21 April 2021

Alessandro Moreschi - the last castrato

Only singer of his type to make solo recordings

Alessandro Moreschi sang in the Sistine Chapel choir for 30 years
Alessandro Moreschi sang in the Sistine
Chapel choir for 30 years
Alessandro Moreschi, the singer generally recognised as the last castrato, and the only castrato of whom solo recordings were made, died on this day in 1922 in his apartment in Rome.

Suffering from pneumonia, Moreschi passed away in his apartment in Via Plinio, just a few minutes walk from the Vatican, where he sang for 30 years as a member of the Sistine Chapel choir.

Castrati were male classical singers with voices that were the equivalent of the female soprano, mezzo-soprano or contralto, but which carried much greater power. As the name suggests, these vocal qualities in men were produced through castration, which had to take place before puberty to prevent normal development.

The procedure both impaired the development of the larynx so that the pre-pubescent vocal range was retained and altered the way in which the subject’s bones developed, which resulted often in unusually long limbs and, more significantly, very long ribs, which gave the castrato’s lungs unrivalled capacity.

It was a barbaric practice and many boys did not survive it, but the rewards for those who did were potentially huge. At the height of the castrato voice’s popularity in opera, in the 18th century, singers such as Farinelli, Cafarelli and Senesino enjoyed the status of pop stars, commanding substantial appearances fees and enjoying rich lifestyles.

Moreschi was spotted singing in a chapel choir near his home
Moreschi was spotted singing
in a chapel choir near his home
But fashions changed. Where composers such as Rossini, Handel and Gluck had written many pieces for castrato singers, after about 1840 castrati were no longer in vogue and later composers such as Verdi and Wagner had no interest in them.

By the time Moreschi joined the Vatican Choir, castrati were employed only by the church, as they had been before Italy’s wealthy ducal courts and then the opera gave them opportunities. The castrato voices were essentially to compensate for the absence of women, who were not allowed to sing in church.

If Moreschi, born in 1858 in Monte Compatri, one of the group of towns southeast of Rome known as the Castelli Romani, was castrated on account of his vocal potential, he would have been one of the last to have undergone the procedure, which was outlawed in 1870.  Some accounts of his life suggest he was castrated for medical reasons, having been born with an inguinal hernia.

However, his castration came about, the quality of his singing soon stood out. He joined the choir of the chapel of the Madonna del Castagno, near his home town, where his talent was spotted by Nazareno Rosati, formerly a member of the Sistine Chapel choir, who took him to Rome and enrolled him at the Scuola di San Salvatore in Lauro. His teacher there, Gaetano Capocci, was maestro di cappella of the Papal basilica of St John Lateran, where Moreschi was appointed primo soprano in the choir at the age of only 15.

It was his performance in the demanding coloratura role of the Seraph in Beethoven’s oratorio Christus am Ölberge that in 1883 earned him the primo soprano position at the Sistine Chapel, where he would stay for 30 years, occupying many different roles.

In August 1900, at the request of the Italian royal family, he sang at the funeral of the king, Umberto I, and in 1902 he made the first of his 17 recordings for the Gramophone & Typewriter Company of London.

Moreschi’s voice began to decline as he entered his fifties and he retired in around 1914.

His recordings have been preserved and are available today on CD or vinyl. They include two songs by Tosti, the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria, Mozart's Ave verum and two versions of the Crucifixus from Rossini's Petite Messe Solenelle.  In the later recordings, Moreschi’s voice is said to be clear and penetrating.

Monte Compatri is one of the Castelli Romani towns to the southeast of Rome
Monte Compatri is one of the Castelli Romani
towns to the southeast of Rome
Travel tip:

Monte Compatri, where Moreschi was born, is a hill town located about 20km (12 miles) southeast of Rome. It is one of the Castelli Romani, the so-called Roman Castles, a group of 16 municipalities located at the foot of the Colli Albani - the Alban Hills. The area was formerly one of volcanic activity, in which the lakes Nemi and Albano formed in the extinct crater.  Frascati is the best known of the Castelli Romani, while Castel Gandolfo is home to the summer residence of the popes.  Monte Compatri’s parish church, dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta in Cielo,  (1630–33), was erected by will of Scipione Borghese, an Italian Cardinal, art collector and patron of the arts who was the patron of the painter Caravaggio and the artist Bernini.

Detail from Michelangelo's fresco, The Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel
Detail from Michelangelo's fresco, The Last
, in the Sistine Chapel
Travel tip:

The Sistine Chapel is in the Apostolic Palace, where the Pope lives, in Vatican City. The chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV, the uncle of Pope Julius II, who had it restored during his papacy. It is famous for the ceiling painted by Michelangelo, who also painted the fresco The Last Judgment, on the altar wall of the chapel, which was not finished until 25 years after he completed work on the ceiling. The work was controversial for its depiction of nudity, some of which the Council of Trent, the ecumenical council that took place in Trento between 1545 and 1563, declared to be obscene and ordered Mannerist painted Daniele da Volterra to cover up.

Also on this day:

753BC: The founding of the city of Rome

1574: The death of Cosimo I de’ Medici, first Grand Duke of Tuscany

1930: The birth of actress Silvana Mangano


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