My second course of the sumptuous feast under the title of the Valletta International Baroque Festival arrived on 16 January. The fare was a Maltese delicacy with Italian overtones. The concert was performed by the Cappella Sanctae Catharinae at the church dedicated to all souls in Valletta.

Cappella Sanctae Catherinae © Valletta International Baroque Festival / Mario Mintoff
Cappella Sanctae Catherinae
© Valletta International Baroque Festival / Mario Mintoff

Cappella Sanctae Catharinae is Malta’s only male choir. Formed in 2009, it focuses its repertoire mostly on Italian Renaissance and early Baroque polyphony. The choir has already established itself in the Maltese cultural scene with a number of concerts to its credit.

The choir for this concert comprised three cantus, four tenors, four baritones and three basses. The voices were accompanied by a continuo group comprising two violins, cello and organ.

The programme for the concert focused on the arrival and development of sacred polyphony within a Maltese context. Polyphony slowly travelled south to the powerful city states in northern Italy during the Renaissance. It was not until the late 15th century that polyphony arrived in Spain.

This explains why polyphony took a long time to arrive in Malta, as the island was culturally linked to Sicily and the Spanish crown. Polyphony was introduced to Malta in the mid 16th century, when two cappelle were created, that of Mdina Cathedral and the other of the Order of the Knights of St John in Valletta. The original maestri di cappella were Sicilian, and the music was imported and reflected the styles of Italian composers of the period.

Artistic development was hindered by the constant threat of pirate raids on the island. Even with the arrival of the Knights, the situation remained unchanged. After the Great Siege in 1565 and the building of Valletta, the focus of the Order was its Conventual Church, and one of the first considerations the Order gave was to the question of liturgical music.

Unfortunately, documentation on the early history of the Order’s cappella is extremely scant. It is however known that instrumentalists other than organists came to be included in the 15th- and 16th-century chapels, particularly in Italy and it is highly probable that the Order, with its close cultural ties to Italy, would not have used voices and organ only in establishing a cappella di musica in its new church. Instruments, probably strings only at first, probably would have been included.

The rich variety of music of this period is splendidly reflected in the musical archives of both the Mdina Cathedral as well as the archives of the Order. Over the period of only a few decades Malta saw the works of all the great contemporary composers of the period including Monteverdi, all of which were in the latest in musical style.

The programme for the concert contained works which have copies housed in the Mdina Cathedral archives. The selection started with Vanitas, a motet for three voices and continuo by Francesco Foggia which actually exists in facsimile in the Mdina archives.

Lapidaverunt Stephanum and Te gloriosus Apostolorum, motets for four voices by Gianmateo Asola, provided a marvellous opportunity to hear the choir a cappella. For Maltese audiences the performance of an all-male choir is unique and thus made this performance special and rewarding.

Francesco Foggia’s Missa in Die Laetitiae was performed not as a whole but punctuated with other works, but maintaining the order of the mass.

Two Sonate di chiesa by Giovanni Battista Bassani for two violins and continuo were performed: one followed the Kyrie of the Foggia mass, and the other followed the Credo. Also performed within the mass was a motet for four voices and continuo, O quam suavis est, by Bonaventura Rubino.

Prior to the performance of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei we were treated to a magnificent performance of the Salve Regina for three voices by Claudio Monteverdi. This work was magnificently performed by the choir. Solo passages from three individual voices were interspersed with sections for all voices and the spatial effect of the music was used to its best effect. Qui manducat, a motet for four voices, was also performed. From my position, in the front row, the spatial layout of the choir was very apparent and there was a marvellous effect of the movement of the voices.

The final work in the concert was of particular note. Ave Regina Coelorum by Isabella Leonarda. Leonarda was an Italian nun and composer, who enjoyed great fame for her works although being clausura for the majority of her life. It is interesting that her works also found their way into the Maltese archives, the appearance of which showed that the local musical scene very much at a par with its continental counterparts. The choir was given a much-deserved rapturous reception from the packed church.

The second course being completed, the anticipation of the main course could not be contained. This took place on the following evening.

****1