The Malta Independent 24 March 2019, Sunday

The Life And Times of Marie Benoit

Malta Independent Sunday, 4 January 2009, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

I was listening to Campus FM as I was trying to disentangle the lights of the Christmas tree. I had carefully put them away last year and they had been rolled up beautifully, held together with rubber bands. But as I was placing them on the tree, turning round it like a mesmerized cow I realized it was Professor Oliver Friggieri on the radio, speaking in his monotone. He is no George Peresso when it comes to his speaking voice, or Charles Abela Mizzi, but then you cannot have everything. And I listened more intently at the mention of Albert Ketèlbey, the composer. Professor Friggieri who always has interesting and often profound thoughts, was saying that in fact, Ketèlbey had written his famous Bells Across the Meadows in Gozo where he had been inspired by church bells. I had been playing Ketèlbey’s Sanctuary of the Heart as a duet sometimes with a sister, sometimes with a friend, since I was about 14 years old. I still play it with a friend, an excellent pianist, who is kind enough to put up with my dreadful playing of Mozart and Schubert in simplified form, for children and idiots like me. But making music is one way of getting together with friends.

I have always loved Ketèlbey’s melodic music and have several records of his works, which crackle and hiss with use, and with which you will be familiar: In a Persian Market, In a Monastery Garden – two of my favourites, immediately come to mind.

So I e-mailed Professor Friggieri, who had just given me an interesting 60-second interview, the previous week. I referred to what he had said about Bells Across the Meadows. He told me that years ago he had written a detailed article about “this remarkable connection which the British composer Albert William Ketèlbey had had with Malta but I have not yet managed to come across the issue which contains my article but at least I can tell you what follows.”

So, according to Prof. Friggieri, “Albert William Ketèlbey is frequently forgotten although his melodies have become famous. An enigmatic artist indeed, for this name is actually a pseudonym of Anton Vodorinski. He was born in Birmingham in 1875 and died in 1959. He was a composer and theatre conductor, and wrote chamber music and works for symphony orchestras. At 11 he had already composed a sonata, which he played in the presence of Sir Edward Elgar, but he is best remembered for his orchestral works, quite melodious and intense, emotional and evocative. They give me, at least, the impression of having been composed as a souvenir of some occasion or event, be it personal or otherwise. His pieces are highly descriptive of a place, a particular time of the day or a situation. At least this is how I have grown up to love them and be tenderly moved by his melodies, so poetic, so pure and so nostalgic of something which perhaps is timeless and only resides within. I remember Rediffusion repeatedly playing his short and sweet orchestral pieces: In a Persian Market, The Sanctuary of the Heart, In a Monastery Garden, In the Mystic land of Egypt, Wedgwood Blue, In a Chinese Temple Garden, ‘Appy ‘Ampstead, The Phantom Melody. Little is known about him, even at the level of books of reference. Some give the year of his birth as 1880, others as 1875, considered more probable.”

I too, recall listening to Ketèlbey’s works on Rediffusion. The head of Rediffusion while we were at school was a certain Hamilton-Hill, maybe he was Commander but I recall that his daughter Deidre, a beautiful redhead – all the Hamilton Hills were gorgeous to look at – was at school and that they lived in one of the houses opposite our Convent. Deidre was to become a model and marry Corin Redgrave, Vanessa’s brother and part of the family Redgrave acting dynasty.

Prof. Friggieri goes on to tell me that he recalls this connection “with our dear country somewhere in Fjuri li ma Jinxfux”. This is his latest tome and is an autobiography. He goes on to tell me that our generation was, fortunately enough, exposed to so much fine and edifying music “a benevolent school of the heart – ranging from classical to operatic (lyrical) music and to semi-classical music, and to pop music. Music, tender music, with no strings attached because it simply provoked our heart. We were brought up in an environment which gave much importance to the emotional component of our personality. And Ketèlbey was indeed prominent in this respect. Music is a lifelong lesson in tenderness, something which is tragically so lacking nowadays, and it is all so unfair on our youth, so abruptly deprived of their childhood, who equally have the right to explore the unknown depths of their latent sensitivity”. I agree with every word there. I recall having music at every point of my life. My mother was often at the piano. She had studied the violin for years but preferred the piano. I recall at least one mandolin and one guitar running around the house. I still have music – mostly tangos – which an uncle had brought back from Argentina. And my father invariably played opera, sometimes with libretto in hand. We were all sent to piano, theory and later on harmony lessons. None of us are musicians but we all love music. All those painful hours at the piano, in my case at the age of three years, with Miss Dolly, served for something.

Allow me to go on quoting Prof. Friggieri as he is eminently quotable: “I am sorry I cannot at the moment remember exactly the details of how Ketèlbey was inspired and moved, one silent evening when he was somewhere in Malta or in Gozo, perhaps in Gozo, and all of a sudden he heard the bells of our churches ring. He was so moved that he composed, here, where he was stationed as a musician – the details now escape me, but I have written and published them already – his famous piece Bells Across the Meadows, a hymn to the joy of contentment reached through simplicity. A tiny, modest, unpretentious British colony, a sort of roundabout midway between the northern frontier of Africa, and the southern frontier of Europe, inspiring a Northern European composer, a member of a most powerful Empire, to express something ultimate in any quest: peace of soul. And he consequently sought to describe serenity through musical notes, under the pretext of describing the ringing of bells. A tribute to Maltese bells, since Malta, like Prague, is indeed the city of bells! May Malta rediscover the forgotten charm of bell ringing. May Malta start echoing once again with the profound sounds of bells, so moody, so incisive, and so sincere. Our bells have been our forgotten, unsung ancestors’ first jukebox. At that time, when the heart still spoke and was listened to, they used to divulge her tender message.”

Beautiful words and all too true. However, I must comment at this stage that bell ringing has to be reasonable. I have just been to Anna Spiteri’s Christmas office party. Their home as well as their offices are in Senglea, right near the famous Redentur church. Perhaps you had followed the saga some months ago, perhaps not, but the bell ringing came to a point where they simply could no longer work, either at home or at the office. Her Belgian husband Dirk and herself are both scientists and need to concentrate. In the end they had to sue and they won their case. So, bell ringing, but within reason please.

Prof. Friggieri went on to try and recall what he had written in his latest Memoirs Fjuri li ma Jinxfux. “The original manuscript of Bells Across the Meadows, as written down by Ketèlbey himself of course, is still kept in the musical archives of one of the two band clubs of Victoria, Gozo. I have a photocopy of it in my personal archives, as sent to me by a member of the Kazin many years ago as I was giving shape to the article mentioned before. The ‘covering’ letter sent to me by the said senior member of the club is full of details and confirms the authenticity of the copy of Ketèlbey’s score preserved at the band club at Victoria.”

Prof. Friggieri wrote Fjuri li ma Jinxfux “over a period of 13 long, hesitant years, I honestly tell you I intended to make use of episodes which could evoke in the younger the sense of feeling. Back to the heart. This is a secure alternative to the major threat facing our youth: boredom, early boredom. I hope and pray, believe me, that my effort will manage to go some way in making young people believe that there are various alternatives to boredom. I have written at length about the joys of our childhood. So the boredom of youth must be just an effect of a much more far reaching cause. I am sure our young people will respond positively, now, before it is too late, to our suggestion that contentment – imagination, memory, sports, hobbies, astonishment, interest, expectation etc. – IS really possible. It is within reach, but an inch is (or used to be) as good as a mile. We are beholding the collapse of a whole civilisation…”

He goes on to write that perhaps we need to go back to the serenity of that lonely evening when, “once upon a time, a man called Ketèlbey, based as a musician in an obscure little island-state, British colony, happened to listen to the ringing of bells, and suddenly felt overjoyed, and went back to his room and jotted down a few notes, so simple, so far-reaching, evoking the need which must underlie every human effort: to be happy. He expressed maximum contentment then, as much as we experience utter boredom now. On our weary way towards technological efficiency something essential must have been irrevocably lost. Perhaps the rediscovery of memory may somehow halt or slow down this persistent run towards the destruction of joy in our young people. How unfair!”

I greatly appreciated this feedback of Prof. Friggieri’s. You may wish to listen to his weekly programme on Campus Fm (103.7) Il-Kelma li Tqanqal ir-Ruh (Tuesday at 1.30pm, rep. Friday at 10.30am).

May 2009 bring our readers Health, Happiness and Prosperity

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