Monday, March 23, 2009

Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922) - The Last Castrato Performances

Perhaps the last castrato to perform was the Italian Alessandro Moreschi - evidenced in a series of 17 recordings made in 1902 and in 1904 in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

He was First Soprano of the
Sistine Choir from 1873 till 1913, being particularly famed for his soprano tessitura in the bel canto repertory.

The practice of castration was banned in 1870,
Moreschi being altered round 1865 and before puberty to retain the beauty of his adolescent boy's voice.

Alessandro Moreschi - Tosti 'Ideale' Recorded in the Sistine Chapel by Fred and Will Gainsberg on 7 April 1902 (Ack. Gmmix@YouTube)

Love the cheers of appreciation and support from the Sistine Choir at the end - apparently the singer was visibly shaking during the recording session!


  1. A shame he didn't record any of the great operatic music written for the castrati. Perhaps it was beyond him? Reading contemporary accounts of performances of the greatest of the castrati, it's clear they combined the brilliance of a trumpet (one reason Handel, etc, wrote pieces pitting the trumpet against the singer in a musical duel) with the sweetness of a boy soprano.

    Countertenors today sound NOTHING like the castrati since they don't have forceful, heroic quality to their voices that characterized the castrati. There was nothing "falsetto" about the quality of the castrati voice. Yes, they sang in the soprano (or mezzo) range, but there was nothing fey or pale about it. Which is why they sang heroic parts like Julius Caesar and were musically believable in them.

    Imagine being unable to tell whether it's a countertenor singing or a trumpet. No contest...the trumpet would wipe out any countertenor without even huffing and puffing.

    I'd love to get in a time machine and go back to about 1700 and hear what they were like at their best. Alas, short of restoring the barbaric operation and then drilling the young boy for literally years in musical and vocal technique (probably as impossible as performing the castration itself), we'll never hear what they were really like in "their" music...a sweet yet heroic voice with breath control that would put Caballe to shame.

  2. As if circumcision isn't sufficiently mutilation, the concept that children were castrated for their voices makes me want to cry.

    Alan down in Florida

  3. hey paul

    thanks for taking the time to comment at such length

    and yes a pity bout what he didn't record - i've read that recording at the time was considered a novelty rather than a serious artistic enterprise and maybe this is part of the explanation

    very interesting what you have to say about the particular quality of the sound of the castrato - and how composers would use them as such.

    i understand that much early church music was composed with an understanding of the 'mush' the acoustics of such buildings would have combining the instruments and voices - music being composed quite accepting this. so that when current recording of such works attempts to disengage the various sound components, the result would not necessarily have been appreciated by earlier composers.

    when i lived in england i used to listen to counter tenor james bowman i used to wonder how the sound related to that of the castrati. and so interested to hear what you had to say about falsetto in this respect

    next time i get my time machine out, i'll give you a call - and we can program in '1700' - i wonder if our digital cameras would work after we'd passed back! perhaps Caballe would like to join us!

  4. hey alan

    like those accepting to undergo castration to become eunuchs in the forbidden city

    i was looking at a coffee table book recently on cixi, the last dowager empress of china - and had a similar reaction to some sad looking boys showing their mutilations

  5. hey aleopardo

    yes, it is

    thanks for commenting

    take care