Maltese composer Joseph Vella has the horn as bookends on a long career. One of his earliest works is the 1968 Trio Concertante for horn, violin, and piano. By contrast, his next work to receive a premiere (as of this writing) will be The True Face of God for four horns, timpani, and organ, composed in 2016. Roughly in the middle lies his Soliloquies for solo horn from 1996.
I. Cosmopolitan Islander
Vella studied composition in London and later with the Italian composer and pedagog, Franco Donadoni. He characterizes his musical style as a “personal idiom stemming mainly from the 20th Century neoclassical movement.” This has not prevented him from appropriating any techniques that suit a particular composition, however. In Trio Concertante, for example, he applies serial techniques to a chorale that is the most traditionally tonal element of the work.
While his schooling and temperament preclude overt nationalism in his style, he has promoted the Maltese language as a medium for vocal text. Malta stands at a strategic crossroads in the Mediterranean and therefore has a long history of invasions and transfers of control. The Maltese language is descended from a variety of Arabic that developed in Sicily. About half the vocabulary comes from Italian and Sicilian. However, due to the long British presence there it also has many English words. Vella attests that his song cycle Seher is the first ever with a Maltese text.
II. Early Mastery
Trio Concertante is a work from the composer’s mid-twenties, but by then he already was demonstrating mastery of his craft. Perhaps what stands out most about the trio is the clarity of his ideas. Many composers struggle decades to achieve a style of chamber music in which each instrument speaks in a clear voice. Vella makes it seem easy.
The piece divides into ternary form. Vella refers to it as bogen form, meaning “arch” in German. The proportions, thematic material, and tempo indications outline a mirror image. While all the ideas are memorable and deftly executed, perhaps most striking is the chorale that hinges the outer sections. The piano offers a progression in modal g minor supporting the horn that intones a nine-note chromatic series, first in prograde then in retrograde. The variations that follow each have a distinct character yet all tie back to the chorale in a manner that is easy to comprehend.
The outer sections each divide into “Allegro ma non troppo” and “Andante commodo”. (The final section has these in reverse order.) The thematic material of each seems at least loosely related, perhaps akin to the A and B sections of a sonata form. Vella has a reliable instinct for how long his ideas should last and how to evolve them. The result is a piece whose musical thread is simple and satisfying to follow.
III. The Horn, the Horn
Being an early work, the Trio exhibits to some degree the pitfalls that ensnare so many contemporary composers when writing for the horn. It completely ignores the low register. The lowest note is written F3, and excursions even below C4 are rare. One of the variations offers a brief standout passage that lies mostly between F3 and G4. This passage is notable for the timbral relief it provides from the otherwise constant timbre of the meat register.
The piece also lies slightly high for comfort. While never ascending above A5, it hits that A5 with a frequency that seems too facile. The chorale section, especially, is both high enough and relentless enough that it taxes endurance. The part is without doubt playable, but these choices are one of the few aspects of the piece that reveal it as the work of a less seasoned composer.
It is interesting to compare the horn part with Vella’s Soliloquies from about thirty years later. The later piece fearlessly ascends to high B5 while at the same time having a lower tessitura that allows the player to perform without pain. It also explores the timbre of the low register, descending as low as A2. Soliloquies shows Vella in full mastery of the instrument in a way that the earlier piece does not.
IV. Availability, Etc.
Sheet music for both Trio Concertante and Soliloquies are available by contacting the composer at his website. They also appear on his Chamber Music Volume 3 CD, available from his website as well. His new work (The True Face of God) has a scheduled premiere in November, 2016. We await its debut with great interest.