Malta's cultural crossroads
By RUPERT SHORTT
Before visiting Malta a few days ago, I’d thought of it as a place of many quiet charms, but few if any superlatives. I was only right about the charms. Among other things, I’d failed to grasp the power and reach of the Knights of St John, who ruled the island from 1530 to 1798, lavishing their wealth on a network of churches, palaces and fortifications that rival much of baroque Rome.
In any case, though, the country’s importance long predates the time of the Knights. First settled by Sicilian farmers in around 4000 BC, Malta and the adjoining island of Gozo contain clover-shaped megalithic temples built several centuries afterwards, but not unearthed until the Victorian era. Later in antiquity came periods of rule by the Phoenicians, Romans (under whose watch St Paul was shipwrecked on the island, c.AD 60), Byzantines, Arabs and Normans. After the last Norman king died without an heir in the late twelfth century, Malta was controlled by Swabians, Angevins and Aragonese in turn. It was a Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who offered the Knights of St John a home on the island after they had lost their foothold on Rhodes to Arab invaders.
So Malta embodied principles of European integration long before they were conceived in Brussels. As a multinational force, the Order contained French, Spanish, German, Italian and English sections, each with a headquarters or Auberge. The mighty fortifications in Valletta and elsewhere are explained by Malta’s abiding vulnerability to attack. Turkish military assault during the mid-sixteenth century ended in the Great Siege of 1565, through which a large invading force was repulsed by a much smaller group of defenders.
Malta’s wealth under the Knights is readily explained. It was almost the first time that the island’s rulers had resided in situ. St John’s Co-Cathedral, built in the 1570s by Mattia Preti, makes St Peter’s, Rome, look plain. Among other treasures it contains Caravaggio’s “Beheading of St John the Baptist”, the artist’s largest canvas, painted when he was exiled in Valletta for two years.
As well as visiting the prehistoric temples and two exceptionally well-preserved towns – Victoria on Gozo, and Mdina on Malta – I spent my evenings at some fine concerts. First came the European Union Chamber Orchestra at the Teatru Manoel in central Valletta, a much smaller replica of La Scala, Milan. The company performed Britten’s Simple Symphony, Mozart’s C major piano concerto K.415 – his third masterpiece in the genre by my reckoning, and a savour of the even greater miracles to come – Haydn’s humour-laden 34th Symphony, and a brief, stretching work by Joseph Vella, a local composer who was present to take a bow. Hans-Peter Hofmann conducted; the soloist was Charlene Farrugia.
Two nights later the Auris Quartet gave us spirited but exact renderings of Beethoven’s Op. 18 no. 1 in F, Haydn’s Op. 76 no. 2, and Shostakovich’ s third quartet, Op. 73. The highlight for me came on the second night, when the young Canadian pianist Jean Dubé produced a feast of many courses. Things began a little inauspiciously with Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s Chorale Prelude “Nun komm der heiden Heiland”. The tempo was too brisk, leaving the inner voices of this exquisite work somewhat smudged. It also works better as an encore than an amuse-bouche. Dubé’s over-assertive approach to one sort of musical challenge leaves him well equipped for another, however. His account of works by Schumann (the Op. 18 Arabesque) and Liszt (the Ballade no. 2 and the Mephisto-valse no. 1) displayed a well-judged mixture of passion and thoughtfulness. I felt nothing but exhilaration to be taken out of my comfort zone in modern works including Jean Cras’s “Paysage maritime” and “L’Astre de l’amour” by Demis Visvikis (b. 1951).
That these concerts were taking place in first-class venues – the Auris Quartet performed in the fresco-filled main hall of the National Museum of Archaeology – is a sign that Malta enjoys a sophisticated present as well as a rich past. Another such sign came at the Grand Master’s Palace, where an exhibition of manuscripts boasts material never seen outside the Vatican Library before, including one showing the secret code by which Pope Alexander VI communicated with his nuncios around Europe during the late fifteenth century.
The impression is buttressed by statistics on immigration (high) and social well-being (also high). Few spots around the Mediterranean in my experience combine cohesion and cosmopolitanism with such success. As for the Knights of Malta, they survive and thrive. Expelled by Napoleon – whose own defeat presaged the long period of British rule – they set up new headquarters in Rome, abandoned their martial past, and now sponsor medical missions in more than a hundred countries. Lately the organization has spent much energy on rescuing African migrants at risk of shipwreck as they strive to reach southern Europe.
The Grand Master's palace