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Maryann Kissaun: a life immersed in music

Maryann Kissaun was born on November 18, 1927 in Valletta. Her father, Michael was the son of Alphonse Kissaun, an Irish Catholic from Tipperary and his German Jewish mother, Ellen Plesh, from Leipzig. Maryann’s Italian mother, Syra Botti Marconi, was born in Rome. The latter’s mother died when Syra was only 12 years old, bringing to an end her dream of continuing her piano studies.

Maryann was deeply grateful to her mother, who instilled in her and her younger sister, Nadya, not only the importance of discipline and perseverance but also a great love of classical music. If they were listening to some great musician on the radio, such as Rubenstein, she would say “così, si suona” (that is how it is played), which, of course, on one hand, inspired her to do better but, on the other, left her to wonder whether she would ever attain such great heights.

Her father, Michael, author and broadcaster, was a cultured man who was appointed the first manager of the Manoel Theatre, a role he played with distinction between 1962 and 1972. He wrote and published books on The Life of King George V and Queen Mary, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II, now held in the library of Buckingham Palace. He also translated into Maltese A Spanish Franciscan’s Narrative of a Journey to The Holy Land by Sir Harry Luke.

Maryann Kissaun (1927-2023)Maryann Kissaun (1927-2023)

In 1942, Michael had the honour of carrying the George Cross for gallantry, awarded to the brave people of Malta by King George VI in Palace Square, Valletta.

Maryann was just 12 years old when World War II broke out. Walking from Fleur-de-Lys in Birkirkara, where the family was evacuated, to Tower Road, in Sliema for piano lessons with Miss Bascetta became impossible due to the relentless bombardment. Schools were closed and piano lessons stopped; however, she had vivid recollections of those endless hours spent in the damp, dark shelters underground.

When the Santa Maria convoy arrived in Malta on August 15, 1942 she and her sister, Nadya helped serve food to the gathered crowd on the Valletta bastions. This scene became part of the 1953 film The Malta Story, starring Alec Guinness. Slowly but surely, despite great difficulties, schools reopened and piano lessons resumed.

In 1945, Maryann won an Associated Board of Music scholarship to the Royal College of Music, in London as well as a British Council scholarship. She travelled with her father to London in a troop ship for the first three years of studies, majoring in performing, with eminent teachers, among whom were Frank Merrick, Vaughan Williams and Thomas Fielden.

A pianist of the highest order, excellent technique – whether in brilliant or introspective passages… she exhibited serious musicianship

Later in Italy, Maryann studied with Ornella Santoliquido and, at masterclass level, with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and, again in London, with Peter Katin and Peter Feuchtwanger.

On her return to Malta, Maryann, with her sister, Nadya, now known by the BBC as “the beautiful Kissaun Sisters”, gave highly acclaimed two-piano recitals. These included Weber’s Concertstuck and the first performances of Haydn’s St Anthony Chorale and Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals to ecstatic applause.

Continuing with her career abroad, Maryann gave concerts in Italy, Germany, France, Holland, Switzerland and the UK, giving prominence to English and Maltese composers Carmelo Pace, Charles Camilleri and Pawlu Grech. A piece in the Corriere Lombardo in 1959 said: “Maryann Kissaun, a young Maltese pianist, asserted herself displaying precious gifts of a refined artist.”

Throughout her life, Maryanne credited Gabor Otvos, conductor, and Richard Arnell, one of Britain’s great composers, whose piano concerto she performed with the BBC Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow. She also recorded these performances for the BBC in 1962 during her tour of Germany, Paris and London, where “she was met with success everywhere. She was highly acclaimed by critics and audiences alike”.

An undated photo of Kissaun.An undated photo of Kissaun.

She also gave recitals in the Netherlands and on Vatican Radio and was soloist with the Trieste Philharmonic, the Dublin Symphony Orchestra  and participated in international festivals and, beyond Europe, in Argentina and Mexico.

Pedro Calderon, principal conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, once said: “I have had the greatest pleasure of hearing Maryann Kissaun, the notable Maltese pianist, who, by playing the most demanding compositions, displayed an outstanding artistic personality endowed with all the attributes of a compelling and genuine musical individuality.”

Henry LaRoque, one of the most eminent critics in Buenos Aires, wrote: “Maryann Kissaun is a pianist of the highest order, excellent technique – whether in brilliant or introspective passages… she exhibited serious musicianship… and the most eloquent phrasing of Beethoven.”

When Maryann settled in London, she taught at the London College of Music while deputising for professors at the Royal College of Music. She still pursued her concert career in many more fascinating countries, meeting and befriending interesting people of cultures new to her.

She collaborated with several leading performers and musicians, including Andrea Petrassi, Oreste Kirkop, Miriam Gauci, Enrique Peres De Guzman and Alberto Portughes. She also gave several piano and violin performances in Britain, Belgium and Italy. Back in Malta, she kept a full teaching schedule and adjudicated piano competitions, which enabled many Maltese students to study music and the arts abroad. Carmine Lauri was eventually one outstanding and successful student who went on to become the leading violin with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Maryann was chairperson of the British Scholars’ Association. She wrote articles on piano technique and subscribed others to the British Council Newsletter. In 1990, she appeared on a BBC television programme celebrating Malta’s George Cross.

Her life was immersed in music. She had a vast repertoire, which she performed with flourish and artistry.

In December 2010, she was awarded the Tribute of the Maltese Republic for her cultural achievements to the nation.