Salvaging our musical heritage | Alexander Vella Gregory

Ahead of an upcoming concert forming part of the Music in Malta: Prehistory to Vinyl initiative, Teodor Reljic speaks to Alexander Vella Gregory, Artistic Director of the Cappella Sanctae Catharinae choir

Alexander Vella Gregory, Artistic Director of the Cappella Sanctae Catharinae choir
Alexander Vella Gregory, Artistic Director of the Cappella Sanctae Catharinae choir

What do you make of the ‘Music in Malta: Prehistory to Vinyl’ project as a whole, and would you describe it as an important outreach tool to educate the public about Malta’s musical heritage?

To my mind this is the first exhibition of its kind in Malta, both in content and scope. Exhibitions about music are notoriously difficult since the subject matter itself forms part of our intangible heritage. So, you do not have the immediacy of, say, an art exhibition where the artefact is also the subject matter itself (or at least forms a direct part of it).

With music you can only display objects that relate to the subject matter such as instruments, documents, and recordings. So as such, the performance programme that has been built around this exhibition is an integral part of the whole project. It allows the general public to understand not only the content but also the context. Music is being treated as a living and continually developing organism -- part of a natural progression unfolding across the centuries.

Alex Vella Gregory
Alex Vella Gregory

As a musician who also takes an academic interest in the craft – especially the Maltese dimension – what would you say are some of the lacunae of Maltese musical education, particularly as regards its historical dimension?

Oh, plenty of lacunas! Unlike the visual arts which somehow feature in our curriculum (even though still limited in outlook), music is often excluded or barely mentioned. Music history has always been taught in terms of the wider Anglo-Saxon narrative, without taking into account the local context. For example, the Anglo-Saxon 19th century is dominated by the symphony, a form which is alien to the opera-dominated Italian 19th century to which we have a closer affinity.

There are very few 19th Maltese symphonic works, but plenty of operatic works and sacred works in an operatic style. In other areas there are lacunas in local research (due to a variety of factors). We know very little about medieval music in Malta, although documentary evidence points towards a richer cultural life than is generally thought. It is only at postgraduate level that music students specialising in musicology can get to study Maltese musical history which – important as that is – leaves the greater part of the population in the dark.

Could you tell us a little bit about Cappella Sanctae Catharinae? When was the choir first formed, and what were some of its main aims from the beginning?

Cappella Sanctae Catharinae (CSC) was set up in 2009 as an experiment. A restoration project was underway at the Church of St Catherine of Italy in Valletta, which project also included a series of music events to raise funds. One of the restorers working on the project, a certain Fabio Billi, was also a chorister with a male choir in Rome, and he approached a number of musicians to try it out. Since then we have performed in various venues across Malta and Gozo. Our repertoire is mostly late Renaissance and Early Baroque sacred and secular music.

CSC has always strived towards reaching out to new audiences by offering more than just a concert. We try as much as possible to put the music into context, by building thematically cohesive programmes, and performing in suitable spaces. We also support philanthropic causes and heritage-related restoration projects. We have good working relationships with a number of cultural and heritage organisations including the Notarial Archives Resource Centre, Din l-Art Ħelwa, and for this event Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti.

You will be performing a concert under the ‘Music in Malta: Prehistory to Vinyl’ umbrella on December 14. Could you tell us a little bit about what we can expect, and what Cappella Sanctae Catharinae hopes to contribute to this initiative?

CSC will be tackling music in early modern Malta. We will be moving from plainchant to the Early Baroque period, all the while putting it into its proper historical context. We will be singing some chants taken from the Royas Graduals (held at the Mdina Cathedral Archives) and the L’Isle Adam Choral Books (held at the St John’s Co-Cathedral Archives). Moreover, we will be singing works by composers whose works are represented in the important Mdina Cathedral Archive Collection, including Monteverdi and Isabella Leonarda, a rare example of a female 17th century composer. As a little Christmas gift we will also be reviving an old Maltese carol which we collected from Mr. J Zammit from Birkirkara which forms part of our ongoing project on salvaging and reviving our musical heritage.

Cappella Sanctae Catharinae will be performing at the Oratory of St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta on December 14 at 7pm, as part of Music in Malta: From Prehistory to Vinyl. For more information and bookings, log on to: www.musicinmalta.com. The event and exhibition are organised by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti

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