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On Alessandro Moreschi

Or, Why I Cannot Stop Listening To This CD.

For one thing, I have waited a long time to hear the voice I am listening to now1. Without even knowing I was waiting, for much of that time.

I shall not sneer at stompyboots for having a fascination with castrati born mainly of Anne Rice's Cry to Heaven. I read it too, at about the same age, and who wouldn't yearn to hear the real thing after doing so? My copy of Cry to Heaven has long since found its way to the charity shop, but I seem to remember a note in the beginning of it which mentioned the existence of an early recording (and I'm pretty sure it did say a recording) of the last castrato: Moreschi. I may even have looked him up in my Mum's Dictionary of Classical Music and had the information confirmed there. So from my mid-teens onwards, I knew that Moreschi's voice had been recorded. But I assumed that the recording must be extremely rare and virtually impossible to get hold of, so I didn't make any serious attempts to track it down.

Fast forward now, if you will, to my early twenties. At 22, I saw a performance of Handel's Rodelinda in Oxford which, overnight, both introduced me to and caused me to fall head over heels in love with, the countertenor voice (on this occasion provided by David Cordier). That passion has lasted ever since, and so it was that I came, some five years ago, to be listening to a documentary on Radio 3 all about countertenors. There came a point in the programme when I suddenly realised that, with the way the discussion was going, it was highly likely that, any moment, we were going to be played that precious early recording I'd heard about so many years before. I slapped in a tape, and - sure enough - I was right. I was hearing the voice of Alessandro Moreschi for the very first time: gaping in astonishment, but recording it too.

The tape got put into storage in Birmingham when I moved to Belfast, and it's still there, so I can't check now what exactly I heard that day. Listening to my CD now, though, I think it must have been Domine Salvum Fac Pontificum Nostrum Leonem, a short work by the contemporary composer, Giovanni Aldega, exhorting divine blessings upon the Pope of the day, Leo XIII.

I remember listening with rapt attention to the voice issuing forth from my stereo. I remember being powerfully moved - even a little chilled - by its alien quality. The castrato voice really is like nothing else a human being can produce, after all. You couldn't mistake it for a boy treble, an adult female soprano or any variety of adult male countertenor. I listened to it a few times, and kept the tape, to which I occasionally returned.

But there were barriers to a real engagement with it. The sound quality, is, naturally, very poor to start with, and I'd recorded it onto tape off the radio, which didn't help. The particular music being sung wasn't best calculated to win me over, either. I'm generally poorly disposed to Romantic music, and Aldega hardly stands amongst the greats even within that era. And, of course, Moreschi was the product of his age. He had been trained in techniques which are seriously out of keeping with today's tastes (more detail on these below), and I simply wasn't ready to allow for that at the time.

Mainly, I remember thinking that the recording was interesting and valuable as an insight into what the really great castrati might have sounded like - but that it was a pity that what we actually had was a not-very-good recording of a not-very-good song sung by a not-very-good singer. And, crucially, what the programme certainly did not make clear was that there was more where this came from. I remained convinced that I'd heard the entirety of the one and only recording of a Classically-trained castrato, and that it wasn't really anything more than a curiosity.

Then, only two weeks ago, David Owen Norris came into my life. It was his job to give the pre-concert talk for an evening of arias performed by Andreas Scholl: an evening given thematic unity by the fact that they'd all been written originally, by a wide range of composers, for the Italian castrato Senesino. The talk focussed on the lives and careers of the castrati, and in the course of it, Norris played us no fewer than three pieces sung by Moreschi.

This time, I was in expert hands. Norris built us up gradually to the Moreschi, playing us two other near-contemporary recordings first, so that we could get used to both the quality of the sound and the techniques of the day before we also had to handle listening to a type of voice we'd never (or only slightly) encountered before. It helped too, that the recordings were reaching me this time via high-quality speakers, ringing out gloriously through the acoustically-honed surroundings of Symphony Hall as we listened in fascinated silence. And Norris had made rather better choices from amongst Moreschi's recorded repertoire than the producers of the Radio 3 programme (definitely Gounod's Ave Maria and Rossini's Crucifixus from the Petite Messe Solenelle; I can't be sure what the third track was now).

At last, I was lifted effortlessly and graciously over the barriers I described above. I could hear Moreschi's voice on its own terms for the first time. And I'd found out that there was more of it out there than I thought. At least three tracks, maybe more. At the end of the evening, I went straight home, fired up Google, and ordered the satisfyingly-titled Alessandro Moreschi: The Last Castrato. Complete Vatican Recordings from Amazon.com.

So, what do I think of this CD now I’ve got it? The short answer is, I love it. But you know me better than to think I don’t also have an incredibly long and verbose answer too, right?

Perhaps the most important thing about this CD is that it has now given me the chance to judge Moreschi on the basis of a repertoire, rather than just one three-minute song. There is actually a very great range here: from Gregorian chants to contemporary Italian love-songs, from unaccompanied solos (‘a cappella’) to full choruses, from the almost unbearably crackly to the really quite audible, and, on Prof. Moreschi’s part, from the flaky to the utterly angelic. This means that we get to build a fuller picture of his strengths and his weaknesses: and this is greatly to his advantage, since he does indeed perform significantly better in some contexts that others.

In particular, it’s worth remembering that the technology of the day didn’t really allow for the recording and re-recording which can be done now to create a ‘studio-perfect’ product. The recordings were made as-was, straight onto master disks – if they weren't quite perfect, that was just bad luck. The point is made particularly vividly by two alternate recordings of Rossini’s Crucifixus, the first of which, made in 1902, finds Moreschi nervy and dynamically flat. In this case, it clearly was felt that improvement was possible, and a second shot at the same piece in 1904 is markedly better (though still by no means his best performance). Yet it reminds us of the need to be a little more forgiving of the 'off' recordings on this disc than we might be in the case of a modern artiste: and not least because he was working in a relatively new and rather awkward medium.

Taking the CD as a whole, let’s deal first of all with the aspects of the recording which aren’t connected with Moreschi’s personal talents as a singer, but which may nonetheless make it difficult for the modern listener to enjoy. Some of the ‘barriers’ I was referring to above. These aren’t insurmountable, but they are always present. Whether it’s worth taking the trouble to surmount them, as ’twere, is of course a matter of individual preference and choice.

Firstly, the recording quality. It’s obvious that this will be an issue. These recordings were made on early gramophone records over a century ago. They’re not going to compare to modern recording standards. I’m sure OPAL (the producers of the CD) have done everything within their capability to identify the appropriate pitch, and reduce the crackle and bring out the music without losing tone. Nonetheless, these recordings sound rather like listening to a group of people singing in the next room, while a battalion of cooks fries sausages heartily in the doorway between you and them. Both Moreschi and his accompanying pianist sound thin, while the choir which features on some of the tracks is downright ethereal: presumably it was impossible to get all of them within a decent range of the recording-horns. I can only assume that all the performers involved would have produced a much richer and fuller sound in real life (or on a modern recording). But that must be recreated by the imagination now, and of course it’s impossible to know how generous to be.

Secondly, Moreschi’s technique. As I’ve said above, he was the product of his day. His style is generally emotive to an extent that sounds affected to modern ears. According to the sleeve-notes for the CD I have, he was said to have sung the Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust as a young man with ‘a tear in every note’, and the same approach is distinctly evident in his surviving recordings. The quickest and easiest analogy is to imagine the stereotyped romantic film image of a gondolier in Venice, serenading his passengers with dramatic sweeps of the hand, clutchings of the breast and swells of the voice. You can let it be a gondolier from a Cornetto advert, singing ‘Just one Cornetto’ to the tune of ‘O Sole Mio’, if you like. That will do nicely.

To be a little more technical, he tends to swoop from note to note rather than enunciating each one separately (portamento), is given to 'sobbing' each note out with its own little swell in the middle to bring out its full emotive impact, and also uses short grace-notes to launch himself with a great ‘scoop’ onto particularly important notes (acciaccatura). It’s this last technique which really sounds strange from a modern perspective – it has long since gone out of favour, and now sounds for all the world as though he has tried to hit his note, missed, and had to swoop up (or sometimes down) to the right pitch. But the sleeve-notes (again!) assure me that this was a deliberate and carefully-cultivated technique for emphasis, and I’m suitably convinced: not least because, now that I'm getting used to it, it actually does sound quite appropriate for the contemporary compositions on the CD in particular.

He is also poorly-served by his accompanists. There is often a significant measure of rhythmical shakiness in the piano department, and a sense of playing which is functional rather than sensitive – although again, we may be missing a lot due to the thin quality of the sound. One of the (otherwise) best tracks on the CD, Gounod’s Ave Maria, also features a seriously shoddy violinist, who would honestly have been best asked to stay at home that day. As for the rest of the choir, and the singers who share trios and quartets with him, they certainly have some very fine moments. But there are instances of raggedness, too: especially noticeable in Mozart's Ave Verum, where they really come across as sounding like a well-meaning local church choir, rather than the Pope's finest.

None of these things can be blamed on Moreschi. But what of his own abilities? I treat the negative first, because I am trained in the school of Tacitean rhetoric. ;)

Worst by far is a tendency to squawk, especially when employing acciaccatura (swooping grace-notes). The problem is at its very most acute in an unaccompanied Gregorian Chant entitled 'Incipit Lamentatio', in which he attempts several acciaccature in rapid succession on a series of short notes, themselves scored at the same pitch. Phrases such as "sedet sola civitas" and "quasi vidua domina" are nothing short of disastrous: a series of short, sharp squawks, with no opportunity for him to round the sound out into something more pleasant or flow smoothly from one note to another. Yet other phrases in the very same piece which are scored as longer notes or have variation in pitch come off beautifully: "lacrimae eius in maxillis eius", for example.

[Later edit: And now that I have obtained the Truesound remastering of his recordings, I see that the above is grossly unfair, and that that squawk is really not his fault at all. See, I can tell because it's all but completely absent from the Truesound remastering, indicating that it was not actually a feature of his original performance, but merely a side-effect of the poor sound quality inherent in the recording technique (and one which OPAL had not addressed). Which just goes to show how serious the recording quality issue is, if it can create an apparently catastrophic technical fault in a performance where none in fact exists!]

Other criticisms which might be mounted include occasional wobbliness, weak phrasing, clipped notes and some slight signs of strain – not, generally, as one might assume, at the very top of his range, where in fact he is probably at his best, but rather at the upper end of his 'chest voice', before he shifts register into his much sweeter-sounding 'head voice'.

But the point is that this is a CD of contrasts. If these weaknesses occur in certain performances, they are skilfully avoided in others, and are all, in my view, compensated for by significant strengths elsewhere.

As I've already suggested, he is really at his best in the upper portion of his range, and songs which give him a chance to show this off are greatly to his credit. Two consecutive tracks on the CD – Leibach's Pie Jesu and Terziani's Hostias et Preces - fit the bill here, and we are treated to a pair of finely controlled performances with good dynamic contrast, a real sense of progression through musical tensions and resolutions, beautifully sustained and very pure high notes, and some powerfully sensitive singing. Much the same applies to his treatment of Gounod's Ave Maria, although the range here is not as consistently high as the other two.

His difficulties with hard / harsh vowel and consonant combinations are also largely resolved when he gets the chance to sing in Italian rather than Latin. Two entirely secular and sentimental love-songs by the contemporary popular composer Tosti give him this opportunity, and he really shines as he draws out the full emotive impact of the music. The result is both touching and charming, while one of the recordings (Ideale) also includes the added treat of a burst of well-deserved applause and shouts of 'Bravo!' from his fellow-choristers at the end of the disk: something which makes me smile every time I hear it.

Elsewhere, his interactions with other singers show great musical sensitivity. We get a trio with Tenor and Bass (Capocci's Laudamus Te), a quartet with Alto (seemingly taken by a countertenor), Tenor and Bass (Palestrina's La Cruda Mia Nemica) and also an instance of Moreschi leading a full choir as soloist in a sort of 'call and response' scenario (antiphony: Calzanera's Oremus Pro Pontifice). In every case, he shows himself extremely well able to respond to the phrasing and dynamics of others, blend his voice effectively with theirs and bring out his line at the appropriate times while retreating into a supporting role at others.

There are certainly stronger and weaker tracks, then, and also stronger and weaker points within them. But overall I genuinely enjoy listening to Prof. Moreschi sing: not just as a curiosity, but as a musician.

The technicalities of a performance are never its all, though, are they? Every piece of music we ever hear comes complete with a range of emotional resonances and associations, generated by our own personal experience, expectations and memories. And of course this is all the more true in the case of such a literally unique recording. In conversation with megamole, I commented:

"I love it for its flaws. If it were sheer artistic brilliance, the potency of the fact that we have it at all would be so much the lesser, I think. It is like reaching out to catch a beautiful, rainbow-coloured bird, and getting nothing but a scraggy, brown feather from its backside while the bird itself soars gracefully away into the hazy distance. This is pressing my historical buttons in a big way, as well as my musical ones."

Well, quite. I am a historian. My life’s work is all about the past. I know we can never reach it, and on a professional level I know that that isn’t what’s important anyway – analysing, interpreting and re-interpreting in the context of the present are what it’s all about. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a secret, romantic part of me which yearns, dreams, to reach out across the gulf and touch what seems so near and yet so far.

Alessandro Moreschi hits me at exactly that weak spot (as, of course, do cinematic and fictional representations of the Roman world). Obviously I'd love to be able to reach back into the past and hear the great Senesino performing. As it is, what I have is the fragile product of a chance overlap between the age of the castrati and the age of recording technology: its crackles and thumps only making it all the more obvious how lucky we are to have it at all. The ghostly photograph accompanying the CD sleeve-notes conveys the same point. It is a Photoshopped (or similar) version of the following, with its tones evened out and strengthened to give the look of something more like a watercolour with black ink:

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

In fact, there are far better pictures of Moreschi in existence - this one, for example, where he comes across as clear, bright-eyed and richly characterful:

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

But the point remains. The crackles, the ghostliness and Prof. Moreschi's own imperfections as a singer emphasise the tenuous nature of what survives, with the result that his recordings make the Classical castrati at once more accessible – and yet also more distant. It is impossible to listen to Prof. Moreschi without interpreting him as a last remnant of a (thankfully) dying tradition: we cannot separate him, in other words, from his ubiquitous epithet, 'The Last Castrato'.

Of course, it would be naïve to think that he was the last pre-pubescent boy ever to be castrated. There are thousands of eunuchs in India today, most castrated to meet the demands of the sex industry (though not all before puberty). Yet he was the last classically-trained castrato singer, and it is in that sense that his epithet is correct. As such, he represents a group of beings who no longer exist in the modern world: semi-legendary creatures, whose mythos encompasses a heady combination of exquisite artistry, sexual taboo, poverty, desperation, violence, hypocrisy, excess and stardom. And all of it rendered ethically 'acceptable' to us by its location in the past. He might as well, in other words, have been the Last Unicorn, or the Last Mermaid – the fascination is equivalent, and it would be useless to deny it, or the reasons for it.

For me, Moreschi also comes with further overtones that plug very effectively into my personal preoccupations. Sure, as a Handel fan, I'd be thrilled if somehow we had recordings of operatically-trained castrati singing some of the great Baroque arias. But even Handel can't live up to the sheer emotional power that the city of Rome, and everything to do with it, has for me, and Moreschi's status as a member of the Sistine Chapel Choir can only increase his romance in my eyes for that reason.

In fact, his personal history happens to tie in with an era in the history of the city which I find particularly poignant and affecting. He was born in the Alban hills, only 20 miles from Rome, in 1858, and hence as a young boy witnessed the culmination of the Risorgimento movement, and the transformation of Rome from a Papal city into the political capital of a newly-unified Italy. As an adult, he would have lived in a Rome full of a new sense of identity, grandiose and ambitious building projects, and the excavations of the irrepressibly dynamic Rodolfo Lanciani. And, on the more tragic side of the coin, a Rome which was also spreading rapidly and inexorably outwards to the great cost of otherwise little-disturbed ancient remains on the fringes of the city. Yet the worst of the damage had not yet been done: in Moreschi's Rome, the Meta Sudans still stood and the imperial fora had not yet been stripped and then half-buried again under a road built to serve the ambitions of a tyrant. In fact, he had the good sense to die in April of 1922, just six months before Mussolini marched on Rome and demanded his institution as Prime Minister of Italy.

The Papal context of much of Moreschi's life, and all of his surviving recordings (even the Tosti songs were recorded in the Vatican), adds further potency to the mixture. As a polytheist raised as an atheist in a culturally Protestant country, the Vatican and all that it represents seems to me sinister, authoritarian, unworldly and nonsensical – and yet, as is so often the case with these things, unendingly fascinating also, for exactly the same reasons. I listen, then, to musical settings of Catholic texts with a kind of perverse reverence, and even sing along to them lustily with a dark thrill at the dissonance between the actual meaning of the words and my own beliefs. That this should be the setting which preserved the use of the castrato voice just long enough for it to be recorded and communicated to us only serves to heighten the dark thrill which inevitably also accompanies the enjoyment of that voice.

And, on that note, how can any listener resist the temptation to empathise and sympathise with Moreschi himself? Of course we should not presume to attribute thoughts and feelings to those who cannot speak for themselves. But it’s hard to suppress the suspicion that Moreschi must have experienced more than his fair share of sorrow and loneliness, especially towards the end of his life.

We shouldn’t overstate the case. As a young man, he was feted in the salons of Rome, and acquired the nick-name ‘L’Angelo di Roma’ for his singing (Angelo being one of his middle names). The Gaisbergs, representatives of the Gramophone Company who made Moreschi's 1902 recordings, noted that he had a large family. And he was not the only castrato of his day in the Sistine Chapel Choir: contemporaries included Giovanni Cesari, Domenico Salvatori and the director of the Sistine Chapel until 1902, Domenico Mustafa. So, not a bad life.

But Cesari had died in 1904, only a month before Moreschi made his second set of recordings, Salvatori died in 1909 and Mustafa, actually by far the oldest of the three, in 1912. By the time Moreschi retired from the Chapel himself in 1913, then, he must have known that he really was the ‘Last Castrato’. How he felt about that we can’t know, and of course from one perspective, he would have had every reason to be cheered by the thought. Yet the last ten years of his life must have been affected to some degree by the fact that he no longer had anyone else to talk to who shared with him either his physical condition or his experience of singing as a castrato.

It’s hard not to project all this onto the thin, tenuous quality of the recordings, or the plaintive tone of his voice, and to hear it as a painfully self-conscious swan-song. Or, indeed, to feel a simple pity for this silvery-voiced creature who had his life path set for him so radically as a child, to serve the extreme and hypocritical requirements of a dogmatic church – and indeed our morbid curiosity today. If the heart sighs and the breast heaves on hearing his music, it may not only be because of his emotive singing technique.

Well, if you’ve read all of the above, you deserve a medal. I don’t mind if you didn’t. I wrote it for me, primarily, because I wanted a reason to think closely about this music and why I like it, and I want to remember my reasons and initial reactions in years to come. But the least I can do either way is to let you judge Moreschi for yourself by leaving you with the link for an mp3 I found while Googling for pictures of him and details about his life. It only takes about 20 seconds to download over broadband, which, for a three-minute track, tells you volumes about the quality of the original recording before you even listen to it. And I must say that then going on to listen to it over tiny, tinny computer speakers doesn’t do Moreschi any favours. Still, for whatever you may make of it, I give you Gounod’s Ave Maria, after a theme by Bach, performed by Alessandro Moreschi.

(And an alternative source if that one isn't working – just click on 'escuchar').


1. As its length makes obvious, this entry ended up being written in several sections over a series of evenings. I did listen to Moreschi's CD for most of the time I was writing. But any use of words such as 'now' should be taken as applicable to the specific sentence concerned, not necessarily the whole piece.


( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 26th, 2005 11:12 pm (UTC)
That was a fascinating read, and I'm now even more eager to hear the recordings. Haven't clicked on the link, though, as the sound quality of this laptop will do the recording no favours at all.

Didn't see your reply to my comment until today; must have been the server-moving weekend, which makes me think there'll be a deluge at some point soon...
Nov. 26th, 2005 11:24 pm (UTC)
Gosh, well thank you for reading it at all! I think it really must be one of my most obnoxiously-long posts EVAH, although it is also one whose content I'm pretty proud of.

You're right to wait until you have decent sound reproduction equipment at your disposal. I've eventually come to the conclusion that it's actually impossible to listen to his music on my computer, even directly from the CD. Somehow my speakers manage to add not only even more tinniness of tone, but also a flutter which just isn't there on my stereo. And even through headphones, the flutter is still there. But don't worry - it will all be waiting for you in Oxford.

I think you're right about the reason we're not seeing comments. I seem to be getting ones posted now OK, but there are still several from the moving weekend I know I haven't received at all. It'll be interesting to see if we ever do, or whether the notifications are just completely lost now.
(no subject) - stompyboots - Dec. 8th, 2005 09:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Dec. 8th, 2005 09:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - stompyboots - Dec. 8th, 2005 09:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Dec. 8th, 2005 09:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 26th, 2005 11:20 pm (UTC)
It only takes about 20 seconds to download over broadband, which tells you volumes about the quality of the original recording before you even listen to it.
Theres not a lot of dynamic range in that recording, is there? I'm guessing its pretty difficult to clean it up much more than that without losing a lot of the signal too.
Nov. 26th, 2005 11:29 pm (UTC)
Yep. The crackles sound so obviously different from the music to the human ear, but I guess they're not on a technological level. Every effort has clearly been expended to do what can be done: many of the tracks were apparently put through something very impressive-sounding called the 'Packburn Audio Noise Suppressor Unit' at Yale University. But when there's so little there in the first place, you can't afford to mess about too much.
Nov. 27th, 2005 01:41 pm (UTC)
That was one of the percieved advantages of CD over vinyl - the silences between songs really were silent, which gave you a (false) impression that the sound during the recorded music was also of better quality.

We are used to far better quality recordings these days, with lots of audio compression pulling the brightness of the sound up and using the full dynamic range - thats something a lot of old recordings suffer from, they don't have that bright top end, this recording in particular would benefit greatly from that, but I doubt theres anything that can be done now to ressurrect it. At least it is on an analog system so there is *some chance* we might be able to recover it, on modern digital systems there is *no way* anything beyond the designed range can be recovered, you can get some nicer smoothing from analog stages but the information has already been lost by the time it gets there.
(no subject) - strange_complex - Nov. 27th, 2005 02:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 27th, 2005 02:50 am (UTC)
Wow, that's quite a read! And thanks for the MP3 link - it really is rather spooky!

I know myself the thrills of hearing something first via a less-than-perfect medium, having first heard Joy Division over the AM bands on a 30-year-old transistor radio when I was about 10. Indeed, until I was 18, most of the music I heard over the radio was on AM, with the accompanying hisses, crackles, pops and whistles from various vying radio sources - it was always worst, for some reason, at about 1am (which I have been led to believe is something to do with the sun being at it's nadir then and the earth's magnetic field trapping solar radiation that the radio picks up as static - if you or anyone else knows differently, please enlighten me!)

For myself, there was always a thrill about listening to music on such imperfect media, especially if it was music that I was never certain I would ever hear again. Of course, none of it has ever been quite as rare or as unique as Moreschi, but the thrill is the same. I have dozens of C-90 cassettes filled with various songs recorded off the radio in the early- to mid-80s, most of which now are the only recordings I have of those songs, and most of which, being in the region of 20 years old, are in rather poor condition. There is, nevertheless, a yearning feeling every time I listen to them - I suppose a yearning for the past, a time when things seemed simpler, perhaps.

Meh, I ramble on. Suffice to say that a career as a reviewer of classical music awaits should you ever decide on a career change! :)
Nov. 27th, 2005 12:51 pm (UTC)
Bless! Yes, I agree - sometimes the whistles and pops can actually add to the experience, can't they? Do you still get your tapes out and listen to them sometimes for that reason? I have lots of similar tapes myself which I can't quite bring myself to get rid of, although I never actually listen to them anymore. It's just that it would seem a betrayal to the teenage me who recorded them and considered them so precious if I chucked them out, I think.

I have no idea why AM reception might be worse at 1am, but I bet your parents would wag their fingers to hear that you were awake to notice this! ;)

Thanks for reading, anyway, and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I certainly had a great time writing it.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - strange_complex - Nov. 27th, 2005 03:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 27th, 2005 03:15 am (UTC)
Is it odd of me to not want to listen to, just in case I like this recording, simply because of what it represents? It seems to me like saying "well, there's nothing like good old fashioned slave-grown sugar cane".

Of course, I realise it's nothing like that at all, but it's hard for me to separate the art from the mutilation, if that makes sense.

Not that I'm judging you nor even anything implied from needing to use the qualifier 'not that I'm judging you', it's just that that's how I feel. It give me the willies, basically.
Nov. 27th, 2005 01:16 pm (UTC)
No, that's totally understandable, and an admirable stance to take.

It does make me uncomfortable to find myself enjoying it so much, while at the same time being aware of the personal cost to Prof. Moreschi (and so many others in the tradition he represents) which is, undeniably, at the root of my enjoyment. Even though he is long dead, I still feel to a degree like a perverse voyeur, taking pleasure from his suffering. And I also worry that if too many people express an interest in and liking for this CD, or indeed for the Classical castrati as performers generally, impoverished families could once again start to believe that the prospects of their sons might be increased through recourse to the knife.

It was actually technically illegal throughout the 'age of the castrati', but the problem was that there was a market for it: first in the church, and then, once the practice was established, in opera. So the Papacy and opera audiences turned a blind eye to the law-breaking, and there were a lot of stories along the lines of how poor little Giovanni had been mauled by a boar, and wasn't it a pity, and could he possibly be considered for the Sistine Chapel Choir? I can easily envisage the same kind of thinking being applied today if it was felt that there was a demand for it: the eunuchs in India are a case in point.

The awareness of all of this makes me realise that my ethical principles are perhaps not as strong as I'd like them to be, and, even worse, that knowledge in itself just seems to add to the beauty of the music. Nothing like indulging in a good bit of tragic self-loathing, eh? :/

Then again, on a more pragmatic level, there's the argument that it was too late for Prof. Moreschi long before these recordings were made, and that it seems somehow offensive to him to reject his work as an adult because of what someone else did to him as a child. And, as I've indicated above, I'd be reluctant to assume that he would have felt as someone today might about what had happened to him. He was a (minor) celebrity in his own day, and perhaps that was consolation enough for him? Who can say.

Anyway, the bottom line is it's way too late for me as well. I do love this music, so I'll just have to carry the ethical burden that that gives me. But go you for avoiding getting into that situation in the first place.
(no subject) - megamole - Nov. 27th, 2005 04:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Nov. 27th, 2005 05:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - innerbrat - Dec. 7th, 2005 01:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Dec. 7th, 2005 02:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 27th, 2005 04:57 pm (UTC)
I think I need to send you my mp3 of Paulo Abel do Nascimento. He was a Brazilian who suffered from Kallman's Syndrome, in other words endocrine malfunction. This meant that his voice never broke, and to all intents and purposes his larynx had a castrato-type formation. It's a very interesting sound, kind of like an extremely strong, masculine counter-tenor (say Bowman or Scholl), or else a tenor an octave up. And it's much clearer than Moreschi, and much more suited to the modern palate in terms of taste and execution, while giving the same frisson of otherness. Like Moreschi, he's not a particularly gifted singer - but like Moreschi, again, he just sounds different.
Nov. 27th, 2005 05:28 pm (UTC)
I think I need to send you my mp3 of Paulo Abel do Nascimento.

Ooh, please! Like the Moreschi, this is something I couldn't have asked you for, because I didn't know it existed. But now that I do, yes!

You have my email address, don't you - if it's just one mp3, I presume that will suffice? Otherwise, if this is something that would need to be burnt onto a CD and posted, my land address is here.

*jumps up and down in anticipatory excitement*
Nov. 28th, 2005 02:32 pm (UTC)
Have sent.

Other listeners may be interested, too, in which case:

Gleison Nascimento
May. 9th, 2012 07:49 pm (UTC)
Thanks a lot for your brilliant comments about my already gone uncle Abel, He was all that, surelly.
Very nice of you!

Edited at 2012-05-09 07:49 pm (UTC)
Aug. 31st, 2012 05:46 am (UTC)
I was browsing on google, and I found this LJ entry you wrote.
I've been intrigued for a while now with the technique, sound, and artistry of Moreschi. A couple years ago, a friend told me that there was a recording of 'the last Castrato'. I had no idea such a thing even existed. We both listened, and found it haunting and eery (it being "Ave Maria"0. I've since heard several tracks on youtube, and I'm anxious to find remastered recordings to purchase. I'm worried about the quality of those on Amazon, and would like to find the truesound remasters you spoke of. If the track I heard on youtube is any indication, they will sound amazing.
Thank you for sharing such a wonderfully-written and thought-provoking reflection.
Aug. 31st, 2012 08:14 am (UTC)
Many thanks for commenting! It's always nice to hear from a fellow Moreschi fan. It is seven years since I wrote this entry now (I can hardly believe that myself!), but I still listen to his work quite frequently, and will never forget that haunting sound.

The Truesound CD is indeed better than the Pearl one available on Amazon, but the good news is that the Truesound one is still available. You should be able to find it on their catalogue by going here, selecting 'CD Catalogue (english)', then choosing 'Catalogue' from the left-hand menu and searching through the list to find him. If you like what you have already heard of Moreschi, then you definitely won't regret buying it. :-)

Hope you enjoy it.
(no subject) - hurricaneamy - Sep. 1st, 2012 05:29 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Sep. 1st, 2012 01:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Thank you! - hurricaneamy - Sep. 1st, 2012 04:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Thank you! - strange_complex - Sep. 1st, 2012 07:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
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