Some Thoughts on Old Organs in Malta

Nick le Neve Walmsley

The restoration by Robert Buhagiar of the Severino 1778 Italian positivo organ to its original 18th century condition has given the village of Qrendi a musical treasure of which it can be justly proud, for it has all the qualities to transport the listener back to the Malta of two centuries ago.

If organs have personalities – and they do, for they live, and breath and sing – then the little Qrendi positivo is the musical equivalent of the cheerful, barefoot, open-shirted country boy of the presepju: simple, fresh, lively and, as Oliver Friggieri once wrote, “ … more beautiful than the children who grow up in villas.” The ringing, glittering tone of the pipework (much of which is original) and the sweetness of the flute stops take us straight into a Christmas scene; so of course the organ is perfect for all those Pastorales written by Italian and Maltese composers 200 or so years ago for instruments such as this. To hear these pieces played at Qrendi, or – even greater joy – to be able to play them there, is to experience a revelation. The organ, like the country lad, can only be described as cheerful, and it encourages the organist to make music: surely the mark of an extraordinary instrument. There are other quaint 18th century touches, like the ‘short’ octave at the bottom of the keyboard (no F# or G#) repeated in the Sicilian-style pedals, all guaranteed to confuse a modern organist until he agrees to surrender to the ways of his predecessors! Even the rope handles to blow the bellows are here, though now the sweat and toil have given way to a discreetly placed electric blower, the only thing in the whole organ which is not entirely mechanical. The casework, beautifully gilded and painted with floral decoration to the highest standards, yet retains a rustic naivety that, like the shepherd boy in the presepju, is disarmingly attractive.

Robert Buhagiar has also restored the 1774 organ at Naxxar. This one’s personality is quite masculine too – unlike the organs at, say, Santu Wistin in Valletta and San Lawrenz, Birgu, which are far more like sophisticated ladies: full of grace and elegance, with the capacity to be capricious as well! Naxxar is clearly first cousin to Qrendi: a little older, bigger, and slightly more complex – imagine the country lad with a bit of schooling, some shoes, and a new hat for the Festa! Although Robert has retained some late 19th century alterations to the organ here, it is essentially what one would expect a late 18th century Italian-style instrument to be. To anyone whose senses are dulled by the constant noise in which we live, the tone here will be found to be refreshingly clear and sharp; although there is only one manual and 17 pedals, divided stops and couplers mean that there is endless scope for the organist to mix tonal colours with which to paint his picture in sound.

Why should it be that these organs are so important, not only to the communities they serve, but to Malta as a whole? Simply because they date from a time when Maltese music was equal to any in Europe though, perhaps for reasons of geography (but with a few notable exceptions) it did not become known beyond the Southern Mediterranean – or maybe it was that the Maltese cognoscenti mistakenly believed, as did many of their kind in other countries (notably England) that anything ‘imported’ from France or Italy was automatically ‘better’ than their indigenous music? But now, thanks to a handful of dedicated researchers and performers, more Maltese are rediscovering their classical music heritage, which is very rich, easily approachable, and has generally stood the test of time. But for all the old pieces that have been saved, and are still performed, how many have been neglected, lost, or destroyed? The same can be said of the old organs: of all the older instruments that exist on the Islands, only about two-fifths are playable today. In some ways, the fact that money was never plentiful has been a blessing, because the old organs – the true Maltese instruments – were never replaced, or rarely altered beyond recognition at a later date. They have remained to this day, often unplayable, rotting quietly in their galleries. For every organ like Qrendi or Naxxar, there are dozens more lying neglected, awaiting their resurrection – unique instruments, like the little Italian positivo in the old church of Santa Venera, in Gudja, Ghaxaq, and even in the Oratory of St. John’s Co-Cathedral. They are the last of their kind in the world, and irreplaceable: once they are gone, they are gone forever but, restored, they would be a worthy focus of parish and civic pride, able to give voice once again for God’s praise as they were built to do two and more centuries ago.

“Ah” the parish priest might say; “There is no-one to play the organ, so why restore it? An electronic one will do!” Firstly, an electronic one will last ten or fifteen years at the most, and then have to be replaced: not exactly sound economic sense, quite apart from musical considerations. The old organ restored will last over 100 years with little maintenance required; there is a bigger initial outlay for the restoration, yes, but the minimal running costs for decades to come and the cultural considerations far outweigh the short-term solution offered by an electronic instrument. Secondly, good old organs will attract organists, as a lamp attracts moths. Young parishioners with a sense of their village background will be proud to be a part of a continuing tradition, using an instrument that has been part and parcel of village life for so long. No, you will not be without good organists if you restore the old organs, for fine old organs never lack friends! Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, these are the instruments which have helped generations of the Maltese Faithful give form and music to their worship and, under skilful hands, have inspired and maybe raised them a little nearer Heaven for a time. Now that so many of the old organs are neglected and silent, is it not part of our duty to help them speak once more for the glory of God, as they once helped those who have gone before us to worship Him?


Ó Nick le Neve Walmsley: Valletta, April 13th 2002

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