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Early Music for Palm Sunday

at Bormla
by Dr. Simon Mercieca


In the past, religious functions during Holy Week were undertaken with particular pomp and solemnity, to the extent that the ritual was transformed into a sacred pageant. Music played an important role in the whole theatrical re-enactment of the Passion of Christ. The earliest surviving music used in the rites for this week mostly dates back to the High Middle Ages, but in a number of compositions dating to this latter period, the influence of earlier music can be deducted. From time immemorial, composers were commissioned to write music for the different functions held during this week, which used to end with the responsories on Saturday morning. In the old Ambrosian Chant, plain songs for this week survive which are reminiscences of the early Christian period. Great composers such as Carlo Gesualdo and Alessandro Scarlatti and his nephew Domenico Scarlatti known as the “Bach of Italy” wrote music for the church including the Lamentations and Tenebrae Responsories that used to be sung on Holy Saturday.

Malta’s geographical position next to the cradle of the Roman Catholic Religion, made it inevitable for the island to be influenced by the religious development in Italy and in particular, in Sicily. The Cathedral Church in Malta was a forerunner in the introduction of new musical styles in particular during late medieval times. However, with the arrival of the Knights of St. John in 1530, and the development of the harbour cities, the emerging parishes in this area began to develop their own musical repertoire of sacred music with compositions which sometimes were of the same calibre of the music played at Mdina. The Birgu parish church, for example, still treasures in its archives the first printed edition (which incidentally is a very rare copy) of the music score of the Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina who, on the order of Pope Gregory XIII, composed the famous Lamentations for the Cappella Sistina and which were sung on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. 

Maltese composers began to make a name for themselves in sacred music from the middle baroque period onwards. Maltese composers wrote many of these. Most of these compositions are in themselves rare musical manuscripts but unfortunately, some are anonymous.  The parish church of Cospicua or Bormla, as this place is popularly known, has musical scores dating back to the seventeenth and eighteenth century making the parish archives one of the richest in Malta for early Maltese music. Moreover, these archives are particularly rich in music for Holy Week.

One can therefore safely conclude that the old scores to be found in these archives were played at this church during important religious functions in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Perhaps, one may also conjecture that they were specifically composed for Bormla to enhance these solemn celebrations, in particular the ones for the suggestive ritual of Holy Week. These celebrations opened with the rites of Palm Sunday service and all end with the music for the liturgical service of Good Friday. Missing are the scores for Holy Saturday. This could be due to the fact that by the seventeenth century, these responsories lost their pride of place following the liturgical reforms initiated in the previous century by the Council of Trent.

Music to be played during the Holy Week had to be composed in a rhythm of lament, which was achieved by the use of a moderate or slow music tempo. It was a tempo that had to differ sharply from that used in church during the other days of the year. In fact, from late medieval times the modal for Holy Week pivoted mostly on the G and D notes, which created this particular melodramatic genre. However, the difference was not only felt through the use of various melodic scales but also through the use of string and wind instruments. The preference to use only string and a few wind instruments during this particular week became the hallmark of this religious season. One has to remember that during the eighteenth century, many churches, including the parish church of Bormla, acquired a new musical instrument, the pipe organ, for the accompaniment of religious services.

The reactions of the Church authorities to the use of the organ during Holy Week were not long in coming. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the use of this instrument was not only discouraged but also downright forbidden particularly during the liturgy of Good Friday. The organ was banned because the sound emitted from its lead and wooden pipes was considered vociferously loud. Through a number of ordinances, the Church sent a symbolic message; the organ was to become a metaphor of Easter. In truly baroque spirit, a sort of theatrical shock was being propagated, for after days of mournful music, the faithful heard the loud and merry sound of the organ announcing the resurrection of Christ.

Those churches that could afford to and had the means to replace the organ with another less powerful keyboard instrument, as was the case with the Cathedral Church of Mdina, bought a piano. From research undertaken by Mgr. John Azzopardi, we learn that in the late eighteenth century, the Cathedral purchased at least two pianos from England. The first piano was bought in 1788 for the price of 240 scudi. However, in 1791, the Cathedral sold a piano, which could have been either the one bought three years before or an older piano, in order to buy a new one for the price of 350 scudi. At the Wignacourt Museum of Rabat, there is a small Broadwood piano (the size of a modern baby grand but with a smaller keyboard) manufactured in 1804. This piano was probably the one used in Holy Week at the adjacent chapel overlying the Grotto of St. Paul. A look at this particular piano, as well as at any other piano manufactured during this period, can make one easily understand why they were used for these particular services. They were rather weak instruments. The piano chords, for example, were knotted to iron nails, which in turn were pinned onto a wooden rail fastened to the piano’s main frame. This meant that the chords were being simply tightened according to the pressure that could be exercised by a human hand. Thus, the tension exercised on the chord, after the hammer on pressing one of the keys hit it, was rather low. The resulting sound was very weak in comparison with the present generation of pianos.  

On the other hand, those parishes that did not possess a piano had to either simply rely on string and/or a few wind instruments or else use another keyboard instrument, which was considered to emit a less glorious sound. It was traditional in some of the rural parishes to replace their pipe organ sound by the quieter voice of a harmonium. Such custom was still operative in non-opulent parishes until the turn of the last century. The harmonium was also introduced in Bormla and until the Good Friday liturgical reforms introduced by Pius XII, this instrument ended up being used throughout Holy Week in lieu of the pipe organ.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, faced with the difficulties that certain parishes encountered, to substitute their organ with other instruments, the Church issued a directive by which a sort of modus vivendi was adopted. Those churches that could not replace their organ could still use it during Holy Week but it had to be played at an ad sustinendum cantus meaning that it could only be played to lead the choir. One must bear in mind that the organ was very expensive to buy but very cheap to run, as it only involved the cost of one organist. Its numerous music registers made it an inclusive instrument, suitable to be played on its own without the use of other instruments.

The parish of Cospicua was one of those parishes that could afford not to play the organ during the Holy Week, substituting it with the use of string instruments, in particular the violin, the cello and the counter bass, as well as using a few wind instruments in particular the flute, the bassoon and oboe. The most ancient composition for Holy Week at Bormla seems to date back to the late seventeenth century. Unfortunately, the score carries no date nor is its author known. Furthermore, it seems that what has survived is a copy of these scores made in the eighteenth century. One cannot exclude the possibility that this score could have even been written at a later period. However, the style and modal points to the late seventeenth century. By the turn of the nineteenth century, such music was already out of fashion and, in Bormla, new compositions for Holy Week were being composed by the various maestri di cappella of this parish, in particular by Don Salvatore Magrin, who, together with Don Giuseppe Burlo, dominated the music scene in Bormla during the first half of the nineteenth century.   

These late seventeenth-century scores contain the music for Palm Sunday, Wednesday in Holy Week, Maundy Thursday and the psalms and liturgy for Good Friday. What is of interest in this anonymous music is the fact that stylistically, it dates to Bach’s time or even before. It is for this reason that it is being associated with the late seventeenth century or early eighteenth century. If the score is not a copy but an original, then the composer modelled his music for the Holy week ritual on the lines of the Italian composers Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli or German masters composing before or during Bach's time. The style of this particular music predates Mozart. Mozart’s influence on church music is not yet present in this score. In fact, on a thorough analysis of the score, no traces were encountered of the new genre of musical tones introduced by Mozart’s composition.

Another interesting point about this music is the fact that the Palm Sunday ritual contains the recitation of the Passion of Christ according to the Gospel of St. Matthew. This reading of the passion of Christ according to Matthew has most probably become one of the most famous Passions, thanks to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). It was already a Church tradition to have the reading of the Passion of Christ or Passio in Latin, sung out by three or four voices. Bach composed the music for the Passion story. It was an old tradition of the Church to have the Passio chanted on two separate occasions. First it was read during High Mass on Palm Sunday and again retold in the liturgical ceremony of Good Friday. Until the last liturgical reform, the Passion according to St. Matthew was the Gospel reading on Palm Sunday. There is no doubt that solemn processions were held at Bormla during this period, and they were most probably accompanied by music of wind instruments. Old musical scores in the church archives, in particular compositions for flute, were intended for playing during public manifestations of faith. The flutes and the drums were, par excellence, instruments used in the baroque and classical age for the accompaniment of religious processions and other public manifestations.

As is the case with Bach’s Passion, this anonymous composer structured his script on a soprano, alto, tenor and bass. The composition was in fact written for ‘a cappella’ performance, that is, the singing was accompanied by a small orchestra. This is collaborated by the fact that some orchestration parts, composed by this anonymous composer, have survived for other parts of the ceremony played during the Holy Week. However, the orchestration parts for the passio are missing.

On Tuesday 11th April 2006, at 7.30 pm, part of this music will be played again at Bormla’s parish Church. Ms. Rita Scicluna, an M.Phil student with the Mediterranean Institute at the University of Malta has been for the past months working on editing the score to enable one to perform it again by having the musical notes transcribed into modern music keys while any missing parts are recreated. The editing of these works is being done under the supervision of Dr. Dion Buhagiar. The advice of Professor Hans Jurgen Nagel was also sought regarding the interpretation needed to have various homophonic pieces of these scores played to please a modern audience. In fact, it is thanks to their efforts that these old scores can be played. The music includes the parts for the introit and all the psalms that used to be sung outside the Church precincts, at the door of the church and inside the church. The concert will include the singing of the Passio of Christ according to Matthew.

The score for Palm Sunday includes the participation of two sopranos. In the past, castrati sang these parts. Their scores are in homophonic style. The sopranos are supported by a tenor and a bass thus giving the composition a polyphonic vein. Since part of this ritual was sung during processions, musical instruments were not included. However, as its modern execution precludes a seated audience, Professor Nagel advised on introducing string movements. Ms. Rita Scicluna created these parts. At the same time, care was taken that the instruments introduced to these new parts were complementary with the instruments used in this composition, in particular in the playing of the Mass arias. Many parts of the Offertory scores, however, are missing with the result that they too are being recomposed afresh by Ms. Scicluna.

During this concert, music for the flute that used to be played in processions such as the ones held on Palm Sunday will also be played. The music scores for flute were edited by students reading for a B.A. Hons degree in music at the University of Malta under the supervision of Maestro John Galea. Entrance to this concert is free.



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