The Malta Independent 24 February 2024, Saturday
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World premier for ‘Il Kantilena’

George M Mangion Sunday, 14 December 2014, 09:00 Last update: about 10 years ago

Last week, the premiere of the multi-media opera Il Kantilena played to a packed Manoel Theatre, Europe's oldest theatre. The Kantilena, based on the poems written in the 15th century by Maltese philosopher Pietru Caxaro, is a piece of fine literature. 'It is a work of dexterous mastery, as it shows an uncommon capability of stylistic invention in its structure written in the Maltese vulgar idiom. We can be proud that we have the equivalent of Carmina Burana in our national repertoire. Burana, an ancient 12th century poem that was set to music by Carl Orf in 1937, is now world famous and sends listeners into a near climax with the first notes of O Fortuna, its opening meditation on fate's cruelty The work's strength lies in its hummable melodies and the rhythmic pattern of the beating drums. Its text, in Latin, Low German and French, alternates between bawdy love songs and anguished meditations on mortality, but below the surface, Carmina Burana is awash with musical and cultural complexities.

Caxaro, the author of the Kantilena, was born to a noble Mdina family and although the date of his birth is still unknown, we can presume that he was born around the beginning of the 15th century, perhaps around 1400. His father's name was Leo, and his mother's Zuna. It might be possible that the family was of Jewish descent which had been forced to convert to the Catholic faith. It is known that one of Caxaro's brothers, Nicholas, was killed in 1473 following a brawl with people from Siggiewi because of a girl he was secretly seeing, which makes the lack of information on his lineage more exciting albeit mysterious. This opera is a medieval work of classical art which has been composed by Dr Reuben Pace with contemporary poems by Simone Inguanez and Charles Flores and choreography by Francesca Abela Tranter, as well as video projections by John Grech. Pietru Caxaro's works were virtually unknown until he became famous in 1968 when Dominican Michael Fsadni and Prof. Godfrey Wettinger published his Kantilena. The historians discovered it on 22 September, 1966 at the back of the third page from the last in the first of Reverend Brandan Caxaro's notarial registers (1533-1536), currently numbered R175, in the Notarial Archives, Valletta. Caxaro's work was actually transcribed by Rev. Brandan himself in its original Maltese version. The discovery was greeted with enthusiasm in scholarship circles since it eventually gave Maltese literature its greatest boost in a very long time. It had taken both academics about two years before they were able to present Caxaro's Kantilena to the general public that the authenticity of Caxaro's work is unquestionable beyond any doubt as is Brandan's transcription.

The unique discovery generously enriches our heritage at a time when the population of these islands only numbered a few thousands. Experts assure us that it was next to impossible for the document to have been faked since it was proved beyond doubt that there was no sign of forgery. The discovery of this priceless piece of art depicting the early ages of social and cultural development of these islands is remarkable. Our poet's competence as a writer, coupled with his philosophic and oratorical skills, cannot be but a vivid reminder of how little we know about our ancestry. He surely qualifies as a phonetic master, as well as one having control of classical rhetoric techniques. Some may question why we did not discover his talent at an early date and only a few researchers could cognize the qualities of Caxaro as a forceful writer, possessing clarity of thought and confident style. It is important to introduce Peter (Pietru) Caxaro as a Maltese philosopher and poet whose philosophical views and positions qualify him as an honourable adherent of the mediaeval humanist movement. It goes without saying that his contribution stands as a mature reflection of the social and cultural revival of his time.

So why are we so proud of our ancestor? The answer lies in our meagre efforts to emancipate a genius who lived almost six centuries ago. With the help of sponsors including that of the Ministry of Education and Labour and the Malta Art Music Association we have discovered a rich and previously unknown contribution culminating in a Renaissance of his profound cultural preparation and his humanistic character, together with his philosophy. These are now expertly composed in a multi-media opera reflecting the heritage, social characteristics and aspirations of a tiny Mediterranean population showing its rich mental constitution and mode of expression. The discovery of the author of the poems and his philosophy is immeasurably relevant to further recognition of the wise tenure of our medieval civilization.

It appears that Caxaro was on very good terms with the Dominican friars who lived in a monastery at Rabat, very close to Mdina, which was Caxaro's home town and his centre of operation. It is noteworthy to observe that the Dominicans, a Christian order that had arrived in Malta around 1450, and with their knowledge of Greek and Latin they attracted other scholars among the literate and professional people, including academics in Mdina. Towards the end of the 15th century, the Dominicans had erudite friars in their fold, such as Peter Xara, Peter Zurki, Dominic Bartolo (who was also Pro-Inquisitor for some cases of the Inquisition in Malta) and Bartolomeus Pace who were friends of Caxaro. It is interesting to note that he appointed the Dominicans in his will as his general inheritors, or residuary legatees.

Who was Caxaro? In April 1438, he successfully sat for the examination for the warrant of public notary of Malta and Gozo bestowed by the competent authorities in Palermo, Sicily since Malta and its dependencies formed part of the Kingdom of Aragon at that time. Later on, he received a series of appointments in Malta and Gozo between 1440 and 1483, a span of 43 years. Alternatively or concurrently, at one time or another Caxaro acted as judge in the civil courts of Gozo and Malta, and in the ecclesiastical courts. He was also a juror of the Mdina city-council to which he sometimes acted as secretary. Caxaro was unlucky in love as Franca, his chosen bride was considered to be "spiritually related" although he did protest this and although he managed to obtain the official blessing of the bishop of Malta the marriage did not take place. His remains were laid to rest in one of the newly built chapels of the church of St Dominic at Rabat, Malta. The chapel had been actually constructed at Caxaro's expense, and dedicated to Our Lady of Divine Help.

Readers may be interested to know that in 1480, Caxaro took an active and bold part in an issue which involved the bishop of Malta, who was suspected of corruption. Caxaro was vehement in his fight against such corruption, and vigorous in his demand for an immediate remedy. He suffered as a whistleblower and we read that in June 1480, as an act of retaliation, the bishop excommunicated and later interdicted him, which was considered immensely serious. However, our hero philosopher, not unlike Socrates (who was sentenced to death by drinking poison), was nonetheless undaunted. The story unfolds with a twist and the unyielding poet persevered in his accusations for about six months when the bishop had to accede to Caxaro's and the Town Council's demands. Accordingly, the excommunication and the interdict were removed.

Can one feel jubilant when recalling how our hero and brave heart almost faced social obfuscation by such a severe reprimand meted by the highest Ecclesiastical authority? In the end it was due to Caxaro's determination and resolve that saw his excommunication and interdiction lifted, More than anything else, the poetic form of Kantilena is written in a technique with an expressive and cognitive distinction. This is something to be proud of and with the help of more sponsors the opera can be fine tuned to reach world class levels and be our masterpiece in the cerebrations announcing Valetta as a cultural city of Europe in 2018.


The writer is a partner in PKF an audit and business advisory firm

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