The Malta Independent 22 May 2019, Wednesday

Marie Benoit's Diary

Malta Independent Sunday, 9 March 2014, 10:11 Last update: about 6 years ago

We are living on an island immersed in sleeze, according to the news.   We are surrounded by members of society who are thieves and knaves. Even priests are guilty not only of sins of the flesh but of fraud, too.  I recall the priests of my childhood. We were brought up to have a great respect for  priests who were superior beings and we rushed to kiss the hand of any priest that passed down our street. I remember Dun Karm Psaila who lived close by, passing by regularly although we had no idea who he was and the Salesians of St Patrick, on their way home. We knelt on one knee, kissed their hand and asked them for a holy picture which they invariably gave us from the pocket of their cassock. How sad that so many priests have now brought disgrace on the Church and inevitably our respect for them has been considerably reduced. They are merely human after all. 


In the face of our disappointment with human beings many of us try to find an escape to maintain a life of balance. I find comfort in matters of the spirit and the intellect.  Let me quote what Edouard Herriot, the French Radical politician, three times prime minister of France and a member of the Académie Française, says about culture:“Ce qui reste lorsqu’on a toute oubie.”. Yes, we no longer speak of the drainage and bus systems of Greece and Rome or indeed Malta. What we recall is their culture: the Neolithic and Greek temples, the Roman Coliseum, the Egyptian tombs and so on. The German playwright and poet laureate, Hanns  Johst, in one of his plays, wrote the famous lines: ‘When I hear the word culture I reach for my gun.’  But so many of us find comfort in matters of the spirit and the intellect and escape therein. 


Thank goodness for the series of concerts held outside Valletta and where parking is so much easier: The Three Palaces series was excellent and more recently the Grand Piano Masters as part of the Valletta International Piano Festival.

I attended the recital of two excellent pianists: the Italian Antonio Di Cristofano and Frenchman Pierre Réach held at San Anton Palace. Who doesn’t like escaping, with like-minded people, into the world of beautiful music? After the concert came to an end Dr Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, who with his wife Emma, does not miss many of them, told me that the room in which the concerts are held was the dining room. How do they clean those massive crystal chandeliers I asked him. I knew he would know as of course the Mifsud Bonnicis lived there when he was President. Apparently, they put mattresses on the floor and the chandeliers are brought down and cleaned with the greatest of care, in this way.

San Anton was built by the Provençal knight of St John, and later Grand Master Antoine de Paule, as his country retreat. This Grand Master has been described as a ‘frivolous’ and a bonvivant.  He named this palace after his patron saint. At the age of 71, which was considered old in those days, he continued to embellish this villa which has the largest garden area in Malta. He later built reservoirs for the gardens of San Anton, in Balzan and Lija. This beautiful palace went on being embellished by subsequent Grand Masters. According to Thomas Freller, in his The Palaces of the Grand Masters in Malta “even after the knights had surrendered to the French, San Anton palace kept playing an important part in the island’s history. In September 1798, when the Maltese rose up against the French rulers, San Anton Palace became the meeting place for the local insurgents. During the siege of the French forces in Valletta, Sir Alexander Ball, the commander of the allied troops, chose San Anton as his headquarters. This historical palace is kept beautifully to this day.


Sitting on a gilded chair for around one hour listening to beautiful music in an intimate ambience is one of the pleasures of life. Thank goodness I am not a music critic but there to enjoy the music and allow myself to dream a little without being interrupted. That evening Antonio Di Cristofano played Chopin – a nocturne, a polonaise and a scherzo. Chopin is a Romantic through and through and showed a dedication to the piano, as no other composer had before him, and possibly after him too. Born to a Polish father and a French mother he became a fixture in Paris society. After a stormy relationship with the much older and famous writer George Sand who strutted about the streets of Paris wearing men’s clothes and smoking a large cigar, his life was claimed by tuberculosis at the age of just 39 years. However, his music, like the books of George Sand, lives on giving us great pleasure.

Antonio Di Cristofano’s Chopin was delicate and there was some scintillating playing and sometimes dreamy playing too. The audience loved him. 

The Frenchman Pierre Réach  entertained us with Debussy,  Chopin’s Barcarolle and a composer who was completely new to me: Charles Alkan (1813-88). It appears that he composed his Grand Sonate, Les Quatres Ages de la Vie, of which the pianist played the 1st Movement, just six years before the Liszt Sonata. Pierre Réach  plays with great authority and with flair. I must get myself a CD of this work of Charles Alkan. I listened to more Alkan on You tube and like it. 

When you look at the curriculum vitae of these musicians you wonder what kind of personal life they must live going from one country to another, teaching, holding masterclasses, organizing festivals and so many other activities. I have to say that I do not envy them their life. But their talent, most certainly.


Anti-Colonist not anti-British

In January I dedicated my Diary to writing about Judge Giovanni Bonello’s Volume XII, the last of his Histories of Malta: Confusions and Conclusions which have entertained so many of us over the last years. Now, for some reason or another I always had the impression that Judge Bonello was anti-British and wrote that although his command of the language is admired by many of us “unhappily he is no lover of the British.” The erudite judge emailed me the follow day to put me right: “It is wholly incorrect that ‘sadly I am no lover of the British’. I unreservedly ADORE most things British: their language, their literature, their history, their rule of law, their country – even their breakfast. I HATE colonialism – why, do you find anything loveable about one nation claiming to own another nation? Please keep this highly essential distinction in mind.”  I digested it well and adjusted my view of him accordingly. He is absolutely right. Being anti-Colonialist is NOT equivalent to being anti-British. He is a living example of how wrong this assumption is. 

Putting this behind me, In the course of last month I was to discover that the talented and erudite Vanni Bonello, on 21st February put up a marble memorial to Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the façade of the Casino Maltese in Valletta. Hunting around for information I learnt that this was entirely his initiative and he paid for it too. Upon contacting him to find out what prompted this gesture, he told me that as he was reading a bio of Coleridge he came across the bit that Coleridge’s office in Malta was where the Casino Maltese now stands. Judge Bonello, who understands the importance of history and memory, thought that this should be recorded on the site. So he proposed  that the Casino should  set up a tablet, but was told that financial constraints prevented this. So he decided to go ahead personally, with the assistance of another friend of Coleridge who does not wish to be mentioned.

There, I have now been completely cured of my mistaken impression that Judge Bonello is anti-British. I need no further evidence to be convinced that on the contrary, he loves everything about them. I wonder what Charles Xuereb is going to have to say about this gesture.

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