Anna Krohn: how bright shone this loyal son of Malta, vale Richard Divall

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Musical maestro and Knight of Malta Richard Divall, as pictured in the booklet at his funeral Mass, which was held in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne on 25 January. Photo: Peter Casamento

For many Catholics in Western society, there is a sharp rupture between their experience of high culture or authentic folk art, and the moral and pastoral practices of their faith.

Catholics in Australia sometimes take part in enthusiastic audiences, who pay to attend excellent concerts of baroque or ancient sacred music, the very music that was once fostered within and for the service of the Church.  Sometimes this music is performed in the same churches and cathedrals they attend on Sundays, but where instead, they too often contend with recorded tunes, larded with the inane lyrics and nylon sounds of the 1970s.

While not denying the genuinely challenging issues involved in fostering good and liturgically appropriate music to parish life, the recent requiem Mass for Frà Richard Divall at St Patrick’s Cathedral Melbourne reminded the huge and theologically diverse congregation that the divorce was not inevitable between cultural excellence and a life of mercy and charity, or between the ceremonial of centuries and the concrete events of lived prayer and suffering.

Richard Divall, the renowned musicologist, professor, conductor and Australia’s only solemnly professed religious member of the Order of Malta, was honoured by the homilist, Jesuit theologian, Dr Gerald O’Collins, not only for his virtuosic abilities as a scholar of music and as a mentor for aspiring singers and musicians, but for his infectious joy, his gift for enduring friendship and for his faith.

Richard Sydney Benedict Divall was born in New South Wales on the 9 September, 1945 but not into a Catholic family. He was apparently told at his Manly Boys’ School that he would not amount to much. However he quickly overturned that prediction, first trying an unsatisfying job in an accountant’s office, and then working in the ABC and winning scholarships to study opera and conducting in Paris and London. He was blessed to be under the direction of such luminaries as Sir Charles Mackerras, Wolfgang Wagner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Sir Reginald Goodall.

He returned to Australia and to production in ABC radio, notably the Musica Australis program which gave Divall’s scholarly fascination the scope to explore Colonial and Federation Australian composers and music. His research and reworking of scores and leadership in the performance this “lost” and under-appreciated music resulted in a valuable collection of 850 scores and many recordings.

One well received recovery was a piece by the composer Fritz Hart (1874-1949) called The Bush and which was conducted by Richard Divall.  It is considered the finest Australian work for orchestra before 1930.

Another great fruit of Richard Divall’s passion for Australian composers was his role in the recovery of the music and life of the World War I composers, some of whom tragically never returned from the front. Divall took part in a number of moving tributes to these figures, and helped to remind Australians of the great Frederick Septimus Kelly (1881-1916).

Frà Richard’s other great love was the human voice (when young he sang in many ensembles himself). His ability to conduct, unite and enthuse vocal and orchestral artists was noticed by some leading singers, notably the great Australian soprano, Dame Joan Hammond (1912-1996), who invited Divall to become the musical director of Victoria Opera (later called Victoria State Opera, merging with Opera Australia in 1996). There and with Opera Australia, he conducted over 150 operas and many other concerts.

Many of the tributes in the last weeks have acknowledged Richard Divall’s sincere Catholic faith and his “exemplary” role as a member as a Knight of Malta. One of the most moving tributes to Divall’s fine integration of culture and faith was penned by his friend, composer and the current artistic director of the Victorian Opera, Richard Mills.

When he was asked to talk about his life and favourite places, and which doorway was the most important for him, he replied: “Apart from heaven, the most important doorway that one goes through is the doorway to people’s hearts and souls because that’s where you find real friendship, understanding and communication.”

His journey into the Catholic faith was in fact a gradual process, but in part began during the 1970s with his scholarly fascination in the history of an ancient Order which was to become in its longest title: The Sovereign and Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta — The Order of Malta. He was received into the Catholic Church on the secular feast of Melbourne Cup Day, 1989 in St Patrick’s Cathedral, before a understandably small but prestigious congregation.

Invaluable in providing insight into Richard Divall’s attraction to the charism of the Knights’ Hospitaller, is Divall’s godfather, close friend and the former Regent of Sub-Priory the Order of Malta in Australia, Sir James Gobbo, himself a notable patron of Italian musical culture, former Governor of Victoria and Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria.

While I was talking with Sir James this week, he noted that while many people are drawn to the Catholic faith for clearly doctrinal or theological reasons, he observed that Richard Divall the historian, was drawn to the charism and remarkable spread of the Order of the Hospital in its earliest years from 1050 to 1113 when it received a bulla of approval by Pope Paschal II.  In fact, so impressive was Divall’s study of this core mission of the order, that Sir James invited him to deliver a paper (The Order of Malta and Medicine) to the order’s members at their annual dinner in 1982.

Sir James commented: “It began as a movement of care and shelter to Our Lord’s the sick and poor, well before the Crusades or any military titles, a movement which attracted a life of humble service and religious fraternity, under the remarkable Blessed Frà Gerard.”

“The shelters which were established by the movement, were prized and sponsored by the merchants of Amalfi and during the first 60 years spread from Jerusalem right into Italy.”

These shelters or hostels became the precursor of what we know today as hospitals and hospices.

Today the Order of Malta is a world-wide movement, offering hospital, nursing and emergency medical assistance in places affected by disasters. In Australia, the order is involved in Eastern Palliative Care, a home-hospice service in Victoria, and in New South Wales it assists with Gorman House, a shelter and detoxification unit in Sydney. Members and volunteers of the Order assist the sick and disabled to make pilgrimage to Lourdes and also organize to bring “Lourdes to the sick” by organizing Lourdes Day Masses, at which water from the spring of Lourdes is distributed in local churches and nursing homes.

Sir James Gobbo again: “Richard had a very hands involvement in the work of the Order. He was a leader of Victoria’s Coats Program, which travelled the streets of Melbourne to provide specially designed and made coats for the homeless and itinerant. “Richard cheerfully took up the most arduous round being that serving North Melbourne, Footscray and the Geelong Road caravan park.”

Once again, Frà Richard’s practical charity was accompanied by a deep scholarly interest in the culture fostered by the Order of Malta in the country of Malta.  At the age of 68, after many research trips to Maltese archives and scholars, Divall was awarded Doctor of Philosophy with High Distinction for his “groundbreaking” recovery and commentary on the sacred music of Malta’s national composer, Niccolo Isouard (1773-1818).

Sir James Gobbo noted that from a perspective of faith, the closing scenes of “maestro Divall’s” life were very fitting. In his last illness he used Rosary beads given to him by Dame Joan Hammond, while being cared for at Caritas Christi Hospice, the headquarters of the Order of Malta in Victoria and the first Victorian hospice for the dying. A small band of Carmelite sisters from the Kew Carmel sang the Salve Regina at his bedside just moments before he breathed his last.

By a strange irony, news of major troubles within the Sovereign Council of the Order of Malta in Rome, reached Australia, and shook the Knights and Dames who just hours before had solemnly attended Frà Richard’s funeral.

Richard Divall, the Knight of Justice and avid historian, would have appreciated this irony, and the blows that the Order had received before in its 900 year history. His grasp and living out of the Order’s promise: “to be servants and slaves to our Lords, the sick”, and the effect of this upon all those he met while pursuing truth and excellence in culture, is a beacon for the Order’s future.