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Corsican music at Cospicua and Rabat

by Dr. Simon Mercieca

To mark the inauguration of the restoration of two old pala d’altare paintings preserved in the chapel dedicated to St. Joseph at the former Conservatorio of Cospicua (now an old people’s home), a cultural evening was organised on the initiative of the archpriest, Canon Joe Mifsud, on November 25. The programme included short musical performances. Karen Cremona led a trio consisting of two violins and a violincello, which she played.

The distinguished guests who attended also had the opportunity to listen to an old Mediterranean instrument, the cetera, played by a young Corsican musician, Damien Delgrossi, who was the special guest.

References to this instrument can be traced in the Bible. However, the playing of this instrument went into decline in the 20th century, and various specificities that had developed in different countries and regions were lost. This instrument was very popular in Corsica.

Delgrossi’s performance, which featured Corsican music, was repeated on November 27 at the Wignacourt Museum, Rabat, during an activity held in the framework of an INTERREG IIIC project S3C  -  Culture Competitiveness Creativity.

Delgrossi was born in Corsica in 1984 and is currently studying history at the Pasquale Paoli University of Corsica and at the History Department of the University of MaltDamien Delgrossi playing the Coriscan Ceteraa. he has a particular interest for the intangible heritage of Corsica, and music is among his most favourite subjects of what the French love to call la culture immateriel. His preferred instrument is the Corsican cetera.

In Corsica, he is a member of a number of ethnic groups as well as an active participant in polyphonic choirs. He sings Corsican polyphonic chant during sacred and religious functions. He is also a member of the confraternity of St. John the Baptist of Ajaccio and forms part of the Zilimbrina ethnic groups, as well as the Dopu Cena (cetera).

It was thanks to this gentleman that the playing of this instrument  -  which had died out  -  was revived. Delgrossi participated in a number of projects with Raffaelli to promote this beautiful instrument.

He also participated in concerts under the artistic direction of Henri Angel as well as in the important Journée Colomba festival of Fozzano. Delgrossi plays two other Corsican instruments, the pivàna and cialamedda.

The Corsican Cetera

The presence of the cetera in Corsica is attested by numerous texts and manuscripts dating to the early 17th century. However, this instrument was most probably present in Corsica before and was introduced on the island at the same time it was becoming popular in other areas of the Mediterranean. The cetera was played by shepherds, craftsmen and even people from the Corsican middle class. It remained popular until the mid-20th century, when its popularity began to wane and disappeared in the following decades. Its place was taken by the guitar and mandolin.

The cetera’s revival occurred in the early 1970’s, thanks to history researchers, musicians, folklorists and ethnomusicologists.

Along the centuries, the Corsican cetera developed its particular features which makes it a distinct instrument. This instrument was very popular in Renaissance times and was played both in religious and secular occasions.

Today, this instrument is still played in  Corsica during social activities as well as religious services. Whenever it is played in church, it accompanies polyphonic singing. The Corsican cetera is also used to accompany popular singers and monadic chant. It is also used as a solo instrument to accompany dance.

As an instrument, it forms part of the strings family and compares well with all other string instruments used all over the Mediterranean, like the Italian mandoloncello, the Turkish saz, the Greek bouzouki, the ghitarra sarda and most of all, the Portuguese guitar, which is a Portuguese cetera.

One of the features of the Corsican cetera is the way it is tuned; this is an open tuning in G, but like the lute, the cetera player can tune it according to his particular taste. This means that tuning is made in the so-called hypothetic manner. This is an aspect of the specificity of Corsican music.

Important discovery

In the summer of 1975, a very important old music score for cetera playing was discovered in a chest of drawers at a wayside monastery at Marcassu, in Balagna. It was composed by a Corsican monk, Stefano Allegrini, in 1720.

On the second page of the manuscript there is a touching note in Italian “Questo libro è di carta e di straccia, questa straccia è di lino e di terra, questa è di Dio, questo libro è mio, cioè Stefano Allegrini d’Aregno”. The author’s aim was to record for posterity old Corsican melodies intended to be played on different occasions. One of them was entitled Alimanda. This was composed to accompany dance; it was played by Delgrossi during his two recent performances in Malta.

The second piece he played was entitled Una Moresca. This was meant to accompany a sword dance representing the Christian Corsican struggle against the Muslims. The rhythm of the dance is lost but the music has survived. In fact, there are different versions of this moreschi score which are still played in Corsica.

This piece is very interesting and belongs, in my opinion, to the general cultural heritage of the Mediterranean.

In fact, it can be compared to the music of the Maltese parata. The score of the moresca chosen for these evenings originated in the village of Moita in the north of Corsica.

It should be noted that there are very performers of the cetera in Corsica  -  from 20 to 30  -  but it has gained popularity. Damien Delgrossi belongs to this restricted group who are trying to revive interest in this instrument.

Delgrossi’s participation in this activity was possible with the support of the Mediterranean Institute, under whose auspices falls the Music Department at the University of Malta.

Click to view photos and listen to the music played.

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