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Come la neve al sol

Continuing on last night's theme of the adulation of male sopranos, let it be recorded that today is (amongst other things, of course) the birthday of Alessandro Moreschi. Were he still alive, he would be 149 today (so a big anniversary next year - whoop!).

Last year, I marked the day by posting about the pilgrimage to the Sistine Chapel which I had undertaken in his honour in June of 2006. This year, I'm celebrating by posting up a series of pictures of him - in fact, all the ones that are in existence as far as I know. Most lead to larger versions if you click on them - sometimes much larger.

Taken from the biography of Moreschi on the homepage of the Photo Club Controluce, Montecompatri (Moreschi's home-town).

Taken from Camiz, Franca T. (1988), ‘The Castrato Singer: From Informal to Formal Portraiture’ in Artibus et Historiae 9.18: 171-186 (link available to JSTOR subscribers only).

These first two pictures are reproducing (parts of) the same photograph. Rather frustratingly, it's pretty obvious that behind the two of them lies an actually rather good original - but one is presented at a poor resolution, and the other looks like it may have been photocopied before being put into Franca's article. I would love to see the actual photograph they're both taken from.

This is pretty obviously the earliest photo of Moreschi we have. He looks quite baby-faced, especially in the first version, and he also has a rather charming sort of sculpted hair-style which the next two photos show he had abandoned by the next phase of his life. It's hard to guess how old he is, but an obvious occasion for such a photo to be taken might be 1873, when he was made primo soprano of the choir of San Giovanni Laterano. If so, he would be about 14 years old. Just judging from his appearance, though, I'd be equally prepared to believe he is anything up to about 20 in this photograph, so a date up to about 1880 or so would also be perfectly plausible. Someone who really knew about Italian male hairstyles in this era might be able to tell what's likely from his hair, but that's my best guess.

Incidentally, in the Franca article, the larger version of the photo is actually printed the wrong way round, flipped over its vertical axis. This mistake is repeated all over the place, like here and also in Nicholas Clapton's (otherwise outstanding) biography of Moreschi, but I am certain that it is a mistake, a) because of the version from the Photo Club Controluce page, and b) because of the fault-line in Moreschi's hair which starts in the middle of his forehead and runs in other photos (e.g. the one below) up to the right. In picture as published in the Franca article, this runs up and left instead, suggesting to me that the picture has been flipped over at some time. So as it is shown here, I have unflipped it to restore what I believe to be the original composition.

Scanned from Nicholas Clapton's biography.

(I shouldn't really do that, of course, and if Mr. Clapton shows up on this post asking me to take it down, I will gladly do so. But my justification is that I ain't making any money out of doing this - rather, my aim is to share the Moreschi love. And if you, dear reader, have come here because you feel that love, I can only say - buy Clapton's book if you haven't already. It's ace).

Clapton reckons this picture dates from around the time when Moreschi was accepted into the Sistine Chapel choir - 1883, when he would have been 24 years old. That certainly makes total sense given how he looks in the picture. As you can see, he has left behind the sculpted hair-style of the previous picture, and gone instead for a rather surprising spiked look, which I really didn't think anyone had adopted prior to the 1980s, never mind the 1880s. Again, we need an expert in Italian male hairstyles of the 19th century here, as I'd be fascinated to know more about it.

Again, scanned from Nicholas Clapton's biography.

Still with the same hair-style as in the previous picture, Moreschi appears here in part of a group photo of the Sistine Chapel choir. Clapton dates it to the late 1880s, when Moreschi would have been c. 30 years old, which looks very plausible. Perhaps the most obvious occasion for such a photo to be taken during this period was the 50th anniversary of the then pope Leo XIII's ordination as a priest, which was celebrated on 1st January 1888, and at which the choir performed a special Mass. The winter date would certainly fit with the big thick coat the man standing behind Moreschi and to the right seems to be holding.

What I love best about this picture is the way so many members of the choir are affectionately resting their hands on each other's shoulders, or in the crooks of each other's arms. And there Moreschi sits in the middle of it all, neatly poised with his hat and stick (symbols of his social and material status by the time, of course), and his feet precisely arranged. I've not seen the rest of the picture, but in this section he clearly dominates - as well he might, given that he was the choir's primo soprano, and had been since his admission in 1883.

Taken from this webpage.

Here, Moreschi appears without his chorister's robes in a 'concert party' group - the sort of gathering which would have sung to entertain the guests in the salons of Rome. There's the mark from a piece of sellotape down the left-hand side, suggesting it had been stuck onto or into something at some time, while the names of the singers shown have been hand-written underneath, as follows:

1o [I think, though I can't really make out the symbol after the number] Alasandro [sic] Moreschi. Soprano
2o Antonio Cotogni. Baritono
3o Giovanni Cesari. Soprano (acuto)
4o Mo. [for 'Maestro'] Filippo Mattoni. Contralto
5o Salvatori Domenico [names written the wrong way round]. Contralto
6o Giovanni [Clapton suggests an error for 'Gaetano'] Capocci. Baritono

But there are quite a few mistakes there, and the names aren't in the same order as the people in the picture. The actual order, read left to right, is: front row, seated - Moreschi, Cotogni, Cesari; back row, standing - Capocci, Mattoni, Salvatori. As for dating, if the person labelled Capocci is indeed Gaetano rather than an unknown Giovanni, the photo must have been taken before his death on 11th January 1898, while that impression is confirmed by the presence of Antonio Cotogni, a renowned baritone who was reaching the end of his career by around the same time. Exactly how far before 1898 the picture was taken, I don't know, but the probable Gaetano Capocci (back left) certainly does look pretty elderly, so it may not be long before his death. Meanwhile, Moreschi has now left behind his spiky hairdo for a slicked-down, brylcreemed look. So assuming that he didn't oscillate back and forth between hair-styles, this must be later than the previous picture. In all probability, he's in his late 30s here, and certainly not older than 40.

Both taken from the photo archive (probably visible to members only) of the Castrati_History Yahoo! discussion group.

Securely-dated pictures for the win! We're on solid ground this time, and the date is the 4th March 1898, when the Sistine Chapel choir participated in the celebrations for Leo XIII's 30th anniversary as pope. Moreschi would therefore be about six months shy of his 40th birthday.

In the first picture the full choir is shown, with colour-coding for the different voices as follows: pink = soprano, lilac = alto, purple = tenor, brown = bass. The lilacs altos by this time are probably all falsettists, but every one of the seven pink sopranos shown here is a castrato. From left to right they are: middle row - Giovanni Cesari, Domenico Salvatori, Alessandro Moreschi, Vincenzo Sebastianelli; front row - Domenico Mustafà, Gustavo Pesci, Giuseppe Ritarossi. As Clapton points out, this is probably the largest number of castrati ever assembled together in one photograph.

Meanwhile, the second picture gives a closer view of Moreschi himself, and shows amongst other things how small he was compared to the other singers around him. As indeed I was able to confirm myself on the basis of the next picture.

Scanned from Moore, Jerrold N. (1976), A Voice in Time: The Gramophone of Fred Gaisberg 1873- 1951 (London: Hamish Hamilton)

This is the picture I was trying to recreate last summer, when I visited the Sistine Chapel. At the time, I didn't have a very good version of it - only a rather terrible scan which had chopped part of the picture off, taken from the Castrati_History archive. Since then, I've managed to track down the book it came from, and re-scan it myself. The picture itself still isn't much better quality - but at least now I know that that's because this is as good as it gets. Even in the book itself, you can barely make out anything of Moreschi's features.

And this one's securely dated too - hoorah! It's dated by the presence, either side of Moreschi, of William Michelis (left) and Will Gaisberg (right), who were there because they were making their first recordings of Moreschi and his fellow-choristers in April 1902. Moreschi is therefore 43 years old here - although he could equally be 23 or 63, for all the picture reveals. Having myself sat in the same place, and more or less the same pose, as Moreschi in this picture, I can say from the relative position of our heads in relation to the wall panels behind us that he must have been about 3 inches shorter than me - which would make him about 5'7".

This is another one that's available all over the place - here, for instance.

We're back onto unstable ground for dating with this one again. The only real indication is the medal he's wearing so proudly, which looks to me a great deal like a Commemorative Silver Medal for the 50th Anniversary of the Ordination of Pope Leo XIII, 1888, which he would certainly have been awarded, since all the members of the Sistine Chapel choir did indeed take part in Leo's anniversary celebrations by singing a special Mass (see mention above in the context of the third picture). That only gives us a terminus post quem, though, while both the hairstyle and the general appearance of his face suggest that the actual date is quite some time later. My guess is that this is more or less contemporary with the picture immediately above, and perhaps also taken in connection with either the recordings he made in 1902, or the second set in 1904. But I can't really prove which came first.

This is probably the best surviving portrait of Moreschi, in that it is a detailed close-up portrait with reasonably good definition - although the second picture in this post is a close contender. It's still not actually a very good photograph, since his face is poorly-lit on the one side. But it's my favourite nonetheless. It shows a man who cared about his appearance (perfectly-sculpted hair, crisp white butterfly collar), was proud of his achievements (medal), enjoyed being a bit daring (check out that jazzy tie!), and would probably like to have broken into a smile if only such a thing had been conceivable to the photographic subject of the day. There's a self-confidence, but also a serenity, about the way his gaze meets the camera, which never grows stale for me. Which is lucky, because I look at this picture several times I day, as I have it set as the background wallpaper on my mobile phone.

Taken from this webpage.

Last but not least, this final photograph shows much the same man as in the previous two. However, the lines on his face look a little deeper now (though it may just be the angle, lighting and quality of the picture), and, more tellingly, his hair-style has changed again from slicked-but-raised to slicked close against the head. Again, working on the assumption that he didn't swap back and forth between hair-styles, this would suggest it is later than the previous ones - though not by very long. He's probably in his mid-40s, then. It looks like this picture has been printed rather unsuccessfully onto coarsely-grained paper at some point, so this isn't the best quality image of him. But it rounds off the story nicely.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

And between all of those, I was able to make this colour bar early in 2006 - which still graces my userinfo page to this day, and is not going anywhere any time soon. The Sistine Chapel photograph isn't really worth including, as you can't really tell it's him anyway, and I'd be the first to admit that some of the others are moot points. But eight photographs of any person who lived when he did is pretty good going. And I'd like to think that somewhere, in archives or in private collections, there are more waiting.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 12th, 2007 08:48 am (UTC)
Interesting that none of the lilacs (who you posit are falsettists) have facial hair.
Nov. 12th, 2007 09:13 am (UTC)
True, but then again neither do most of the basses and tenors, whilst several of the altos are clearly balding. Since castration also prevents male-pattern hair-loss (you've got to wonder why that cure isn't more popular!), anyone who is losing their hair can't be a castrato.
Jair Crawford
Dec. 7th, 2010 03:38 pm (UTC)
I didn't realize there were that many Castrati in the choir at the time... I only knew of the four more famous ones. How many of them were present in the 1902 and 1904 recordings?
Dec. 7th, 2010 08:06 pm (UTC)
Re: Wow!
No, it's quite amazing, isn't it? Unfortunately the answer in relation to the recording sessions is that we don't actually know how many were there. I think it's safe to say that it was more than just Moreschi, though. Certainly, in the quartet 'La cruda mia nemica', the alto part also seems to be taken by a castrato - probably Salvatori. It also sounds to me like there are castrati in the choir in some of the choral pieces. And Fred Gaisberg's memoirs include an anecdote about how some cotton wool packing caught fire during the 1902 session, causing several male sopranos to run for the door in a panic and get jammed there! So, all in all there were definitely more castrati involved in addition to Moreschi himself. But to the best of my knowledge there are simply no detailed records of who exactly was involved and in what capacity.
Jair Crawford
Dec. 10th, 2010 05:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Wow!
That's what I thought too. At first, I thought the only ones left were Moreschi, Salvatori, and Cesari. (I knew Mustafa had left just prior to the recordings, unfortunately). But I had never heard of those other 3 castrati before. It makes sense though because you can clearly hear their piercing soprano voices ringing above the softer boy sopranos' voices (there ARE boy sopranos in some of the choir recordings, right? Cause it certainly sounds like it.), and much louder than the falsetists.

Also, you know at the end of the Tosti Ideale recording, at the very end after the applause and cheering, you can here a very faint high voice. I've heard that it could very well be Moreschi himself saying "Grazie". I tried to clean up that little bit and made a little clip out of it, would you like me to send it to you?
Dec. 10th, 2010 09:40 pm (UTC)
Re: Wow!
Yes, there are definitely boy sopranos in at least some of the choir recordings. You can hear them in the recording of Mozart's 'Ave Verum Corpus', for example.

And I'm very glad to hear you say that you think the voice at the end of 'Ideale' is Moreschi's! I've long thought that, too, though never come across anyone else saying so. I'd never quite managed to work out what he might be saying, but actually 'grazie' makes perfect sense, and now that you have said that I think you must be right.

I would love to hear the cleaned-up clip you've made, but don't want to put my email address in a public comment, as that will put me in the firing-line for even more spam than I already get! So I will private-message you with my address when I've posted this.
Jair Crawford
Dec. 11th, 2010 12:11 am (UTC)
Re: Wow!
I also wondered if it was him, or just one of the operators of the equipment. It was actually when I was reading through all the comments on the uploaded youtube video of Moreschi singing Ideale that I found it mentioned. At least two people brought it up in comments and said that it sounded like Moreschi was saying "Grazie" after the cheers. The more I listened to it after reading that, I noticed that it sounds just like someone with a high-pitched voice saying "Grazie" right there at the end, after the cheers.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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