Many complain about the colonial rule in Malta but a few found a way how to make the best capital and learn from the English masters.

Personally, I cannot complain but I am referring specifically to Mro Abele Calleja who made a career as a qualified and experienced musician in the Royal Navy. I must highlight the fact that ‘Abele’ was his forename, being named after the second son of Adam and Eve. 

Abele was born in Ħamrun on September 6, 1894. His parents were both from Valletta. From a very young age he had shown an affinity to music and started to learn a difficult and tricky brass instrument, namely the French horn, or as commonly known ‘the horn’ (kornu in Maltese).

In his youth he enlisted in the Royal Navy as a bandsman. He continued with his studies and expanded his repertoire to other instruments which paved the way for his future. 

He played on many special occasions, including the coronation of King George VI in London in May 1937 and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953. Having served under Mro Bellizzi, he was given full responsibilities when Bellizzi retired from the service.

The British Royal Navy was the highest accolade possible and the various admirals he served under all recognised his talent and capabilities. During the same period, as officially permitted, Mro Calleja used to act as bandmaster of some band clubs and teach prospective young bandsmen.

In partnership with Paul Nani (1906-86), the fifth descendant of the famous musical family, Calleja acted as maestro di cappella of various churches as Nani could not, or did not want to, be encumbered with so many feasts, especially during the busy summer season.

Calleja took over in 1947 at the age of 53, but he enjoyed such esteem that his term was extended for a number of years

Although widely known among the local band clubs, few were aware of Calleja’s position and standing in the Royal Navy. For many years, the British Navy had only a band composed of wind and percussion instruments.

During the early 20th century, classical music was the prerogative of visiting Italian repertoire companies that used to come to Malta yearly for the opera and operetta seasons. The musicians used to be practically all Italian nationals, but Calleja was always selected to play the difficult horn.

A newspaper cutting showing Calleja as the bandmaster conducting the C-in-C’s Orchestra in 1950.A newspaper cutting showing Calleja as the bandmaster conducting the C-in-C’s Orchestra in 1950.

All these commitments gave Calleja vast experience and it was no surprise that he was entrusted to revamp the C-in-C’s Orchestra. Calleja took over in 1947 at the age of 53, but he enjoyed such esteem that his term was extended for a number of years. It was a delicate and difficult task to format a band into a full-scale orchestra, which included strings and other instruments not normally forming part of a military band.

Thanks to his background with Italian repertoire companies and sacred music, Calleja had full knowledge of the musicians available in Malta. As stated, he could play a number of instruments and was able to adjust and adapt the score according to the musicians at his disposal.

The period after World War II was busy indeed as he was still involved with church music and band clubs, but at the same time, the Admiralty, as the Senior British Service, would make capital use of such talented and organised musicians.

As if that were not enough, when Lord Louis Mountbatten became the C-in-C, he wanted more classical music included in the repertoire. It was a period when Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) was stationed in Malta together with Prince Philip.

Mountbatten and the royals would organise numerous balls which required a dance band, and Calleja now had three responsibilities within the navy: the military band, the orchestra and the dance band.

It is amazing how he would cope with such a heavy load and adapt the scores. And it was not unusual that the musicians would have to play during luncheons, cocktails and dinner parties.

The British wanted to show that music was not the prerogative of the Italians and gave a monthly concert, with full orchestra and even piano recitals, which would include works by Beethoven, Mozart, Sibelius, Elgar, Borodin, Verdi and Puccini. All this activity eventually served as the basis of the National Concert Orchestra.

Mro Calleja retired from the navy at the age of 60 – normally, many had to retire at an earlier age. Abele is well remembered at the Vilhena Band Club in Floriana where he served twice as band master. In the club’s hall, there is a very good portrait of Calleja.

NOTE: Abele Calleja died on August 31, 1978, only seven days short of his 84th birthday. After his death, his widow donated all his music and works to Fr Alberto Borg, OSA, but it is not known if proper recognition was ever made by Fr Borg to the contribution he had from Abele Calleja.

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