Recently and suddenly, I remembered that on July 2, that is today, Maestro Joseph Sammut, who is so well-known to a large section of Malta’s music-loving public, would turn 90.
I could not let go this occasion without marking this event.
Sammut is a person I am proud to consider and respect as a gentleman and a friend. Sammut, “il-Mast”, as affectionately known to many of us, is a man who played an important role in the history of serious music in these islands.
Sammut comes from a musical family. He was born in Valletta on July 2, 1926, to Vincenzo and Ersilia née Enriquez. His father was a professional double bass player with the Royal Navy (Mediterranean) Commander-in-Chief’s orchestra. He also played the bassoon in the Royal Opera House (l-Irjal)’s orchestra. The younger Sammut, barely 16 at the time, was sheltering in the tunnel beneath City Gate when the opera house was hit and semi-destroyed in April 1942.
“I remember the dust raised by the blast and which entered the shelter,” he told me during a long phone call. “My father,” he continued, “narrowly missed being killed when bombs hit the Capuchin church crypt in Floriana but luckily he had sought shelter elsewhere. Not so lucky was my grandfather whose head was just lopped off by shrapnel in that crypt.”
Sammut’s career got off the ground in 1944 when he joined the C-in-C’s Orchestra as first bassoon player. He had been initially taught by his father, beginning aged six and sometime later took up the bassoon. In due course when a new conductor was needed for the orchestra, he was invited by the C-in-C to take up the post. The British Council granted him a scholarship and he went to London to study conducting with Clarence Raybould (1952) and the famed Malcolm Sargent (1953).
He finished his studies at the Royal Guildhall School of Music in 1954 and returned to London in 1956 to be assistant conductor to his former tutor (Raybould) with the Welsh Youth Orchestra.
In 1961, Mro Sammut, with the late Bice Bisazza, was co-founder of the Chorus Melitensis. Together they built up what became Malta’s leading mixed-voice choir. For a number of years, the choir took part with great credit in international choir competitions. I actually met him when I joined the choir in 1963.
During our chat I asked him what he considers to be the highlights of his career. He mentioned many. One I too remember very well was when in 1964 he conducted our 42-strong mixed-voice choir during a non-competitive concert at the Llangollen Eisteddfod in North Wales.
“We had obtained a good placing in an earlier competitive phase. When during the final concert, in a marquee seating a few thousand persons, you remember how when we sang Carmelo Pace’s L-Imnarja the audience went wild and wanted an encore. It was granted with the organisers’ approval, the first such thing in the then 18-year history of that festival.”
I remember too how a Granada-TV film crew lay in wait for us at the end of the concert and insisted on a repeat performance in the open air and broadcast it live.
Highlights Mro Sammut remembers well are when he conducted a Royal Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh during their visit to Malta in 1954 and again at the Manoel in 1967.
At the same Manoel and during the same year he adds, “I had the honour of sharing a concert with a leading British composer, Arthur Bliss. He conducted Elgar’s Enigma Variations among other works, however, as I had prepared the orchestra for Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (soloist Denis Matthews) he decided I should conduct it.”
He tactfully left out the name of another soloist and even what kind of concerto it was when I asked him what had been one of the most tricky, near-disastrous experiences he ever had as conductor.
“One has to have sharp reflexes,” he said.
“In this case the soloist repeated the recapitulation section of the opening movement; the orchestra was ready for its cue and, as I saw and felt that the rapt soloist was going to repeat it, I quickly sent a number of silent facial messages to the orchestra and avoided the disaster which would have otherwise ensued.”
In 1970 he conducted the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra during the World Expo in Japan; the London Symphony Orchestra for a recording of Charles Camilleri’s Malta Suite and Maltese Dances; and in 1975, at the Manoel, he also conducted a concert in the presence of former president of Italy, Giovanni Leone.
In 1972 he was ordered Knight of Grace (Order of St John of Jerusalem) and in 2002 given the Medalja Għall-Qadi tar-Repubblika.
When because of the British services rundown, the C-in-C Orchestra was disbanded in 1968, a central core of 20-odd musicians remained.
Many had emigrated so it was necessary to augment the orchestra with part-timers. It became known as the Manoel Theatre Orchestra. During the 25 years he spent at its helm, the orchestra built up a healthy repertoire, including works never performed here before.
He said: “With the Chorus Melitensis, which I sadly had to leave in 1978 because of pressure of work and unnecessary hurdles thrown across my path, I directed Malta premieres of works such as the Verdi Requiem (with The Malta Choral Society), Dvorák’s Stabat Mater, the Magri Te Deum, Fauré, Gounod’s Messe Solennelle Sainte Cécile, Vivaldi’s Gloria and a revival of the Anton Nani Requiem.
“Meanwhile, once I retired from being full-time with the MTO, which later developed into the National Symphony Orchestra and now the Malta Philharmonic, I could continue pursuing an interest long dormant in me: composition.
“As chief band master of the La Vallette Band Club (1970-2007) and Gozo’s Leone Band Club (1958-1991) I composed a number of marches. My connection with the Leone Band Club was to lead to the first performance of opera in Gozo (Madama Butterfly, 1978), starting a trend later followed by Gozo’s other main band club (La Stella) in keeping alive with great credit to this art form in the sister island.”
Apart from some new chamber works which he continues writing, Mro Sammut wrote a number of major works.
“My first was a Requiem (1980) dedicated to PM Giorgio Borg Olivier,” he said. “But it was not premiered until 1993, at St John’s co-Cathedral. This caught the attention of Bernd Glathe of the German association Music in Management, aimed at promoting new compositions.”
Glathe invited Sammut to conduct this Requiem in Konstantz, which he did in 1995 with the Südwestdeutsche Philharmonie. In 1996, this orchestra visited Malta and performed his new work The Sound of Teamwork.
Sammut has composed over 100 works including symphonies, a piano concerto and choral works, including eight oratorios. One of the latter, St Gerold’s Way, he conducted in Sankt Gerold in 1997 in Austria’s Vorarlberg.
In 1999, he conducted the Hansestadt Philharmonie and the Junger Brahms Chor in a concert of Maltese works in Bremen. At 84, in Hamburg, Mro Sammut conducted the Harvestehuder Symphony Orchestra in Diversity, another work commissioned by Music in Management.
That same year, his oratorio Canticles of St Luke, was premiered at St John’s. This came as the result of a competition organised by APS Bank for local composers in which an international adjudicating panel awarded him its special prize and the release of a studio recording of the work.
Mro Sammut married the late Jane Agius (d. 1994) with whom he raised a family of seven children. His two sons Tony and Simon inherited musical genes from him.
Both classically-trained, Tony is a fine pianist, accompanist and versatile as he is very apt at switching to jazz. Simon is a double bass player and also plays the electric bass guitar and is very active in the jazz field.
His granddaughter, Susan, was for some time a violinist with the Malta National Orchestra.
Asking Sammut what he thinks of concerts in which there is a mix of classical, opera and pop, he said this presents a double-edged problem: “On one hand, some from the non-classical/opera side could perhaps be attracted to a new music world. On the other hand, those who prefer not to mix genres just keep away.”
With regard to prospects for our young musicians, he says that teaching methods have improved and there is a wealth of talent but we still do not have a conservatory.
“Those who can study abroad, and the same old story repeats itself: we lose them. Competition is tough and, when vacancies occur, foreign musicians with a good conservatory background are at an advantage. It is, of course, good for the orchestra, good to mix experiences but more effort should be resorted to. If necessary, provide more scholarships. Some generous individuals have helped a lot but the State should do more.”