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Moreschi: And the Voice of the Castrato: The Angel of Rome Hardcover – 31 Oct 2008
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‘. . . In an immaculately produced and beautifully illustrated short volume, Clapton sets the castrato in a historical context . . . Clapton is excellent on the physical and psychological effects of castration as experienced by Moreschi . . . a valuable historical record of a nearly forgotten art.’ (Andrew Green Classical Music)
'Invaluable ... a fascinating account of the relations between the Vatican and Italy during the last half of the 19th century ... Clapton’s story is told with wit, compassion and elegance.’ (Michael Tanner BBC Music Magazine)
In his own lifetime Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922) came to be known as the 'Angel of Rome,' he was one of the last surviving castrato singers of the Vatican choir, and the only one of the castrati whose voice survives in any recording. The ethereal, haunting quality of his voice hints at why this extraordinary sound was so highly prized for centuries in the papal basilicas and opera houses of Europe.The tradition became established in Italy in the 16th century when Pope Clement VIII gave it his sanction. By the 17th century the castrati had moved onto the secular operatic stage, where they were feted as the 'pop stars' of their day. Few 'normal' singers male or female, came close to matching their fame and success. But, by the 19th century their continued existence had become an embarrassment, and when Moreschi joined the Sistine Chapel in 1883, there were only six castrati left in the choir, and by 1903 they were officially no more.The strange and lonely life of Alessandro Moreschi was lived in the shadows of great events and great institutions, his personality glimpsed only by inference and illusion.Written by an acclaimed musicologist, who as a counter-tenor has performed much of the repertoire written for castrati, this is a perceptive and informed study of the last survivor of a perennially intriguing part of western cultural history.This is a unique biography about a subject which continues to fascinate both amateur music lovers and expert musicologists alike. It provides widespread broadsheet review coverage. Nicholas Clapton made an acclaimed documentary for BBC4 on the castrati voice in 2006. See all Product description
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After an overview of the castrato tradition and of the historical, musical and religious context in which Moreschi grew up, the main meat of the book (roughly the middle third) discusses his time as a member of the Sistine Chapel choir, charting the political wrangling that beset it and the rise of the Cecilianist movement in church music. The latter would, in the early years of the Twentieth Century, bring about radical changes in the music of the Sistine Chapel, thereby sealing the fate of its remaining castrati including Moreschi.
The book seems to be an expanded version of Clapton's 2004 book "Moreschi (Life & Times)". The additional material is mostly not by Clapton himself, and includes chapters, by three different authors, on 'Acoustics of the Castrato Voice', 'On Allegri's Miserere' and 'The Psychology of the Castrato Voice'. Whilst these chapters contain some interesting material, I found them (especially the last one) a bit disjointed from the main part of the book.
So, overall a good book. I am deducting one star because of an inexcusable number of distracting typographical errors, especially (but not exclusively) in the second part of the book. The chapter on 'The Psychology of the Castrato Voice' (which actually dates from the 1950s) is written in a rather intense academic style and discerning its meaning is not aided by such nonsense as "exprieuiozt" (for "expression", p.296) and a huge number of other typos.
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The author tells us near the beginning that although we have lots of questions about the castrati, we really don't want to know about the actual operation, and then when he starts to describe it, I realized I couldn't read about something so painful that I had to skip ahead a few pages. The author utilized lots of old documents to reconstruct Moreschi's life and the inner politics of the Sistine choir. The backstabbing and double-dealing is interesting. The best part of the book details the ups and downs of the castrati in the choir as different leaders had different attitudes towards them.
Since Moreschi is the one (last and only) castrato who left behind any recordings, the temptation has always been to assume that all castrati sounded exactly like him. It's too dangerous to make generalizations of what Farinelli must have sounded like based on Moreschi's recordings, which were made when he was past his prime. It's also difficult to analyze his voice since the recording techniques were so primitive back in the early 1900s. The book should have been proofread. A sentence is baffling until one realizes that "end" should be "and." (p. 297) And "the bead--and chest--register" is intriguing until you realize it should be "head" instead of "bead." (p. 291) There are a lot of good black-and-white pictures. The author's tone is respectful instead of snide or sarcastic, which I appreciated.
But, I was disappointed in this book, especially because of those extra essays that someone forgot to proofread.
How Moreschi was castrated will probably always remain a mystery. In fact, counter-tenor Nicholas Clapton’s excellent book is, perforce, the “life and times” of the singer, since relatively little is known about him. A comprehensive biography is impossible. What we do know is that, in 1902 and 1904, he was the only castrato to make recordings, solidifying his artistic immortality. These recordings are more than an echo of the days when the castrati were the rage of Europe, when composers vied to compose for their sterling voices, and when mutilated men drove audiences to frenzy with their impassioned singing.
Various writers in the last fifty years have dismissed Moreschi’s recordings, but time is proving them short-sighted, at best. The voice on these records is obviously not that of a female. There is a gleaming, silvery strength that sounds like what they were: The pure voice of a boy soprano, but with the physical and musical development of a grown man. To say the least, it is a sound like no other. The modern-day counter-tenor sounds like that of a strong flute next to the castrato’s clarion voice.
With the 1903 coronation of Leo’s successor, Pope St Pius X, the castrati’s days were numbered at the Sistine Chapel. Naturally wanting to discourage the castration of children, Pius declared that “boys” were to take the parts belonging to soprano and alto. It is this motu proprio of the first year of his reign, “Tra le sollecitudini,” that remains one of the most misunderstood of papal documents. Far from outlawing modern music, the Supreme Pontiff (canonized in 1954 by Venerable Pope Pius XII) commanded that contemporary Sacred Music be derived from Gregorian Chant. As a matter of fact, many twentieth-century composers followed this lead, enriching the patrimony of great music. (What the good Pope would have thought of the influx of “popular” styles of music-making since the Second Vatican Council is anyone’s guess.)
Outside of the Vatican, Moreschi is known to have performed music of the female character, Abigaille, from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, "Nabucco." Even today, this fierce rôle is considered one of the most difficult in the répertoire, in our time the providence of only the most daring of prima donnas: Maria Callas, Elena Souliotis, Marisa Galvany, Renata Scotto (in the recording studio), and Dunja Vejzovic. Professor Moreschi also was soloist at the funeral of the assassinated King Umberto I of Italy, in 1900, having received special papal permission to sing at the historic event.
Moreschi retired from the Sistine Choir in 1914, and went to his reward in 1922. Clapton’s book has several rare photographs of the soprano: He was short and stocky, with—we are assured—a beardless face. Upon his death, his nephews published a notice in the local newspaper: “To-day…after a long illness, and supported by Christian resignation, ended with the Lord’s kiss the adored life of Professor Alessandro Moreschi, Papal Singer.” His grave can still be visited in Rome. Curiously, one of his colleagues from the Sistine Choir, Domenico Salvatori, is buried with him in the same tomb.
The publisher of this fine book is offering a free Compact Disc of the complete Moreschi oeuvre, simply by contacting them at their London address. It is well worth your while. While listening to these ancient recordings, one may find oneself inadvertently calling out, as opera-goers did in the castrati’s heyday, “Long live the knife!”
There are a number of books out there that deal with the castrati and at least one novel. The curious musician will now be able to find many answers and feel much closer than before to Alessandro Moreschi. Among the beautiful photos included are several in color taken by the author and others including a photo of Moreschi's tomb. "Moreschi: The Last Castrato" is indeed a book that will not be forgotten anytime soon.