Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

18. Nicholas Clapton (2008), Moreschi and the Voice of the Castrato

I re-read the first edition of this book a month ago, and in the course of checking background details about it for my write-up, found out about this new version. Having been very impressed with the original, I of course ordered the new edition straight away.

Interestingly, when it arrived, it turned out to have a different title from the one I was expecting. Both Clapton's own website and Amazon list it as Moreschi: the Angel of Rome, and I'd been pleased to see that. The first edition was subtitled 'The Last Castrato', which certainly identifies its subject clearly, but rather suggests that he is only interesting because he happens by a historical fluke to have been the last person who worked as a Classically-trained castrato singer, and not because he is a powerfully moving singer in his own right. 'The Angel of Rome', by contrast, references the acclaim and status which he enjoyed in his own day and in his own right, before anyone knew what historical position he would occupy. That is much more complimentary to the man himself, so I thought it a very touching and lovely change.

Clearly, though, it didn't hold - and having written a book myself, I think I can place a good guess as to why. I actually wanted my own book to be called City and Periphery: from Rome to Gaul, but when I suggested this to the publisher, they said that for sales and promotional purposes, the word 'Rome' or 'Roman' had to be in the main title, not just the subtitle. It's all about key-word searches, basically. So the book ended up as The Roman City and its Periphery: from Rome to Gaul - which I don't like as much, but am prepared to admit might sell better. And I'm betting that's what happened in this case, too. Clapton was told that the word 'castrato' or 'castrati' had to be somewhere in the title - so The Angel of Rome had to give way to the Voice of the Castrato.

Clapton's publishers may be doing him a favour with the title, at least in terms of encouraging sales. But in a lot of other areas they are letting him down quite badly. The new sections which have been added to the book are rife with typos - especially two articles by David Howard and Paul Moses in the second half of the book. That's a pity, but not totally surprising, especially in a hardback edition. But somehow, even the previously-published sections seem to have acquired errors in the reformatting process too - especially a lot of missing opening brackets for some reason. That's just shoddy - and the net result is that the previous edition is still by far the more professionally-presented book.

The main change made to the content of the book since the previous edition is that it now consists of two sections: Part One, a biography of Moreschi in his historical context, and Part Two, a selection of five chapters on various aspects of Moreschi's singing and related topics. These latter consist of Clapton's assessment of Moreschi's surviving recordings (previously the final chapter of the 2004 edition), plus the following new additions:
  • 'A Concert, a Plaque and a Party' - Clapton's account of his visit to Moreschi's hometown of Montecompatri to take part in their Moreschi festival in 2006 (which seems now to be an annual event).
  • 'Acoustic and Physiological aspects of the Castrato voice' by David Howard - a spectral analysis of Moreschi’s recordings, arising out of the work done for the BBC documentary on the castrato voice which Clapton presented in 2006.
  • 'On Allegri's Miserere' by Ben Bryam-Wigfield - a manuscript analysis of the various known versions of Allegri's Miserere.
  • 'The Psychology of the Castrato Voice' by Paul Moses - a reprint of a conference paper from 1959.
Of these, the first three make for very interesting and valuable contributions to the book. It's lovely to hear of the recognition Moreschi is getting in Montecompatri, and their warm reception of Nicholas Clapton as both an expert on Moreschi and a fine singer in his own right. I even learnt that the location of the house in which he grew up is known, and has recently been marked with the Italian equivalent of a blue plaque - a nice future focus for another of my little Moreschi pilgrimages, I think. The spectral analysis chapter didn't add an enormous amount to what I already knew from reading similar material in Buning's thesis, but did it by the means of different types of diagrams, and thus helped to confirm and consolidate my previous understanding of which parts of the original sound must be missing from Moreschi's recordings. And the chapter on Allegri's Miserere was just generally interesting as an insight into the effects of the Vatican's attempt to suppress copies of the work on its manuscript tradition.

The oddity, though, is the paper by Paul Moses, 'The Psychology of the Castrato Voice' (1959). I've known about this for a while, but never bothered trying to track it down, largely because I've read enough commentary on the castrati from the 1950s to be pretty certain it was going to be a load of total bobbins. Reading it in Clapton's new edition, I was not disappointed. It's a collection of ill-founded and deeply offensive sweeping generalisations which I can't imagine would ever have impressed either psychologists or musicologists. From it, we 'learn' that:
  • the castrato voice 'suggested wish fulfilment of hermaphroditic dreams, and ideals'
  • 'primitive people always prefer higher voices'
  • 'the body formation of the prepubertal castrate, characteristic in its excessive height and long bones, is typical for Kretschmer's characteristics of certain schizoid personalities'
  • and that the 'castrato voice itself in its archaic character has prelinguistic factors and belongs to the sphere of the preconscious from which the schizophrenic draws the material of his fantasies'
In other words, this is exactly the kind of cod-psychological prejudice which certain figures (notably Perosi) held towards Moreschi (and other castrati) in his own day.

That's fine, of course, if the article's contribution to the book is meant to be to stand as an example of past prejudices. But the problem is that by not offering any commentary of his own on it, Clapton leaves this unclear. Perhaps instead we are meant to take this article seriously as an analysis of the castrato voice? Clapton's very sensible and sensitive tone in his own writing about the subject makes this unlikely. But if he is to present an article as loopy as this one, he really could have done with making it clear just what on earth he thought it was doing in the book. Personally, I think the space would have been better used instead for presenting translations of some of the hard-to-find primary source materials on Moreschi, like Franz Haböck's comments about him based on interviews in 1913, or the falsettist Alessandro Gabrielli's memoirs of his time in the musical chapels of Rome, published in Rassegna Dorica in the late 1930s.

The rest of the text remains largely as in the original edition bar a few corrections, but does have three major additions as follows:
  • A long extract from Casanova's Memoirs in chapter 2, covering pretty much all of his encounters with castrati and their imitators.
  • Some new research into Moreschi's genealogy, resulting in further details about his siblings (note 51, p. 312).
  • An extended account of Clapton's visit to Moreschi's grave in chapter 9, including detailed directions on how to find it.
Personally, I'd have put the Casanova extract in part two with the other material of tangential relevance to Moreschi's life story, as it rather interrupts the biographical purpose of the first half of the book. But it's great stuff all the same. The extra details about the family are interesting, especially because there now appears to be one more older brother than Clapton knew about at the time of the first edition - important, because the general pattern for the castrati of all eras tends to be that a boy is more likely to be castrated if he already has several older brothers who can marry and carry on the family line.

As for the material about Moreschi's grave - from my own perspective I'm glad to have access to it, as again it means that I could now very easily make it the focus of a visit myself. But ever since Farinelli was exhumed in 2006 by a team from Bologna University, I've been really nervous about the same thing happening to Moreschi. At the time of the Farinelli exhumation, Clapton was interviewed about the project, and seems to have taken the opportunity to reinforce the apparent general assumption that this work could only be carried out via the examination of Farinelli's skeleton. He told The Telegraph, "This is the only skeleton of them [i.e. the castrati] we have", even though his visit to Moreschi's grave had clearly taken place before the publication of his first book in 2004, so he must have known where Moreschi's remains were. Now, though, he's pretty much drawn a map to the exact location.

I'm hoping this is all because Clapton knows that for whatever reason Moreschi's remains are 'safe' - e.g. because the grave has multiple occupants, or because a member of his extended family was buried there as recently as 1994. But it makes me nervous all the same. I've never bothered about this sort of things in relation to Roman archaeology - but suddenly, when we're talking about the remains of a named individual whom I care about deeply, I see why it matters. It made me angry enough for Farinelli, who surely (like all the castrati) underwent quite enough intrusions on his body during his lifetime, and should be left to rest in peace now. It would make me livid with rage if anyone attempted the same things with regards to Moreschi.

Anyway, in summary this book perhaps isn't as much of an improvement on the previous edition as I'd hoped for, but since the previous edition was already excellent, this remains a great piece of work which I'm glad I bought. It's an extremely pleasing testimony to continuing interest in Moreschi that a revised edition was commissioned, and I'm sure that interest in itself is a clear testimony to Nicholas Clapton's efforts in recording and presenting his story. Three cheers for both of them.

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Tags: alessandro moreschi, books, books read 2008, castrati, music, reviews, singers

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