Alessandro Moreschi: The Last Castrato August 27 2021
On the 21st April 1922, the very last singer of a Western musical tradition going back at least 500 years died.
Young Alessandro Moreschi (shown here singing at a young age) was a castrato, and from him we have the only recordings of a voice type obtained through castration before a boy soprano reaches puberty (and in very rare cases, through endocrinological conditions which prevent males from going through a normal puberty).
Alessandro Moreschi was the only Italian castrato singer of the classic bel canto tradition to make solo recordings in the late 19th century.
WHAT IS A CASTRATO?
In vocal terms, a castrato is a type of male singing voice, found in classical music, which is roughly equivalent in range to a female singing voice.
Castration before puberty halts changes to the larynx which occur during puberty, and the range and qualities of the prepubescent voice are largely retained, with a unique vocal development path thereafter.
The changes were physical too - the lack of testosterone meant that their arms and legs often grew unusually long, as did their ribs, giving extra lung capacity and therefore power as a consequence.
The vocal cords themselves remained child-sized and usually with tremendous vocal flexibility, giving a fluty, falsetto-like quality to the upper reaches.
THE CASTRATO IN MUSIC AND HOW IT SOUNDED LIKE
Although it is likely that the choir of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul had a choir containing castrati as early as the 9th century, they don't appear by name in writings about Western classical music until the middle of the 16th century.
Particularly sought-after for church music after the Pauline dictum of "let women keep silent in churches" (Corinthians I 14:34), they are referred to in several ways, which may or may not indicate true castrati rather than male falsettists.
Luigi Dentice refers to soprano maschino (male soprano) in his Due Dialoghi della Musica of 1533, and two years later, Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este writes to the then Duke of Mantua on hearing of the interest in his cantoretti - a term meaning 'little singers', but most likely referring to castrati.
There is definite historical evidence that there were likely castrati in the choir of the Sistine Chapel from 1558, and probably much earlier. Hernando Bustamante (also recorded as Ferdinandus and Ernando) was a Spanish soprano (and most likely castrato), and was apparently a singer of considerable ability. He appears in the salary rolls of the chapel of the Duke of Ferrara in 1558, and was apparently there until at least 1609.
However, he was often fined for going to sing elsewhere - and that 'elsewhere' was out of the papal chapel, and particularly to the Duke of Ferrara's service, where he was joined by his brother Domenico. There is significant evidence to suggest that both brothers were castrati, making Hernando therefore the first 'star' castrato. By 1589, Hernando Bustamante was the highest-paid singer in Ferrara.
In the same year, Pope Sixtus V had the choir of St. Peter's organized specifically to include castrati. In opera, there's evidence to suggest that roles such as Speranza - and even Euridice - in Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607) were taken by castrati rather than female voices, at least on occasion.
More common still were 'normal' male voice roles taken by castrati; something that persisted until the late 18th century. If a composer wanted to write a successful opera, they had to include a role for a castrato singer. Star castrato singers such as Farinelli and Senesino earned astronomical fees, and the kind of adoration from the music-loving public more common with pop or famous film stars today.
Unfortunately, however, castration pre-puberty often causes physical abnormalities, and they could appear ungainly onstage. As critic Roger Pickering wrote in his 1755 Reflections Upon Theatrical Expression in Tragedy: "Farinelli drew everybody to the Haymarket. What a Pipe! What Modulation! What Extasy to the Ear!...What Offence to the Eye."
Carlo Broschi Farinelli - Signed Document 1749
Some young boys died during the castration process. Lethal doses of painkillers, usually opioids, were inadvertently given to alleviate pain during and shortly after the process.
Accidental excessive pressure to the carotid artery - to render the boys unconscious for surgery - sometimes killed them instead. Writing in the 18th century, Charles Burney, historian and composer observed: "I enquired throughout Italy at what place boys were chiefly qualified for singing by castration, but could get no certain intelligence.
I was told at Milan that it was at Venice; at Venice that it was at Bologna; but at Bologna the fact was denied, and I was referred to Florence; from Florence to Rome, and from Rome I was sent to Naples...it is said that there are shops in Naples with this inscription: 'QUI SI CASTRANO RAGAZZI', but I was utterly unable to see or hear of any such shops during my residence in that city."
THE END OF THE CASTRATI
Tastes changed, and as the 19th century began, the vogue for castrati in opera was fading. After Italy was unified in 1861, 'eviration' (the process of castration) was made illegal, although there was still a significant backstreet trade.
However, Pope Leo XIII prohibited the church from hiring new castrati in 1878, thus reducing demand, and by 1898, a photograph of the Sistine Choir shows only six remaining in the ensembles itself, including their then director Domenico Mustafa.
Mustafa's own castration followed a pig bite as a boy, and he had a fine reputation as a singer of Handel and also as a composer. Bizarrely, he came close to creating a significant Wagnerian role; the composer had considered making the role of Klingsor in Parsifal a castrato in 1882, but abandoned this idea on consultation with Mustafa; the character had been emasculated post-puberty, and would therefore have had a normal male vocal range.
Mustafa also famously taught the soprano Emma Calvé her ethereal 'fourth voice' in alt. The official end came on 22nd November 1903 - St. Cecilia's Day - when Pope Pius X issued the instruction that "whenever...it is desirable to employ the high voices of soprano and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys..."There remained a few castrati, working out their time at the Sistine Chapel until retirement, and only one who has left us a solo recorded legacy - Alessandro Moreschi.
Born in Monte Compatri in November 1858, the story was that Moreschi was castrated due to an inguinal hernia, a condition for which castration was still considered a cure in the 19th century.
However, since his talents as a singer had already been spotted as a boy soprano in the chapel of the Madonna del Castagno, it's more likely he was castrated later - probably around the age of seven or eight - and that it was a decision taken to preserve his castrato voice.
The 'inguinal hernia' defense was used frequently with talented boy sopranos, as Martha Feldman notes in The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds.
It was common for talent scouts to seek boys out for high-status positions, and Moreschi`s singing abilities had been noticed and scouted by Nazareno Rosati; the scout for the Sistine Chapel Choir. Rosati himself had been a member of the choir, and took Moreschi to Rome to join them at around the age of 12, in 1870.
His tuition took place at the scuola di San Salvatore in Lauro, which stands on a piazza of the same name, under the composer and organist Gaetano Capocci, maestro di cappella. Just three years later, Alessandro Moreschi was appointed First Soprano in the St. John Lateran Papal basilica.
In addition, when he wasn't singing in church, he was singing in the salons of Roman high society. Since the salons of the rich were the only place outside the churches where the Pope's singers could be heard, these salons were extremely popular. Moreschi acquired the nickname by which he was widely known - l'Angelo di Roma (The Angel of Rome) - through his singing of the coloratura role of the Seraph in Beethoven's Christus am Olberge in 1883.
Shortly afterwards, he was auditioned by all the members of the Sistine Chapel Choir, and appointed to the post of First Soprano - a post he was to hold for the next thirty years.
ALESSANDRO MORESCHI AND THE SISTINE CHAPEL CHOIR
The Sistine Chapel Choir was famous for one piece in particular during Holy Week - Allegri's Miserere. This work dates from some point during the 1630s (most probably 1638), and has a significant mystique surrounding it, with performance traditions and ornamentations largely unwritten at this point in the 19th century.
During its early history, transcribing the Miserere became forbidden, and the music became an oral tradition closely guarded within the choir. There were just three authorized written copies when the 14-year-old Mozart visited Rome, and happened to hear the Miserere at the Wednesday service.
Thought once to be just a good story, the events surrounding him writing the piece down on just one hearing are backed up by family letters, and he gave a copy to the British historian Charles Burney, who took it to London where it was published in 1771.
Other transcriptions include those by Mendelssohn and Liszt, and there are also other 18th and 19th century sources. An interesting edition - which shows all the standard Sistine Chapel Choir ornamentations - is that of Pietro Alfieri from 1840. Domenico Mustafa knew that a new soprano capable of the punishing tessitura was necessary, and Moreschi fit the bill.
Although there were still other castrati singers in the ensemble, no existing member of the Sistine Chapel Choir was able to deliver the famous repeated refrain with consistent security.
Alessandro Moreschi is at the center
Alessandro Moreschi also took on various administrative posts within the choir in the late 19th century. The running of the choir was dictated by centuries of tradition, and when the senior castrato - Giovanni Cesari, who had a very high soprano voice - retired in 1886, it's likely that Moreschi took over as Director of Soloists.
The job of segretario puntatore, the keeping of the day-book of the choir's activities went by turns, and he took his in 1891. The following year, he took on one additional administrative post - maestro pro tempore - calling meetings, arranging rehearsals, granting holiday and other leave, and all the other mundane human resources type jobs that are necessary to the running of any organization.
However, the late 19th century was a time of tumultuous change for music within the Catholic Church, and this included the life of the choir. The reforming movement of Cecilianism was a reaction against the Enlightenment, and called for a return to both Gregorian chant and polyphony.
Mustafa had done all he could to resist, but the appointment of Lorenzo Perosi - an Italian composer of sacred music - in 1898 as joint Perpetual Director heralded a time of unprecedented change.
As the century turned, the world saw light of the first of Moreschi´s recordings, becoming the first known of a castrato. In 1903, the new Pope, Pius X, himself a huge advocate of Cecilianism, decreed that high voice parts in the choir must be taken by boys in future, and that castrati were to be naturally pensioned off over time.
Officially, Moreschi was part of the choir until 1913, and qualified for his own pension, but Perosi's opposition to the voice type had won out. Approximately 500 years of musical tradition was at an end.
MORESCHI´S LIFE OUTSIDE THE CHURCH
Sadly, the recordings Moreschi leaves us don't show him at his best. They are made early in the life of recording technology, and it's unlikely they capture the unique qualities of the castrato instrument with anything like the accuracy needed to make a judgement on their sound.
In addition, the shelf-life of a soprano castrato is a relatively short one, and Moreschi's range and power had already begun to diminish. His physical appearance was changed by his castration - he was short, and his rib cage was large, as with other castrati. He had none of the body hair associated with male puberty, and his voice remained high in pitch.
All of these things gave him a youthful appearance until almost the end of his life. Unfortunately, despite enjoying his star status in Italian high society, he never really fitted in.
The standards to which Italian men were held meant his inability to grow facial hair, and sport the heavy beard that was fashionable at the time, denied him the ability to appear 'masculine'. He was both held in great esteem as a celebrity and artist, and looked down on for being perceived as less than a man.
However much Moreschi relished his fame and dressed like a star, the upper echelons of society were closed to him. Moreschi did marry, although obviously he was unable to have children. The change of rules for choir members in 1891 made it possible for him to marry Guendalina Rinaldi.
Unfortunately, it wasn't a happy match. Within a few years, Moreschi had left his wife for another man, leaving her free to squander his wealth and sell his art collection. Forcibly retired by the change in policy at the Sistine Chapel, Moreschi lived the last 15 years of his life in an apartment close to the Vatican, dying of pneumonia at the age of 63.
THE RECORDED LEGACY
The Gramophone & Typewriter Company recordings weren't
Moreschi's first venture into having his voice captured. Bettini made a cylinder copy of him in 1900, singing Pratesi's Et incarnatus est.
The 1902 commercial recordings from the company which was to become His Master's Voice were intended not just to capture the sound of the chapel choir before it changed forever with the advent of boys' voices, but to record the voice of the elderly Pope Leo XIII, who died the following year at the age of 93.
Over the next two years, Moreschi made a total of 18 recordings, both as a soloist and as part of the choir. What isn't clear is how well these sold outside Italy, although both French and American Victor label pressings exist.
The qualities of Moreschi's voice are more controversial. Ida Franca, teacher and author of The Manual of Bel Canto had heard the castrato live in around 1910, and had spoken highly of the quality of his voice, whilst still stating he was not the best castrato she had ever heard.
The recordings, however, divide opinion - other factors notwithstanding. He clearly has great lung capacity and legato, and the unearthly qualities of a not-quite boy soprano. However, the technique is at best questionable, and he has some strange vocal habits, not least a distortion of the onset of a note by approaching from anything up to an octave below.
He also has a tendency to perhaps overuse the Italianate 'sob' more familiarly heard in tenors. It's also worth bearing in mind that the modern ear is unused to hearing this extraordinary sound.
Forcing an adult lungful of ear through a stunted larynx won't necessarily produce a voice that can be entirely processed by an ear more used to hearing the seamless timbre of a countertenor.
The breath pressure is entirely different. Moreschi's voice is both like them, and at the same time as far removed as it is possible to be.
Alessandro Moreschi - Ignace Leybach: Requiem, "Pie Jesu"
Finally, as odd as the recordings of the full choir sound to modern ears, they are probably as close to a musical time machine as could ever be wished for.
The sound of the castrati of the Sistine Chapel Choir on these records open a window on the music of the Catholic Church and its performance practice going back at least 400 years. That alone makes them a valuable document of a lost musical world.
Written by Zoe South
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