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Il-Vari Tal-Ġimgħa L-Kbira F'Malta

L-Arti, it-Tradizzjonijiet u l-Fidi fil-festi tar-Randan Imqaddes

The History of Sacred Music in Holy Week in Malta

by Rita Vella Brincat 

Eastertide in Malta and Gozo is emphasised by the combination of religious beliefs and spectacular pageantry including Good Friday processions with life-sized images manifesting the events of the Passion and Death of Our Lord. This tradition has been mainly sustained by the close connection particularly between the Franciscan Minors and the Holy Land and by their care of the Sacred Sepulchre. The Church in Malta depended on the diocese of Palermo up to 1807, and this surely contributed to these annual feasts. As from the year 1334, the Franciscans, either by themselves or accompanied by pilgrims, used to hold the procession of the Via Dolorosa from the Praetorium to Calvary in Jerusalem. Later on, this developed into the Via Crucis, which at first did not have fourteen stations.[1]

In Malta, it appears that the Lenten processions or as they used to be called “i venerdi di marzo” were first held by the Confraternity of the Parish of Our Lady of Porto Salvo in Valletta, after Pope Gregory XIII on 6 August 1573, issued the Bull Pastoris æterni granting special indulgences to members of this Confraternity who took part in these “stations”. The participants of this procession used to be accompanied by players of two violins and some chanters, singing the Miserere. The processions during Holy Week were being held again as from 1646 by the Franciscans when those proceeding from the Church of Our Lady of Porto Salvo were discontinued.[2] The tradition of holding the Good Friday procession extended to various parts in Malta and Gozo during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Before the holding of the Good Friday procession, there used to be held a sermon (usually lasting between noon and 3pm) interrupted at times by the singing of sacred texts accompanied by the organ. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was not uncommon to hear, during these pauses in the sermon, the singing, usually by a tenor using to a good measure his voluminous voice, of such opera-style “sacred” music as the Ingemisco from the Requiem composed by Giuseppe Verdi and the aria Cujus animam from Rossini’s Stabat Mater , besides genuine religious excerpts like Panis Angelicus by Cèsar Franck[3] and Pieta Signore by Alessandro Stradella.[4]

The procession of Our Lady of Sorrows (Id-Duluri) and the Good Friday procession held in numerous parishes in Malta are accompanied by huge crowds praying and singing hymns. The instruments traditionally accompanying the Good Friday procession were (and in some places still are) the fife (flejguta) and a single beating of the drum at intervals. It is undoubtedly a very old custom.

In 1824 a payment of 4 scudi was made to Saverio Schembri for two drums and two fifes.[5] In 1822, two drums, a piccolo and a big drum took part while in 1828 mention is made of six drums.[6] The playing of the bugle at crossroads during processions is first mentioned in 1827. The singing of the Miserere in ‘falso bordone’ also took place.[7]

In 1754, Maestro Benigno Zerafa (1726 – 1804) composed the Improperia for the adoration of the Cross on Good Friday and in 1756, he was asked to compose the Office of the Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Gregorian chant. Zerafa composed music in the ‘stile antico’[8] where the contrapunt dominated the score. In a Chapter meeting on 1 March 1767, petitioned that from then on, the Improperia[9] were to be sung with accompanying music during the Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday. During Holy Week of the same year, a musico-liturgical problem was raised by some Canons who complained that the Improperia were no longer being sung in a sad and plaintive tone as they used to be until 1754, the year when polyphonic cycles for four voices for the Improperia were composed by Maestro Benigno Zerafa himself.[10] Moreover, the same Canons condemned the singing of polyphonic music on this occasion because this had happened also during Advent and Lent with the use of instruments, violating the instructions of the Caerimoniale Episcoporum and in “the plan of music”. This fact reveals that the rules of the ‘Cappella’ were not always respected.

After the Caeremoniale Episcoporum was consulted, it was confirmed that this rubric did not exclude Gregorian chant during these celebrations and that, moreover, Pope Benedict XIV in his encyclical Annus qui affirmed that grandiose or magnificent music could not be tolerated in certain liturgical occasions.[11] A compromise was reached whereby the singing of the Improperia had to be rendered by the musicians rather than by the ‘Cappellani di Coro’ on condition that Gregorian chant, unaccompanied by music, be utilised.

In 1803 Maestro Pietro Paolo Bugeja (1772-1828) conducted the music played during Maundy Thursday and for the motets during the procession.[12] The music comprised three singers, two violins and a bassoon.[13] Wind instruments are first mentioned in 1782 on the occasion of the feast of 3 May (the Finding of the Cross). In 1830 and 1838, the Band of the Regimento Reale Malta Fensible took part in the Good Friday Procession.

The ‘Banda ta’ Indri’ played during the years 1854-1855 and 1857-1860.[14] In 1879 the Bishop ordered that the Good Friday procession, which until then used to be held on Maundy Thursday in Valletta, be held on Good Friday proper, with the exclusion of bands.[15] It was only in 1897 that permission was granted for the La Valette band to accompany the Good Friday procession in Valletta.[16]

All these feasts may actually be regarded as religious pilgrimages because in all of them religious hymns were continuously sung by the participating faithful.

The Solemnity of the Way of the Cross

Another devotion which is connected to the devotions celebrated during Holy Week is The Way of the Cross. The erection and use of the Stations of the Cross did not become general before the end of the seventeenth century but they are now to be found in almost every church. The custom originated with the Franciscans. Fourteen stations representing certain scenes in the Passion of Christ, each corresponding to a particular incident, are often placed around the walls of the church and in monasteries they are often placed in the cloisters. These stations help the faithful to make, as it were, a pilgrimage to the chief scenes leading to Christ’s death. It is one of the most popular Catholic devotions where the faithful pass from one station to another reciting prayers and meditating on the scenes of the Passion.[17] Undoubtedly, this ancient devotion used to be observed in Malta since the time of the Knights. On solemn occasions, especially during Lent, hymns are sung during this ceremony.

[1] George Aquilina, Il-Ġimgħa l-Kbira fil-Belt, Malta 1986, 25.

[2] AAK, Libro Officialate (1647-1853), 5r. Ibid., 26.

[3] Franck was a Belgain composer, born in 1822 and died in 1890. He studied at the Paris Conservatory and became an organist and a noted teacher. Franck wrote piano and organ works, religious cantatas including ‘The Beatitudes’ and ‘The Redemption’ besides quintets and chamber music. See Jacobs, Dictionary of Music, 147.

[4] Stradella was an Italian composer of operas and cantatas with notable choral writings. Born in 1644 and died in 1682. He wrote also beautiful church music. Ibid., 395.

[5] “due tamburri e due fifere” : AAK, Libro dei Conti (1853-1899), 77r. 84v, quoted in Aquilina, Il-Ġimgħa l-Kbira, 41.

[6] “due tamburri, un ottavino e una gran cassa” : AAK, Libro dei Conti (1823-1848), 29. 34. 47. 65. 81. 170). Ibid., 42.

[7] “fatto a falso bordone” : AAK, Libro dei Conti (1853-1899), 83. Ibid., 42.

[8] It is a term used in the transitional period between the Renaissance and Baroques eras. The ‘stile antico’ was the style of music based on Palestrina’s polyphonic musical style, used mostly for sacred music and written around the year 1600. The ‘stile antico’ was used by composers from Claudio Monteverdi to Alessandro Scarlatti. This style became the basis of the rules of strict counterpoint. See Stile Moderno in Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary (on-line) : [26 Jan 2007].

[9] The ‘Improperia’ are best classified as psalmodic hymnody because of the typically psalmodic forms they have preserved. See Joseph Gelineau, Voices and Instruments in Christian Worship, Instruments in Christian Worship, Minnesota 1964, 181.

[10] ACM, Mus. ms 312, quoted in Franco Bruni, Musica e Musicisti alla Cattedrale di Malta nei Secoli XVI-XVIII, Malta 2001, 176.

[11] “in musica flebile, e mesta, o pur debba esser canto gregoriano, cioè fermo perché la suddetta rubrica pare che non esclude tal musica” : ACM, Act. Rev. Cap. viii, 423-424, quoted in Bruni, Musica e Musicisti, 177.

[12] “fatta nel Giovedì Santo per li motetti nella processione” : AAK, Libro dei Conti (1773-1818), 78. 80. Ibid., 42.

[13] AAK, Libro dei Conti (1809-1830), 184; Registro delle Consulte (1809-1866), 43. 57. 95. 202; Libro dei Conti (1712-1830), 240; Libro dei Conti (1823-1848), 177. Ibid., 42.

[14] In 1854 this band was paid 40 scudi: AAK, Libro dei Conti (1853-1899), 15. 24; in 1855 it was also paid 40 scudi; in 1857 this band was paid four sterling pounds; Libro dei Conti (1830-1894), 176; in 1858 it was paid 48 scudi, Libro dei Conti (1857-1903), 27; in 1859 it was paid four pounds, Libro dei Conti (1853-1899), 113; and in 1860 it was paid another four pounds, Diversi conti e ricevi (1895-1913), 5. Ibid., 45.

[15] “senza verun banda musicale” : AAK, Registro delle Consulte (1838-1891), 135.v. Ibid., 45.

[16] Ibid., 46.

[17] G. Cyprian Alston, Way of the Cross (transcribed by Marie Jutras), in New Advent (on-line) : [18 Aug 2004].