Many of my blog posts thus far cover composers who have played very important roles in their countries’ musical history. However, few composers have written music that evokes their native land as convincingly as that of today’s subject, Maltese composer Charles Camilleri.
Born into a musical family in the town of Hamrun on September 7, 1931, Camilleri showed talent in composition from an early age, writing a band march at the age of eleven. He continued to compose at a high level throughout his teenage years, writing a number of pieces based on a form of Maltese folk singing called ghana. While the very early works of most composers are practically never performed, perhaps with the exception of Mozart, Camilleri’s compositions from this time, including the “Malta Suite” for orchestra and his “Mediterranean” piano concerto (revised in 1978), are energetic and melodic and remain popular in Malta today. At the age of 17, he added to his already impressive oeuvre by writing Il-Weghda, the first-ever opera written in Maltese.
Despite impressing his teachers at the Lyceum High School, Camilleri instead opted to study law. However, his ambitions changed after his family immigrated to Australia in 1950; he left his studies, initially spending four years as a schoolteacher, before moving to London in 1954. It was there that he first earned his living through music, working as a composer, arranger, and conductor of light music and touring with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Hoagy Carmichael.
In 1959, Camilleri moved to Canada to study composition at the University of Toronto, spending much of his time continuing to write film scores and also being appointed conductor of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Six years later, he moved back to England with the goal of dedicating himself to composition once and for all.
The 1970s and 1980s were the most influential period in Camilleri’s career – during this time, many of his most important works were written and published. His output during this time includes his organ pieces Missa Mundi (1972) and Wine of Peace (1976), both important contributions to that instrument’s modern repertoire, as well as the first oratorio in the Maltese language, Pawlu ta’ Malta (1985), written in honor of the patron saint of the island of Malta. From 1977 to 1983, Camilleri also served as professor of music at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.
From 1992 to 1996, Camilleri served as the first ever professor of music at the University of Malta, and he continued composing through the 2000s, writing his final major work (and his only symphony), the “New Idea Symphony,” on a commission from his countryman, the writer Edward de Bono in 2006. He passed away in 2009 in his beloved hometown of Naxxar, Malta, at the age of 77.
During Camilleri’s six-decades-long compositional career, he wrote in almost every genre, from oratorios to nationalistic light music to meditative organ works. Although Camilleri’s compositions are frequently performed in his native Malta and receive occasional performances elsewhere, particularly in the UK, he and his works are pratically forgotten among much of the classical community – it’s a shame that such a prolific and diverse composer is so rarely acknowledged.
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(Information in this post is derived from Wikipedia and two obituaries of Camilleri in The Guardian and The Independent.)
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