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Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Composers of Opera - Part 6 Francesco Schira

In the sixth blog  about Maltese composers of opera Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin talks about the life and works of Francesco Schira. Since Francesco's Schira's life is quite extensive his life will be divided in 2 parts. Today we shall take at the first part of Schira's life.

Francesco Schira is another nineteenth-century composer whose lifestyle involved travelling from one country to another in search of the best ambience to fully realise his talent.

Perhaps, when compared with that of other comparable Maltese composers, Schira’s physical link with the country of his birth was the shortest. But like Abos before him, Schira always considered himself a Maltese as he made plain in his petition, dated 30 August 1866, to the English Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes requesting the dissolution of his marriage to ballerina Jesuina Gesualdi, in which he emphasized that he was a British subject since his nationality was Maltese. Prior to 21 September 1964, Malta was a British Crown Colony, and Maltese were considered British subjects.

This state of affairs is also acknowledged by such eminent musicologists such as Frank Walker who in his book, The Man Verdi, probably the defining study on Giuseppe Verdi, identifies Francesco as ‘the Maltese composer’.

Francesco’s father, Michele Schira, a gifted primo tenore, had been engaged by impresario Antonio Bonnici to sing in the Manoel Theatre for seasons 1808-10. During this period, his wife, ballerina Giuseppa Radaelli, gave birth to Francesco on 21 August 1809, the infant being baptised the same day in the Parish Church of Porto Salvo in Valletta. After Malta, Michele’s next engagement was in Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, where he and his family now settled.

After initial studies with his parents, Francesco, aged 9, entered Milan’s Real Conservatorio di Musica (now Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory of Music). Ten years later, in 1828, he finished his studies, a fully qualified maestro di musica, able to undertake proficiently almost any position related to music.

His initial jobs were in Italy, first in Cagliari as Maestro di Cappella to the King of Sardinia and then maestro al cembalo and conductor at Milan’s Teatro Carcano. His first opera, Elena e Malvina, was premièred at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on 17 November1832.

In 1834, when only 25 years old, his rapidly rising fame brought him the influential post of director of music, conductor and composer to Lisbon’s Real Teatro Nacional de São Carlos. In addition to this, in 1836, he was appointed Professor of Harmony and Counterpoint at the newly instituted Conservatório Nacional de Lisboa. His very busy time in Lisbon also included the composition of well-received operas, cantatas and ballets.

Perhaps urged by a psychological craving to face new challenges, in October 1839, he journeyed to London with the view, in his own words, to reconnoitre the possibility of improving there his professional position as a professor and composer of music. At the time, London was quickly building an international reputation as an important point of reference in performed music. The fact that he was born in Malta, an important British colony, may also have been a deciding factor.

He permanently moved to London in 1842 where he soon established himself as a composer of note, a sensitive conductor and a brilliant pianist. Although he continued his short-term travels, particularly to Italy, from now on he looked on London as his perpetual home.

A short list of important commissions he acquired in London illustrates the eminent profile he attained in British musical life:

1. John Medex Maddox, manager of the Princess’ Theatre in Oxford Street, appointed him director of music and orchestra conductor for his English language opera productions. The season started on 26 December 1842 with an English version of Bellini’s La Sonnambula and was Schira's introduction as a conductor to the English public. He remained until December 1844.

2. Towards the end 1844, Schira accepted an engagement from Alfred Bunn to replace Julius Benedict as Director of Music at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, a role he held until January 1847.

3. In September 1848, Bunn took over Covent Garden Theatre and engaged Schira in the same positions he had held in Drury Lane. The season, though artistically very positive, only lasted two months.

4. In June 1849, Schira was contracted to conduct eight operas (Bellini’s Norma, I Puritani, and La sonnambula; Donizetti’s Lucia di Lamermoor, Lucrezia Borgia, L’elisir d’amore, and Don Pasquale; and Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia) in Manchester’s Theatre Royal.

5. In 1851, Bunn returned to Drury Lane, and again engaged Schira as his musical director. When the season ended on 20 May 1852, Schira decided to terminate his career as a director of music in order to concentrate on his expanding career as a teacher of singing while continuing to compose.

Next week we shall have the second part of the article about Francesco Schira's life.