A self-taught pianist and accordionist, Camilleri, who was born in Hamrun, came from a musically talented family. At 11, he composed his first work, a band march. By the age of 15, he had finished a series of compositions, including the much-loved Malta Suite, which were inspired by Maltese folk singing, known as ghana. He developed an interest in Stravinsky and Stockhausen (both of whom he later met), Bach, Chopin and north African music.
When he was 18, his family emigrated to Australia, but Camilleri did not take to it and left for London, where the impresario Harold Fielding snapped him up. Soon, he was touring with top names such as Hoagy Carmichael, Frank Sinatra, Tommy Steele and Frankie Laine. His abilities were also recognised by Malcolm Arnold, whom he helped with the score for the soundtrack of the 1957 film The Bridge On the River Kwai.
Camilleri left London for Canada, to study composition at the University of Toronto. He viewed the ensuing years as the most exciting of his life. "To be in New York in the 1960s was electrifying," he said. "In the United States and Canada I did everything. I conducted, I wrote film scores, I was published and then I was appointed conductor with CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). Naturally I loved the money: however, around 1965, I decided to quit and dedicate the rest of my life to composition." He flew back to London and became a full-time composer.
Camilleri's fascination with Maltese and Mediterranean music can be felt in his Piano Concerto No 1, the Mediterranean, which he wrote aged 16 and revised in 1978. He also wrote the first-ever opera in Maltese, Il-Weghda (1984), and the language's first oratorio, Pawlu ta' Malta (1985), in honour of the island's patron saint. His second oratorio, Dun Gorg (2001), celebrated the life of a 20th-century Maltese saint. Jimmy Page approached him with the idea of commissioning a guitar concerto in 1981, but the project never came about.
From 1977 to 1983, Camilleri was professor of composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and from 1992 to 1996 professor of music at the University of Malta. He also co-wrote two books: Mediterranean Music (1988) and The Folk Music of Malta.
Between 2003 and 2006, Camilleri was a member of the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts. In 2003, his opera Maltese Cross was performed in Paris; his last work, the New Idea Symphony - commissioned by his compatriot, the author Edward de Bono - was premiered in Brussels on 13 January this year.
He is survived by his wife, Doris, a writer, and their daughter Anja and son Charles.
• Charles Camilleri, composer, born 7 September 1931; died 3 January 2009