March 2013 Event: The Sacred Music of Malta’s National Composer Nicolò Isouard

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Nicolo Isouard

The Sacred Music of Malta’s National Composer Nicolò Isouard (1773-1818) and Music in Malta at the time of the Knights of Malta

On Tuesday 12th March, 2013 Frà Professor Richard Divall was guest speaker at the MHA Event held at the Maltese Centre, Parkville. The presentation consisted of two parts: the first part was about music in Malta under the Knights, with a special focus on the Maltese composer Nicolò Isuard. The second part consisted of a playback of the sound tracks of the televised concert of sacred music by Nicolò Isuard, performed at St John's co-cathedral in Valletta and conducted by Prof Divall.

Malta-concert-5Frà Professor Richard Divall Before the Knights came to Malta, there was already a music life in Mdina, especially in the cathedral of St Paul. However, the Knights brought a musical establishment to St Lawrence's church in Birgu (Vittoriosa). For 200 years, music composition flourished in Malta. Maltese priests were sent to Naples to study music, among them we find a certain Grixti and Balzan. Grand Master de Vilhena even built a baroque opera house five storey high. Some operas were performed there for the benefit of the Italian Knights who always favoured operas. Unfortunately, all music of that era is lost, except for some sacred music.


Nicolò Isouard (1773 – 1818) is considered to be a national composer of that era. He was born in Valletta of a French father and a Maltese mother. His father was a revolutionary with strong French sympathies. The Isuards were also members of the Freemasons. The son took after his father and was also an agnostic. His father sent him to France to study music. Then he was sent to a military college. Meanwhile, the French Revolution intervened and Nicolò was sent back to Malta. From there, he went to Palermo to study music under well-known composers.

What was he like? By all accounts Isouard was charming, good-looking and very credible. He always believed in himself. He wrote numerous operas and sacred music. There are six or seven operas which everyone knows about in Paris. He offered 37 compositions to the Grand Master of the time. He was well-liked.

MHA-Event-Mar2013-600Isouard made friends with the French when they arrived on the Island. When the French were banished from the Island, Nicolò tried to escape to France on a French ship which was captured by the British. Luckily for Nicolò, he was simply sent back to Malta.

His sacred music survived. Dun Gwann Azzopardi, the curator of the museum in Mdina, has collected his works and he wrote a book in Maltese.

Frà Richard Divall

MHA-Divall400Frà Richard Divall (left) was Music Director of the Victoria State Opera for 26 years and Principal Resident Conductor of Opera Australia for another 5 years. He is a Vice Chancellor’s Professorial Fellow at Monash University and an Associate Professor at The University of Melbourne and The University of Malta. He has edited over 200 Maltese music works into print and many have already been published and performed. Currently he is undertaking a PhD in Theology at Catholic Theological College on the Sacred Music of Malta and Isouard.  Frà Richard is a Knight of Malta in Solemn Religious Profession, one of twenty six in the world and undertakes many charitable projects in that role, and is a long term friend of the Maltese Community in Melbourne.

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