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      Organists' Review August 2004 article     
Reproduced by permission of the Incorporated Association of Organists, publishers of Organists' Review.

Historic Organs in Malta

(to view the photos please refer to the link to each individual organ in the 'restoration' section)

Strategically located in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, the Maltese Islands are rich in history, character and culture. The Knights Hospitallers of St.John of Jerusalem ruled the Islands from 1530 until 1798 when they were conquered by Napoleon. The Maltese turned to the British for help against the oppressive French rule and the Islands became a British colony in 1800. In 1964 Malta gained independence and ten years later became a Republic with its own Head of State.

For many centuries the Maltese church authorities had very strong bonds with Italy and Sicily. This is probably why the vast majority of the organs in Malta are Italian. 18th century Naples was an important centre for music and arts. Many musicians studied and worked there. Organs were in good demand and there were about twenty-four organbuilding workshops in Naples at that time. Sicilian organbuilding was prolific too, both in the production of small ‘positivo’ organs as well as larger ones, though these were almost always one-manual instruments.

With a few exceptions, in the second part of the 19th century the importation of new organs shifted from Naples (and Sicily) to Northern Italy. Maltese parishes commissioned organs from Morelli of Milan, Cavalli of Lodi, Inzoli of Crema and in the 20th century from Tamburini of Crema, and Mascioni of Varese. In 1960 Mascioni built a magnificent 3-manual organ with 36 stops in St.John’s Co-Cathedral (Valletta) in collaboration with Ralph Downes. English organs are a rare breed in Malta – there are only five. The largest one is a 3-manual Hill, Norman and Beard 1949 rebuild (29 stops) at the Anglican Pro-Cathedral in Valletta.

In this article we shall have a look at three historic organs in Malta which have been restored by the author.


The small village of Qrendi is one of the oldest rural villages situated relatively far from the politically important and elite cities of Valletta and Mdina. However small and unassuming, Qrendi is home to the 6000 year old temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra.

The 300 year old baroque parish church of Qrendi dominates the village’s main square. This small parish church is artistically designed and beautifully decorated in the baroque style. A 1778 Neapolitan or Sicilian ‘positivo’ is situated in a small loft ‘in cornu evangelii’ at the east end of the church behind the main altar.

The case of ‘positivo’ organs is usually made up of two separate parts – the upper and lower part. Inside the lower case are situated two hinged bellows with their relative hand blowing apparatus and wind trunking leading to the upper case which contains the rest of the organ : one keyboard, windchest, actions (key and stop) and all the pipework.

The typical windchest employed in 18th century Neapolitan and Sicilian organs was the slider chest while in northern Italy the ‘spring’ chest (described later on) had already been in use more than 200 years. Therefore the Qrendi ‘positivo’ windchest, made from a single piece of Italian walnut, is a slider chest with 9 slides also made of Italian walnut. The pallets are leathered with a single layer of leather (no felt is used) and are leather hinged.

These ‘positivo’ organs are always one manual instruments. The extension of the keyboard is 4 octaves with a total of 45 keys. The lowest octave is ‘short’ since it does not include the C#, D#, F# and G# keys. The keyboard seems to start at E so that the lowest C, D and E are played by the E, F# and G# keys. The naturals are usually covered in boxwood while the sharps are made of walnut or ebony and sometimes have a thin overlay of a different material. The depth of the key action is not more than 8mm and the suspended action is very simple. The touch is quite light compared to larger mechanical organs.

This organ survived relatively intact until the 1950’s when it was enlarged by a local carpenter and brutally altered in the process. Amongst other things this resulted in the destruction of most of the case as well as the replacement of the original bellows, keyboard and most of the stop action. The organ had been silent for about 20 years when the restoration works started in 2000 with the aim of returning the organ as close as possible to its original physiognomy. The surviving parts were restored while the missing parts were reconstructed according to original ones surviving in other ‘positivo’ organs in Malta and Italy. The façade pipes were rebuilt since of the original set only half a pipe survived. This is now stored inside the organ case.

Painted on a wooden panel just above the keyboard is the name of the builder and date of construction – ‘ Severino 1778’. Very little is known about this builder – no reference is made in the list of known Neapolitan and Sicilian builders of the 18th century. After the alterations of the 1950’s it was difficult to determine with absolute certainty whether this organ was Neapolitan or Sicilian, especially since 18th century ‘positivo’ organs of these two schools were very similar. Given the benefit of the doubt a Sicilian-style pedalboard was built and installed. This consists of 8 short pedals (making one octave) protruding from the case which are permanently connected to the keyboard.

The stoplist of the organ (after restoration) is the following :
Left Column Right Column 
Principale 8’
Ottava 4’
XV 2’
Voce Umana 8’ (flue rank from Middle C)

While such ‘positivo’ organs rarely have more than nine stops, smaller stoplists, for example up to the XV or XXII, are very common. The pipework speaks on a pressure of 48mm in water column and is tuned to Tartini-Vallotti temperament.


Gozo, Malta’s sister island, is also blessed with deep religious roots. The crown and pride of each village is its parish church. Considering the size of Gozo and the relatively small number of inhabitants, it is amazing to find such architectural jewels which are even more overwhelming as one steps inside.

One of the oldest Gozitan villages is Nadur with an imposing baroque basilica crowning its village square. The interior is lavishly decorated with marble, stained glass and paintings. A beautiful and very interesting organ was built by the firm Cav. Pacifico Inzoli e Figli (Crema, Italy) in 1897 and enlarged by the same firm in 1914.

A skilled voicer, Pacifico Inzoli (1847-1910) was also much committed to improving the tonal and action aspects of contemporary Italian organbuilding. He developed new stops and experimented with mechanical and pneumatic stop and key actions. He built organs all over Italy, in Malta and as far as Santiago del Chile.

The ‘spring’ chest was the most common type of mechanical windchest used by North Italian builders. It has pallets like the ‘slider and pallet’ chest but the stop control is not through sliders. Inside the windchest is a small valve for each pipe in each stop. Wooden rods, called combs, situated externally on top of the chest can be moved by the stop action to move an entire row of valves thus setting ‘on’ or ‘off’ a particular stop. Though more complex this windchest proved to be more reliable than contemporary slider chests.

Inzoli developed mechanical chests called ‘double-compartment’ chests based on the common ‘spring’ chest, which by means of double valves for each pipe make the same stop independently available on 2 manuals. Inzoli nevertheless made much use of the common spring chest for his mechanical organs. Though not all of his innovations were fully successful, his organs had character and personality.

The Nadur organ is a colourful one-manual organ which is interesting from both the tonal and action aspects. It possesses a number of unusual and interesting action components. The main key action is mechanical with the typical ‘spring’ chest. However the stop action is pneumatic with large pneumatic motors moving the combs. This was a welcomed innovation. In this way the stop knobs could be more conveniently placed at an angle on either side of the organist. Equally important is the fact that no effort is required to activate a stop whereas manual operation would imply overcoming the tension of more than a hundred small springs (usually two springs for each small valve) and one or two large comb springs. Hence registration changes could occur faster and more accurately.

Another very interesting and rare feature (unique feature in Malta) of the Nadur parish organ is the pedal chest. It is a very complex and delicate Inzoli design combining mechanical action (for the pedalboard) and pneumatic action (for the manual) which allows the same pipes to be independently available on the pedals and on the manual. Each pipe has one vertically mounted pallet which can be opened by both actions. In the pneumatic action a large pneumatic motor pulls a very intricate mechanism to open the pallets. There are of course 2 stop controls for each rank in order to make each rank independently available. The extension of the pedalboard is 24 notes which corresponds to the extension of the keyboard ‘bassi’ (the keyboard split between ‘bassi’ and ‘soprani’ is at B2-C3). Hence the pedal stops Bordone 8’, Violone 8’ and Basso 8’ can be made independently available as ‘bassi’ stops on the manual.

The organ was enlarged in 1914 by the Inzoli firm. A cone-valve chest was added behind the pedal chest. A Principale 16’ (with stopped pipes for the first five pipes) and a 3 rank Viola 8’ stop was added to the tonal scheme. Both stops blend very well with the original pipework but the access to the organ and particularly to the two new stops is almost impossible.

This organ had been overhauled a number of times until its most recent restoration carried out by the author two years ago. Fortunately it had not been modified substantially and the restoration, though a lengthy task, was not particularly complicated. The organ was tuned in equal temperament and the pressure was set to 67mm according to Inzoli’s indications.

The stoplist and a short description of this organ is as follows :

Left Column Right Column 
Violone 8’ Soprani
Violone 8’ Basso*
Flauto Soprani
Flauto Bassi
Flutta Soprani
Voce Celeste (Soprani)
Oboe 8(Soprani)
Fagotto 8’ Bassi
Violoncello 16’ Soprani
Voci Umane 8 (Soprani)
Bordone 8’ (ped)**
Violone 8’ (ped)*  
Principale 16’
Viola da Concerto 8’
Principale 8’ Bassi
Principale 8’ Soprani
Bordone 8’ Bassi**
Bordone 8’ Soprani
Ottava 4’ Bassi
Ottava 4’ Soprani
Decima V Bassi
Decima V Soprani
Dulciana Bassi
Ripieno 3 file
Basso di 8’ (ped)
Contrabasso 16’ (ped) 


Unione tasto/pedale
Terza Mano (octave coupler from Middle C upwards)
Espressione (opens and closes a swell box for the Voci Umane reed stop)
Violini (inserts the 3 rank Viola da Concerto 8’)

Keyboard : 58 notes (C1-A58) splits between B24 and C25
Pedal : 24 notes (C1-B24)


The origins of this organ date back to 1775 when Sicilian organbuilder Santucci was commissioned to build a one-manual organ. After numerous repairs and tunings by other builders it was significantly rebuilt in 1899 by Giuseppe Bergomi of Brescia, Italy. Bergomi was not one of the most famous organbuilders in Italy but had good links with Malta and was assigned the task. He built new actions, chests, bellows and console. For some reason, possibly financial, Bergomi gave little attention of the tonal aspect. He fortunately retained what Santucci pipework he found but shifted and mixed it to suit his needs. Very low-quality pipework was introduced as well. The Bergomi rebuild had two identical 8’ pedal stops but no 16’ stop.

In 1999 the organ had been unplayable for many years and was in a pitiful state. During the preliminary study of the organ I was introduced to an 84 year old person who had been organist in this parish for 50 years. He told me unbelievable stories of pipework being stolen (especially mixture pipes) during the works on the façade of the church and during World War II.

The Bergomi console is the typical North Italian console of the 19th century – one manual, horizontally moving stop levers on either side of the organist to operate the combs of the ‘spring’ windchest, divided stops, and a slanting pedalboard with 17 notes. The key action is balanced and in general the action is quite noisy due to its design. Bergomi installed a new spring chest, and three other chests, two of which for the pedal department. He also installed a triple-rise bellows with direct ribs with two underlying pumps for hand blowing.

After careful considerations and second opinions from Italian colleagues it was decided to carry out a combined restoration and rebuild operation. The 1899 Bergomi rebuild was retained and restored. All the action components, bellows, console and chests were restored.

The tonal part was more challenging. It was agreed that there was no point in keeping the current tonal situation since this had absolutely no artistic value. All remaining Santucci 1775 pipework was reorganised as much as possible into probable original ranks. Hence the façade Principal 8’, Octave 4’, XIX, Flute 8’ and Flute 4’ were almost completely recomposed. The XIX rank was very important in determining the breaks of the Ripieno. Other ranks were partially recomposed - only the XXIX (29th) was completely rebuilt. Thus the organ was directed towards its original Santucci scheme and new pipework (based on the original pipework) was made to fill in the gaps. A much needed Subbasso 16’ was installed instead of one of the two open 8’ pedal stops installed by Bergomi. The organ has a total of 612 pipes of which about 250 were built as part of this restoration.

The voicing of the original pipes was respected and corrected where required while all new pipes were voiced on site. The wind pressure is 50mm and the organ was tuned to the Tartini-Vallotti temperament.

The stoplist (after restoration) and short description of this organ is as follows :


Left Column Right Column 
Voce Umana 8’ (soprani)
Flutta Reale 8’ (soprani)
Flauto in Ottava (soprani)
Flauto in XII (soprani)
Cornetta 1 3/5 (soprani)
Principal 8’ Bassi (façade)
Principale 8’ Soprani
Principale 8’ 2do
Ottava 4’ Bassi
Ottava 4’ Soprani
XV Bassi
XV Soprani
Contrabasso 16’ (stopped)
Basso 8’
Rinforzi 4’


Terza Mano (octave coupler)
Ripieno Foot Lever (inserts all the Right column stops)

Keyboard : 53 notes (C1toE53) breaks at B24-C25
Pedal : 17 notes ‘a leggio’ (C1toE17)

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