Paolino Vassallo

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Born: 24 July 1856 — Cospicua — Malta
Died: 30 January 1923 — Valletta — Malta
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Selected list of works


  • Amor Fatale (first performance May 1, 1898)
  • Frazir (first performance March 15, 1905)
  • Edith Cavell (first performance March 21, 1927)

Symphonic Works

  • Scherzo, Andante e Finale for orchestra
  • Andante per Violino ed Orchestra
  • Malta (overture)
  • Ad Gloriam (overture)
  • Les Astres (Valses de Concert)
  • Marcia Religiosa e Fuga per Grande Orchestra

Sacred Music

  • Messa da Requiem (1892)
  • Messa Santa Cecilia
  • Numerous Hymns, Psalms and Antiphons


Paolino Vassallo was born in Cospicua on the 24th July 1856 to Salvatore Vassallo and Victoria Xicluna and died on the 20th January 1923 in Valletta at the age of 67. At an early age he was thought the violin by Professor Domenico Amore and the elements of harmony by Canon Luigi Fenech, but soon he realised that his native land did not afford him enough scope to develop his innate talent for music, and at the age of 19 he went to Paris to continue his studies. It was his good fortune to have two great composers of the time – Ernst Guiraud and Jules Massenet – as teachers and while studying in Paris he managed to infiltrate the top Parisian musical circles whilst earning his living as first violin at the Opéra Comique, and later on many occasions, acted as conductor of the orchestra of the same famous theatre.

Paolino Vassallo is certainly one of Malta’s finest composers. His studies and contacts in Paris undoubtedly helped him in no small way to develop his innate musical talent and to broaden up his musical perspective. And this he did thanks to his illustrious teachers and to the friendship he treasured with Ambroise Thomas and Charles Gounoud amongst others. Vassallo’s undoubted talent as a composer received international recognition on many an occasion. One need only mention his nomination for the Grand Prix de Rome (the most coveted prize obtainable by musicians of French nationality) which he refused to contest because he chose to remain a British subject, and the prize he won in the Moody-Manners International Competition in 1895 with his two-act opera Amor Fatale.

Paolino Vassallo returned to Malta in 1888 to visit his parents. It was not his intention to remain in Malta and in fact in coming over he had taken a return ticket via Marseille to Paris. But love for his parents and his future wife Marianna (whom he met during this visit) compelled him to remain home. Paolino Vassallo’s personality was such that endeared him to everyone who came in contact with him. One observed in him the typical artist, lovably absent-minded, a stern countenance but a tender heart, extremely courteous, profoundly religious and dedicated solely to his art and his family.

During his protracted stay in Paris, Vassallo not only solidified his compositional technique (use of increasingly detailed dynamics, expression marks and performance directions; the constantly changing orchestral colour and the advantageous exploitation of new instrumental registers) but also fully assimilated the main traits of Romanticism in music. These characteristics can be seen in Vassallo’s imaginative orchestration, in breaking the boundaries created with the classical obsession of form and order (also aided by constant shifting in tempos), in his use of cyclic features, in the dramatically emotional content of his compositions and in the occasional use of fancy titles (such as Les Astres and Extase; this trait was passed on to some of his pupils as can be seen in Josie Mallia Pulvirenti’s Impressione Sinfonica and Espressionismo).

One obvious feature that characterises Vassallo’s musical idiom is undoubtedly his rare natural gift for melody. The composer’s melodic contours are immediately recognizable and reflect his deep understanding of both the human voice and orchestral instruments alike. Solos are always very well dosed and in many of his works Vassallo opts for chamber-like orchestration in which unnecessary doublings (that were, at the time, part and parcel of the Italian operatic tradition) are avoided. The composer rather treats the orchestra as an amalgam of various chamber groups and only rarely does he employ all the instruments playing together. Consequently orchestral climaxes are immensely rousing and following a smooth but intense build-up, the addition of brass instruments after long moments of rest sound most effective and give the proper sense of direction that the composer intended.

However, it is Vassallo’s harmonic vocabulary that is the true reflection of the period in which he lived and of his studies in late 19th century Paris. Since its goal could never be attained, a spirit of longing haunted romantic art. In music, this yearning for the unreachable was reflected in the continuously shifting harmonies naturally affecting melodic phrases as a matter of course. During this period the triadic system was exploited to the full (with the addition of sevenths, ninths, elevenths and thirteenths) and composers modulated freely and frequently into distant keys with or without any harmonic preparation. Tonal colour was immensely expanded with the alteration of particular notes but the diminishing use of authentic cadences and the gradual re-introduction of modality threatened the strength of the tonal centre. Dissonance was also an important element in Romantic harmony and the all too frequent use of such chords as the augmented sixth and the diminished seventh was unprecedented. Vassallo followed along these footsteps very closely and his use of chromatically altered chords, unresolved dissonances and complex harmonic progressions, must have taken the Maltese audiences by surprise. However, it was this sense of innovation (naturally alongside his great personality) that the local public so much admired in this great composer.

It is not a surprise that when Paolino Vassallo embarked on the ambitious project of setting up a conservatory of music (more or less along the lines of the French musical education system) this attracted a big number of students. As quoted in the Guida Generale di Malta of 1891, “the aim of this [Istituto di Musica] is to offer cheap and easy theoretical and practical tuition to those who have a natural disposition, through which one can master the noble art of music in its various branches. Every effort will be made to offer the best possible tuition although one cannot hide the fact that success ultimately rests mostly on the good will of the student” (authors’ translation).

This description was fully put into practice some months later with the school offering classes of singing, solfeggio, violin, piano, basic harmony, advanced harmony and composition, orchestral training, choral training and string quartet training. Other courses were also available for harp, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, trumpet, horn and trombone. Classes were held at least twice a week and were divided according to level (preparatorio or superiore) and gender (separate classes for male and female students)! Each student received individual attention as classes never exceeded twelve students. Lessons at Vassallo’s Istituto di Musica were held in the mornings, afternoons and evenings (with some classes even held on Saturdays at 1930h!) Monthly fees for the preparatory classes were £0 8s. 0d. and the superior classes were increased to £0 12s. 0d.

The aims of the Isituto di Musica were reached and the result, at least in the field of composition, was extremely positive and the effects long lasting. Of the long list of students who attended the composition class of Paolino Vassallo were Domenico Anastasi, Agostino Camilleri, Vincenzo Ciappara, Pietro Paolo Galea, Lorenzo Gonzi, Giuseppe Caruana, Josie Mallia Pulvirenti and Carlo Diacono who were to dominate the local musical scene for at least another fifty years after the master’s death.

Vassallo was a prolific composer and his varied output can be clearly classified into three main areas: (a) sacred music; (b) orchestral and operatic music; (c) other light compositions. Back in his native land after the twelve-year stint in Paris, Paolino Vassallo had found himself caught between two musical forces that prevailed in Malta at the time. On one hand his appointment in 1902 as Maestro di Cappella of the Mdina Cathedral and the Co-Catheral of St. John in Valletta, became the driving force that compelled him to compose some of his finest sacred works such as the Requiem Mass, the Messa Grande, Messa Santa Cecilia, Salve Regina for tenor and orchestra, Beatus Vir, Laudate Pueri and numerous other hymns, psalms and antiphons. It was during the tenure of his office as Maestro di Cappella that, despite great opposition, Vassallo managed to enforce and implement the new regulations for sacred music established by the Papal decree of 1910, better known as Motu Proprio.

On the other hand, with his background as orchestra leader and conductor at the Opèra Comique, Vassallo could not escape the lure of the Royal Opera House, considered the highest musical institution on the island at the time, with which he had managed to maintain a good contact as early as 1888. His opera Amor Fatale, a dramma lirico in two Acts with a libretto translated from the French was premiered on the 3rd May 1898. The Malta Times of the 6th May 1898 confirms that “the Theatre on Tuesday was full and the piece presented to the public was received with general acclamation … Maestro Vassallo preceded the first Act by an overture entitled ‘Malta’ which was generally applauded”. The cast included Ester Adaberto (Francesca), Giuseppe Pagliano (Paolo), Francesco Banini (Gianciotto), Anita Torretta (Madre), Mario Spoto (Il Genio del male). Mro Arturo Bovio conducted the opera. Amor Fatale was a revised version of Vassallo’s previous work Francesca da Rimini (with an addition of two characters) that had been premiered ten years earlier, on the 1st May 1888, at the Royal Opera House.

Paolino Vassallo’s perhaps best-loved opera Frazir with a libretto in four Acts by M.A. Refalo, was performed for the first time on the 15th March 1905. It is based on Guze’ Muscat Azzopardi’s book Susanna (1883) which places the action of the story in 1551 when the Citta Notabile was attacked and ransacked by the Infidels led by Dragut, during the reign of Grand Master Juan D’Omedes. Under the Impresa Dr Emanuel Said, Frazir received no less than nine performances throughout the 1904-05 opera season at the Royal Opera House. The Italian cast had tenor Giovanni Valls in the title role, Elisa Tromben (Susanna), Angelo De Laudadio (Matteo), Baldo Travaglini (Francesco), and Adolfo Allegri (D’Adorno).

Four years after Paolino Vassallo’s demise, his 3-Act opera Edith Cavell, received its first performance at the Royal Opera House on the 21st March 1927. British nurse Edith Louisa Cavell (1865–1915), was the first matron of the Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels, that became a Red Cross hospital for both Germans and their enemies during WW I. On the 5th August, 1915 she was arrested and charged with harbouring refugees and helping 130 of them to escape from German occupied Belgium and cross to the Dutch frontier. Edith Cavell was brought to trial before a court martial in Brussels, condemned to death and executed by a firing squad on the 12th October, 1915.

The killing of Edith Cavell galvanized world opinion and the cry of horror and anguish which followed had inspired two Maltese writers, Alfonso Giglio and Augusto German, to provide a libretto to be set to music by Paolino Vassallo. The characters, with the exception of the heroine, had to suffer a slight alteration in the names for reasons easily understood at the time; but through the subtle veil of discretion, everybody could recognise the accusers and executioners of the unfortunate Edith Cavell. Before submitting the libretto to the composer, the Authors wanted to ascertain whether the work was really suitable for music. They submitted it for a critical examination to one of the leading Italian composers living at the time, Pietro Mascagni, who declared himself enthusiastic of the artistic manner in which the tragedy was planned and developed. The Italian cast chosen for the leading parts of Vassallo’s Edith Cavell included soprano Emma Lattuada in the title role and the celebrated tenor Giovanni Breviario who sang the part of Philippe Bancq. Other parts were taken by M. Marti Folgado (Von Flancken), Ines Guasconi (Charlotte Bonett), Enzo Feliciati (Rev. H. Gahan), Giorgio Schottler (President of the War Council), Giordano Callegari (Military Prosecutor), Nino Consoli (Herr Gonrad) and Gaetano Roveri (Jailer). Chev. Arturo Sigismondo conducted the performances.

Although it is his output of works pertaining to the fields of sacred, orchestral and operatic music that comprise the main part of his canon, revealing the true reflection of the composer’s spiritual and artistic soul, from time to time Vassallo nevertheless engaged in the composition of lighter works such as the charming waltz Les Astres, the Gavotta scored for the unorthodox combination of tre mandolini, due chitarre e quartetto d’archi, a number of songs with piano as well as works for brass band (mostly written for the band club of his home town — Cospicua). These compositions show Vassallo in a light much different from the stern facial expression that is often associated with this composer. Besides showing his flexibility, Vassallo also managed to experiment with idioms other than the ones that were well known to him during his studies and in which he could employ innovative musical styles, textures and techniques.

© Emy Scicluna & Christopher Muscat 2006

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