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And so begins another year of book-blogging. With, as it happens, a monster! :-)

I'm not normally in the habit of sitting around reading other people's PhD theses even in my own subject, let alone outside it. But regular readers of this journal will understand why this particular one demanded my attention so insistently. I've known about it since I read Nicholas Clapton's biography of Moreschi, The Last Castrato, back in about December 2005 (alas, before I started book-blogging), and have always wanted to follow up what was obviously such a rich and interesting reference. So in November I finally gave in to the temptation to have the thing sent over to me from Boston (where it was originally submitted) on inter-library loan.

It is indeed a weighty tome. Strictly speaking, it was actually written for a 'Master of Music' degree, but since it clocks in at 442 pages (plus preliminaries), and apparently took the author five semesters to write, I can only assume that an M.Mus. at Boston is a rather higher qualification than most Masters degrees in this country. I didn't really expect to be sent an actual bound copy of the thesis - microfiche was more what I was imagining. But send it they did, all the way across the Atlantic:



And now that I've been able to read it? Well - wow! I have a couple of gripes, but on the whole this is a thorough, lucid, scholarly and fascinating exploration of my favourite singer and his voice. I count myself fantastically lucky that it was written, and that I've had the chance to read it. The aim of the thesis is to set Alessandro Moreschi's surviving recordings in the context of our wider knowledge of historical castrati and of the medical effects of pre-pubertal castration, in order to arrive at as rigorous an understanding as possible of the mechanics of vocal production in a castrato singer, and thus of the capacities and limitations of this lost voice type which has left such a legacy in Western music. In other words, it's all about understanding Moreschi better as a musician, and about understanding the music written for his predecessors by composers such as Handel and his contemporaries better as a result. As far as I'm concerned - brilliant!

Gripes first. One - the author is a pedant. Academics have to be to some extent, and it's especially prevalent in theses, where people feel under great pressure to carve out a fresh new intellectual niche for themsleves. But his pedantry frequently shades into pettiness, and it's just annoying and pointless to read. For example, he makes a perfectly sound case for why we should prefer 'Farinello' to 'Farinelli' as the more meaningful form of the nickname by which Carlo Broschi was better known. But the fact is that both appear in contemporary manuscripts, including side by side in his own will, and that 'Farinelli' seems to have been commonly accepted as perfectly appropriate by both the general public and the singer himself. It seems a bit much, then, that every single time Buning reports the form 'Farinelli' when quoting from other authors throughout the course of the entire thesis, he feels the need to insert a '[sic]' afterwards, as though it were somehow definitively 'incorrect'.

My second gripe is about what happens when the author steps outside his core discipline of musicology. I'm quite sure he is a fine scholar in his field, but in the course of exploring Moreschi and his music, he also has to take on the mantle of both a historian and a medic. Obviously, I'm hardly qualified to comment on the latter area myself, although I did find myself wondering whether Buning was placing too much faith in early 20th-century studies of tiny handfuls of castrated Chinese court functionaries and Skoptzy men as a guide to the physiological capabilities of Moreschi and his counterparts. For one thing, it's blindingly obvious from looking at photographs of Moreschi and his fellow late-19th century castrati that castration did not affect all men in the same way, and yet Buning presents a long table listing the effects of castration, as though they were universally applicable in all cases. For another, the Chinese courtiers and Skoptzy men did not undergo rigorous musical training throughout their teenage years, and so it is quite possible that they way their bones developed is not a reliable guide to the way a castrated singer's would have done.

Meanwhile, on the historical front, I'm on more certain ground, and there were definitely a couple of places where I found myself tutting and shaking my head. For example, Buning attributes both his own failure to acquire a copy of Moreschi's death certificate, and the absence of any notification of his death in the contemporary journals l'Osservatore Romano and La Tribuna, to 'the rise of Fascism', with its emphasis on masculinity and tendency to suppress anything which might tarnish Italy's glorious reputation. But Moreschi died on April 21st 1922, whereas Mussolini's Fascists did not assume power in Rome until October of that same year. For Fascism to have caused some kind of organised attempt to suppress information about his death at the time, we would have to assume that people in Rome were already thinking along Fascist lines on a comprehensive scale before Mussolini's coup d'état, and I just don't think that was the case. Rather, it looks to me like a classic case on Buning's part of taking a minor snippet of history, and seeking to explain it through reference to major contemporary events without any actual evidence that it was in any way linked. Like an archaeologist assuming that any farm-house burnt down in late third-century Gaul must have been a victim to barbarian invasions, rather than - say - a knocked-over oil-lamp. And besides, Moreschi's death-certificate clearly wasn't disposed of, anyway. This site, written by members of a photo club based in his home town, Montecompatri, actually quotes from it at the bottom of the page, thus:
"Nell’atto di morte alla voce “stato civile” venne scritto “vergine”."
("On his death certificate, under the entry 'civil status' was written 'virgin'.")


So that was quite a lot of griping, I guess. But! On the positive side I learnt so much about Moreschi himself, and about his musical context, from reading this thesis. Most of the biographical information already I knew via Clapton, but even so there were a few tantalising little gems of extra information waiting for me. Like, for example, the real extent to which Moreschi clearly toured and sang outside of Rome during his career - especially, it seems, in Milan, where there was apparently even an exhibition about him after his death. Or the fact the he liked indulging in private sing-throughs of operas such as Verdi's Nabucco with colleagues when he was out of town.

More important, though, were the musicological insights I gained into Moreschi's singing. Buning examines the contemporary written evidence for his professional career, and of course also his surviving recordings, incredibly thoroughly and competently - including presenting things like spectral analyses of his voice as preserved on the recordings, and detailed examples of places on them where particular aspects of his technique and capabilities can be clearly heard. I've listened to those recordings more than any other music I have over the last two-and-a-bit years (since I first got hold of them in November '05). So much, in fact, that I hardly even need to listen to them directly any more, because every note, every swell, every ornament, every click and swish of the records themselves is hard-wired into my brain. But, thanks to Buning, I can hear new things in them again, and listen to them in a different way. Always good.

One thing Buning shows by comparing accounts of Moreschi's repertoire in the 1880s, the recordings in 1902 and 1904, and the observations of the Viennese musicologist, Frank Haböck, in 1914, is that Moreschi's range declined gradually but markedly over the course of his career: from about b - e''' (B3 - E6) and possibly higher in 1883 to b flat - d''' (B flat3 - D6) around the time of the recordings and a - g'' (A3 - G5) by 1914. The effect began much earlier than would be expected in either a female or an unaltered male singer, and can even be detected to a very small extent at the top end of his range by comparing his 1902 and 1904 recordings. Buning concludes on the basis of the medical studies mentioned earlier that this was probably caused by delayed physical changes resulting from late ossification of the area around the larynx and the gradual accumulation of trace androgens in the body, and also suggests on the basis of historical evidence that the same thing probably happened to most castrati. A deeply, deeply sad picture if so.

Buning also offers some very illuminating comparisons between Moreschi's register-practice and that of a female singer with an equivalent range. Put simply, most singers have a distinct 'chest voice' (or primary register), usually used in the lower part of their range, and 'head voice' (or secondary register), usually used to produce higher notes. Someone who knows what to listen for can fairly easily detect the difference between the two, although most Classically-trained singers aim as much as possible to 'hide' the break between one and the other, and indeed usually have a passaggio of several notes which they can choose to sing in either register. In Moreschi's case, he doesn't really bother trying to conceal the break between his two registers, making it incredibly easy to tell which he is using at any given time. And what this reveals is that the break between his primary and secondary registers is situated much higher up the stave than it is for a female soprano. So, where a female soprano would typically break from chest voice into head voice around g' or a' (G4 or A4), Moreschi does so around a fifth higher, at d'' (D5). Widening out the picture, Buning shows via historical accounts that the same was probably true for most of his unrecorded castrato predecessors as well. The really important outcome of this is that while professional female sopranos actually make very little use of their chest voice when performing, a castrato could generally sing most, and sometimes all, of his arias in full chest voice. And since notes sung in a chest voice take around 1/3 as much air to produce as notes sung in a head voice, this gave the castrati a massive advantage over female singers in terms of breath-control.

Learning all this helped me to understand all the better what it is that I love so much about Moreschi's voice. I wasn't consciously aware before I read Buning's thesis of how much higher up the stave he switches registers, although I was very aware of the break between his chest and head voices, as it is difficult not to be when listening to his recordings. But I have often said that one of the things I really like about his voice is the great belting power of his lower register - and the fact is that I am getting to hear so much of this because he can use it for far more of the music he sings than a female soprano would be able to. It is a great, fat, blasting *punch* of a sound - almost raucous, but in a good way!

It also makes me look back at my comments about Michael Maniaci in a new light. Last time I listened to Michael Maniaci, I compared him to Moreschi, and in fact specifically to Moreschi's lower register, and I wrote:
"Talking of Moreschi's lower register, last time I came away feeling I hadn't really got the measure of Maniaci's. Was it like Moreschi's, or not? I didn't know, so I listened out especially for it this evening. In fact I'd been right before, really, in saying the score didn't offer much chance to hear it."
I'd need to see a score of what Maniaci was singing to be sure of this, but I think now I understand what was going on here. Although, as I say, I didn't consciously know what I know now about Moreschi's register structure, clearly on listening to Maniaci my experience with Moreschi was telling me to listen out for lots of lovely, fat chest notes - and I wasn't hearing them. What I suspect now is that Maniaci switches registers much more in line with the way most female sopranos do, meaning that someone listening to him in concert would actually hear very little of his chest voice, and mainly just his head voice. If Moreschi was, as Buning argues, typical of his kind in switching registers so much higher than most female sopranos, then this is actually one very significant way in which Maniaci is not as much like the Classically-trained castrati as many people have claimed. Doesn't mean he's not good, or worth listening to in his own right, of course. But just that it is not really accurate to treat him as a precise modern substitute for a castrato.

Buning also revealed some interesting things about Moreschi's head voice through his spectral analyses. Apparently, the (rather primitive) technique which was used to record him in 1902 and 1904 was capable of capturing more or less the full spectrum of his chest voice, but tended to lose some of the harmonics when he moved into his head voice. This means that the difference between them may not actually have sounded quite so marked in real life as it does on the recordings, and that the very pure, crystalline 'ring' of the head voice on record might actually have sounded richer and fuller in real life. In fact, Haböck spoke of the 'absolute evenness and timbral unity of his sound', suggesting that the two registers were indeed much more seamlessly merged in a real performance than they appear to us now. For me, this raises an interesting question - would I actually have liked his head voice as much in real life as I do on the recordings? Or has a defective recording of it seduced me into falling for something that I wouldn't like so much in the original? I suspect I would still be wowed by the real thing, though. All it would mean is that in real life I would hear everything that I'm hearing on the recording, and more richness and colour - just what I already like so much in his chest voice.

Finally, beyond the content in this thesis that was specific to Moreschi himself, it was just great to read someone really writing about the castrati rigorously and thoughtfully, and actively seeking to question some of the existing orthodoxies about them. As I've indicated before, most of the available books on the castrati are pretty second-rate, really, and it would be nice to see someone publishing a worthwhile, scholarly full-length study which didn't just peddle the same old over-romanticised lines. Ultimately, I didn't really agree with Buning's final conclusion regarding the relevance of his findings for performance practice, which was that since countertenors cannot possibly sound anything like castrati, we should be using women to sing the roles written for castrato singers on stage instead. As Buning showed, women don't sound anything like castrati either, and besides I happen to rather like the sound which countertenors produce in its own right. But I did very much agree with his reasoning about why the issue matters: Western music is full of pieces which were written specifically for castrato singers, taking special account of the unique qualities of their voices, and seeking to show it off to best effect. If we are to understand, and make best use of, that music, then we must understand properly how the original voice functioned. Alessandro Moreschi is the man who can show us.

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