Fra Richard Divall – the champion of Maltese Music

Music, identity and love came to my mind last Sunday on hearing about the demise of Fra Richard Divall, which happened in Australia after a long and painful illness. Fra Divall was an Australian citizen with great love for music. Besides being one of the leading conductors in Australia, he was also a knight of Malta. His love for this chivalric and historic Order made him love our island’s culture and music.

When most of our academia was looking down on ancient Maltese music, and with very few exceptions, considered past Maltese composers as mediocre, he fell in love with old Maltese compositions and started to edit their works. For those who are not well conversant with music, one should remember that old music cannot be played unless it is first edited. The way music was written in the past is not as it is written today.

I came to personally know Fra Richard through a common friend, Dun Ġwann Azzopardi.  When I first met him, he was not yet a knight of Malta but he was already famous back home, having conducted in one of Australia’s most famous theatres, Sydney Opera House. He was the leading conductor in Australia for Italian Opera. Yet, he always kept a low profile, a trait that he kept until the end of his life. He had very important friends. He wanted to help the University of Malta create ties with some of the most leading Universities in Australia, in particular in the field of neurology, but our dons snubbed him. It was one of the few occasions when he was furious. In the long run, our university was the loser.

On the other hand, there were institutions in Malta, who appreciated his work. One of these institutions was APS Bank. When I introduced him to the bank Chairman, Lino Delia, Delia immediately realized that he was facing an extraordinary person. As a person who loves and understands music, Mr. Delia asked him to conduct one of the bank’s annual concerts. I can still remember his wonderful concert of Isourd’s music at St. John’s Co-Cathedral.

Fra Richard was an unselfish person. He offered his edited music of Maltese composers for free to be played in Malta. I still remember his words. This is your music Simon. Cherish it. He helped me a lot during the time I served as director of the Mediterranean Institute and music was one of the teaching portfolio’s at this institute. Only Fr. Peter Serracino Inglott believed in music as an academic subject back then. All the rest of the academics derided it. Yet, with Divall’s advice and help, I met all the challenges and helped our Alma Mater introduce a M.Mus and a D.Mus programme of studies.

But his most significant contribution was the discovery of one of Malta’s most distinguished composers, Michelangelo Vella of Cospicua. Unfortunately, Vella suffered from the stigma that hit his town in recent years. Divall was not part of these deceitful cultural games. Academia was academia and the nationality or town of origins of a composer did not play any role in the evaluation of the subject in question.

But Fra Richard Divall was a victim of stigma himself. His vocation was that to become a professed knight of Malta. He was one of those who really felt that membership in historic Order was his true vocation. In Australia, being a member of an aristocratic Order is not a source of honour.

His demise concurs with the news that Pope Francis has given specific orders to Cardinal Burke to clean the Order of Malta from masonic infiltrations. Even if, Fra Divall has never stated it, he was a victim of these infiltrations. His candidature to join the Order of St. John was put in abeyance for years on end. He was told to produce his genealogy of nobility. He answered back that those of noble descent in Australia are offspring of rude and criminal noblemen, who had been convicted and deported to this remote place for crimes committed back home.

Yet, his talents were appreciated by the Catholic Church of Australia. When Pope John Paul II visited Australia, Fra Richard was commissioned to conduct the music during one of the religious services.

His death leaves a big vacuum, both within the Order of St. John at this particular point in its history, where it is once again under the spotlight thanks to the diligence of this Pope, and to the field of music. At least, his music is in good hands. He has loyal friends who cherish his musical archive and will continue working so that the music that he edited is made available to all musicians and academics interested in this type of scholarship. May he rest in peace.