) and to the friendship he treasured with Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896) and Charles Gounoud (181-1893) amongst others. Being surrounded with composers of such genius and having Claude Debussy as class-mate in the composition class of Ernst Guiraud was certainly of much inspiration for the Maltese composer.
Paolino Vassallo was born in Cospicua on the 24th July 1856 to Salvatore Vassallo and Victoria Xicluna and died on the 20th January 1923 in Valletta at the age of 67. At an early age he was thought the violin by Professor Domenico Amore and the elements of harmony by Canon Luigi Fenech, but soon he realised that his native land did not afford him enough scope to develop his innate talent for music, and at the age of 19 he went to Paris to continue his studies. It was his good fortune to have as teachers two great composers of the time, Guiraud and Massenet, and while studying in Paris he managed to infiltrate the top Parisian musical circles whilst earning his living as first violin at the Opéra Comique, and later on many occasions, acted as conductor of the orchestra of the same famous theatre.
Vassallo’s undoubted talent as a composer received international recognition on many an occasion. One need only mention his nomination for the Grand Prix de Rome which he refused to contest as he chose to remain a British subject and the prize he won in the Moody-Manners International Competition in 1895 with his two-act opera Amor Fatal.
Paolino Vassallo returned to Malta in 1888 to visit his parents. It was not his intention to remain in Malta but love for his parents and to his future wife Marianna (whom he met during this visit) compelled him to remain home. Paolino Vassallo’s personality was such that endeared him to everyone who came in contact with him. One observed in him the typical artist, lovably absent-minded, a stern countenance but a tender heart, extremely courteous, profoundly religious and dedicated solely to his art and his family.
During his period of stay in Paris, Vassallo not only solidified his compositional technique but also fully assimilated the main traits of Romanticism in music. These characteristics can be seen in Vassallo’s occasional use of fancy titles, in his imaginative orchestration, in breaking the boundaries created with the classical obsession of form and order, in his use of cyclic features and in the dramatically emotional content of his compositions.
One obvious feature that characterizes his musical idiom is undoubtedly Vassallo’s rare natural gift for melody. The melodic contours are immediately recognizable and show the composer’s deep understanding of the human voice and orchestral instruments alike.
It is not a surprise that when Paolino Vassallo embarked on the ambitious project of setting up a conservatory of music (more or less along the lines of the French musical education system) this attracted a big number of students. This description was fully put into practice some months later with the school offering classes of singing, solfeggio, violin, piano, basic harmony, advanced harmony and composition, orchestral training, choral training and string quartet training. Other courses were also available for harp, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, trumpet, horn and trombone.
Vassallo was a prolific composer and his varied output can be clearly classified into three main areas: (a) sacred music; (b) orchestral and operatic music; (c) other light compositions. Back in his native land after the twelve-year stint in Paris, Paolino Vassallo had found himself caught between two musical forces that prevailed in Malta at the time. On one hand his appointment in 1902 as Maestro di Cappella of the Mdina Cathedral and the Co-Catheral of St. John in Valletta, became the driving force that compelled him to compose some of his finest sacred works such as the Requiem Mass, the Messa Grande, Messa Santa Cecilia, Salve Regina for tenor and orchestra, Beatus Vir, Laudate Pueri and numerous other hymns, psalms and antiphons. It was during the tenure of his office as Maestro di Cappella that, despite great opposition, Vassallo managed to enforce and implement the new regulations for sacred music established by the Papal decree of 1910, better known as Motu Proprio.
On the other hand, with his background as orchestra leader and conductor at the Opèra Comique, Vassallo could not escape the lure of the Royal Opera House, considered the highest musical institution on the island, with which he had managed to maintain a good contact as early as 1888. His opera Amor Fatale, a dramma lirico in two Acts with a libretto translated from the French was premiered on the 3rd May 1898. Paolino Vassallo’s perhaps best loved opera Frazir with a libretto in four Acts by M.A. Refalo, was performed for the first time on the 15th March 1905 but it had to take four years after Paolino Vassallo’s demise for his 3-Act opera Edith Cavell to receive its first performance at the Royal Opera House on the 21st March 1927.
Although it is his output of works pertaining to the fields of sacred, orchestral and operatic music that comprise the main part of his canon, revealing the true reflection of the composer’s spiritual and artistic soul, from time to time, Vassallo nevertheless engaged in the composition of lighter works such as the four charming waltzes Les Astres, the Gavotta scored for the unorthodox combination of tre mandolini, due chitarre e quartetto d’archi, a number of songs with piano as well as works for band. These compositions show Vassallo in a light much different from the stern facial expression that is much associated with this composer. Besides showing his flexibility, Vassallo also managed to experiment with idioms other than the ones that were well known to him during his studies and in which he could employ innovative musical styles, textures and techniques.
Author:Emy Scicluna & Christopher Muscat (2006)
Messa da requiem
Composed in:1893
Musical form:mass
Text/libretto:Latin mass
Vassallo's Messa da Requiem will be performed on November 25, 2006 at the Co-Cathedral of St. John’s in Valletta (performed by the National Orchestra of Malta, direction: Christopher Muscat (General Manager National Orchestra of Malta).
Author:Christopher Muscat
The movements of this requiem are:
01. Introduzione and Kyrie
02. Graduale
03. Dies Irae
04. Offertorio
05. Sanctus and Benedictus
06. Agnus Dei
07. Libera me
Author:Christopher Muscat