Moreschi and the Voice of the Castrato

A discerning study of the legacy of the last of the papal castrati resonates with Martha Feldman

January 22, 2009

Sometimes it takes a person from outside professional academia to offer a fresh perspective. In Moreschi and the Voice of the Castrato, Nicholas Clapton, a countertenor and voice teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, does just that.

Together with his previous work, Moreschi: The Last Castrato (2004), Clapton has given us the first monographs on the last castrated singer known to have sung in the papal chapel, despite the fact that Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922) is vital to the history of singing and gender.

One of various papal castrati who sang in the years spanned by his career, Moreschi was the best and most versatile of his generation. He was the only one to make recordings (in 1902 and 1904), a figure who lived to see "the end of 18 centuries of temporal power for the papacy" and in 1903 the banning of castrati from the Pope's chapel in favour of boy sopranos.

Nonetheless, the power, focus and purity with which his physiology endowed him led the Roman Catholic Church to bend the rules. He continued singing in its churches long after 1903 and was still listed, as Clapton notes, in the Annuario Pontificio (Pontifical Yearbook) in 1913.

Clapton's is a witty, opinionated, passionate and well-written portrait that fills a decided gap. Moreschi's extraordinary status calls for the historical context Clapton lavishes upon it, and the recordings warrant his discerning appraisal, especially in the face of disparaging reactions from listeners with little idea of how to evaluate performances on 78rpm records, much less those of a castrato.

The first chapter of part two, "The voice and the legacy", is the most incisive part of the book. The historical part one is less even, although it gains an authenticity and authorial immediacy when Clapton finishes with the background and moves on to Moreschi's own time.

Moreschi and the Voice of the Castrato is freighted with oddities of organisation, production and presentation. Externally it looks like a single-authored biography, but in reality it is a multi-authored volume, with Clapton's 226-page contribution plus preface and notes taking the lion's share. Added to it are three uneven essays by others.

That of David M. Howard, head of the audio laboratory of the Intelligent Systems Research Group in the department of electronics at the University of York, on "Acoustic and physiological aspects of the castrato voice", is highly informed and well executed.

"On Allegri's Miserere" by chorister Ben Byram-Wigfield is mostly a compilation of notes on the work's various manuscripts. Most strangely, the essay by the late Paul J. Moses, "The psychology of the castrato voice", reproduces work from his 1954 book The Voice of Neurosis, which looks at the psychopathology of vocal disorders.

The biographical heart of Clapton's book lies in part one, which originally appeared in his 2004 volume along with part two, chapter one on Moreschi's voice. All are reprinted here with only modest revisions and expansions.

Followers of Clapton's work will wish that the relationship between the old and new volumes was explained so that they could elect to skip straight to the new material, which is otherwise hard to find.

Indeed, the new material begins only in the second chapter of part two, "A concert, a plaque and a party (or rather two of each)". In effect, this is an autobiographical postlude to the 2004 material that recounts Clapton's participation in conference-cum-concert festivities staged in tribute to Moreschi in his provincial hometown of Montecompatri in 2006.

For Clapton to end his contribution to this book in quirky self-referential mode is not without value, for it conveys vividly a sense of how memories of Moreschi, passed down and nurtured by his hometown in an eminently Italian way, intertwine with the curiosities of an outside researcher.

What I wish had been added is attention to some new secondary material: Salvatore De Salvo Fattor's 20th-century volume in the series Storia della Cappella Musicale Pontificia (2005); Giuseppe Gerbino's "Quest for the soprano voice: castrati in Renaissance Italy" (Studi musicali 33 (2004)), which illuminates the historiography of falsettists versus castrati; Neil K. Moran's "Byzantine castrati" (Plainsong and Medieval Music 11 (2002)), which shows that by the 12th century all professional singers in Hagia Sophia were castrati; and John Potter's essay on"The tenor-castrato connection, 1760-1860" (Early Music 35 (2007)).

That notwithstanding, I cherish Clapton's books for bringing life and intelligence to Moreschi's work. Anyone who wants to know more about the last castrato, his peers and his times should read them.

Moreschi and the Voice of the Castrato

By Nicholas Clapton

Haus Books

224pp, £16.99

ISBN 9781905791422

Published November 2008

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