On November 15, 1967, the Manoel Theatre hosted a royal performance to mark the Queen’s first visit to the island after Independence. One of Malta’s well-known pianists at the time, Cynthia Turner, spoke with Keith Micallef about that momentous day. Another ‘artist’, Mafine Grech, now 91, performed a traditional dance at a ball in 1950.
Preparations for the 1967 royal visit had been going on for two, years but it was only two weeks before the concert that Ms Turner learnt of her involvement. Just back from abroad, her mother had broken the news on her arrival at the airport.
“Initially, I was not so keen about it because I had been away for two weeks and had not practised.
“I still cannot understand why they had left it so late to tell me since the visit had been planned for such a long time. ‘You can’t miss such an occasion,’ my mother told me.”
After all these years, Ms Turner admits her mother’s advice was very wise indeed even though, at the time, she did not fully appreciate the importance of such an event.
With the clock ticking, she immediately sought the advice of her teacher about the selection of music for the concert by French composer Francis Poulenc, whom she had met some years before in France.
Though she used to practise up to six hours a day, to keep her fingers in good shape for “the gymnastics” required to play the piano, she was nevertheless apprehensive. “Can I play this,” I asked my teacher, who immediately started going through the score.
“You could have played this yesterday but start practising now,” was the teacher’s immediate reply, and the pianist breathed a great sigh of relief.
On the night of the concert, all eyes were on the royal box when the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived during the interval, following a state dinner at Auberge d’Aragon.
“When I came out on stage all I could see was her blue diamond tiara. It looked beautiful,” Ms Turner recalled.
After the first nervous bars of Poulenc’s Concerto for piano, conducted by Joseph Sammut, the soloist warmed up and gave what the Times of Malta music critic at the time described as an “intelligent” interpretation that was appreciated by the audience. “There was a very warm feeling through the performance, which made me quite at ease,” she said. Ms Turner recounted that the joke doing the rounds backstage on that day was that, for once, the monarch was going to apllaud them and not the other way round.
As soon as the event was over, the artists had a brief audience with the Queen.
“Her Majesty struck me most for the gracious way in which she lifted me out when I told her what honour had it been for me to play for her.”
Ms Turner also recalls how the Duke of Edinburgh was interested to learn about Poulenc, who had personally presented her the music score as a gift some years earlier.
Gazing at the black and white picture of her royal meeting in an album showcasing her illustrious career, Ms Turner could not help recall the “truly warm and kind smile” on the Queen’s face on that night, 48 years ago.
Prior to this state visit, the royal couple had resided in Malta for about two years until 1951, when the Duke was stationed as a naval officer in Malta.
During this period, Princess Elizabeth, as she was not yet crowned Queen, was the guest of honour at several events including a state ball at the Grand Master’s Palace, in Valletta sometime in 1950.
Mafine Grech was part of a dancing troupe invited to take part. “As Princess Elizabeth was entering the palace accompanied by Governor Sir Gerald Creasy we lined up at the side and bowed to her as a sign of respect.”
That moment is still fresh in her memory as it was captured on camera and used for a 1951 calendar.
A few months earlier, on October 20, Ms Grech had performed, The Maltija, a typical Maltese dance involving 12 couples. She had been invited through a letter sent by Edwina Mountbatten, Countess of Burma, from Villa Guardamangia, in Pietà. Though 70 years have almost gone by, Ms Grech still treasures the letter as testament of her links with the royal family.
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