Our cultural journey in Malta continued with a concert in St Pauls Anglican pro-Cathedral in Valletta.
This is an interesting building which to me has the feeling of an outside space in its nave, which is divided from the choir by Ionic columns on each side. Each row of columns is joined by lintels leaving the portico to the altar open. I thought the feature resembled the Brandenburg Gate, but that is a personal whimsy. It is a very open, light airy church with very high ceilings and a modern feel.
As a pro-Cathedral it has cathedral status and is one of three cathedrals in the diocese of Gibraltar. It was commissioned by the Dowager Queen Adelaide during a visit to Malta in the 19th Century when she found out that there was no Anglican place of worship on the island. It was built on the site of the Auberge d’Allemagne, the home of the German Knights Hospitaller. Indeed the current choir rehearses in the barrel vaulted Undercroft, which housed stables and storerooms for the Auberge. Queen Adelaide laid the foundation stone on 20 March 1839 and her banner hangs above the choir stalls. Due to its spire which rises over 60 metres, it is a Valletta landmark. It was built with Maltese limestone in the neo-classical style and inside, it has both Corinthian and Ionic columns, the latter forming the portico between nave and choir – my “gate”. The internal dimensions of the building are 33.5 metres x 20.4 metres – an airy space.
The organ, whose restoration the above-mentioned concert was in aid of – has an illustrious history of its own. Built in Chester by Bernard Smith, it originally resided in Chester Cathedral and was played by Handel on his way to Dublin for the first performance of his Messiah. After many rebuildings only the organ case is now original.
The oak panels around the High Altar are a memorial to the Allied units which took part in the defence of Malta between 1940 and 1943 and twelve flags hang in the aisles representing amongst others the Royal Air Force, the British Merchant Navy, and the Royal Navy.
It is a very interesting building with good acoustics which made it a superb location for the chamber music concert, featuring works by Bach, Haydn and Elgar. All were lovely and expertly performed by the ensemble, but in particular the Haydn Horn Concerto in D major was very special. The french horn is not an easy instrument, but the quality of the sound in the performance by Jose Garcia Gutierrez was truly like honey, with no jagged elements to detract from the beauty of the piece.
Easter has come and gone with the traditional processions we described last year, but we visited another town this time and as well as the spectacular tableaux depicting the story of the Crucifixion, we saw in reality the use of an ages-old musical substitute for the bells which cease to toll over the Easter period. This was the Cuqlajta (pronounced chooklighta). This class of instruments is based on two pieces of wood clapping together when shaken or flailed. The simplest resemble a child’s toy but have a very serious purpose as they are used instead of the bells to draw the faithful to worship in the churches. We went to a talk given by one of the leading traditional musical authorities of Malta in Mdina. The poster shown below contains a picture of one of the many kinds of ċuqlajta.
They can also be a flat piece of wood with a simple swinging longitudinal handle made of metal which clashes against the wood when swung rythmically. Similar instruments have been found made of bone and ivory in Egyptian and Chinese medieval locations. The most complex are like the classic waterhammer, where rotating a wheel causes “hammers” inside it to rise and fall down on a baseplate making a loud report. Multiple hammers produce a huge sound like a football rattle! Some of the larger wheels can be 6 feet across and are usually turned manually at speed by a relay of young men whose rhythm never falters. In more recent times, these larger instruments, situated in the belfries can be powered electrically although that is the exception. The one we saw was manually turned and made a huge angry buzzing for hours.
Here, the sound and the action to make it is called “Grinding Judas’s Bones” – a reflection of the punishment of Judas for his betrayal of Christ.
It was a most informative talk and our understanding of these simple and ancient instruments was increased by hearing it as a background to the town’s solemn Good Friday parade.
Spring is well under way in Malta by Easter and the yellow phase of the mimosa, giant fennel and cape sorrel give way to the reds of poppies, and deep pinks of campion and the ubiquitous groundcovering Silla.
This lovely plant, called Silla in Malta and Erba Sulla in Italy, is also known as French Honeysuckle. It’s many properties make it an interesting and valuable entity. It is found in the clifftop and rough exposed areas of rural Malta and has the important property of preventing erosion of the very sparse soil in those regions due to its abundant root systems and creeping foliage.
In Italy, it is planted as a crop as it increases milk yield in cows, and is used by sheep farmers for hay as its natural anti-bloating properties are beneficial, together with the added benefit of providing natural protection from intestinal worms (Ugh!). These attributes have led to it now being widely planted and used in New Zealand by sheep farmers.
It is also an important honey “crop”. The honey produced, apart from its great taste has regulating effects – both diuretic and laxative! On that educational note, I shall leave you until my next instalment.