Hear the Only Castrato Ever Recorded Sing “Ave Maria” and Other Classics (1904)

Every human cul­ture has prac­ticed some form of rit­u­al muti­la­tion, from the mild mar­ring of a Spring Break tat­too to the dis­fig­ure­ment of foot-bind­ing. On the more extreme end of the scale, we have the ear­ly mod­ern Euro­pean prac­tice of cas­trat­ing young boys to inhib­it growth of their vocal cords and thy­roid glands dur­ing puber­ty. Such singers, known as cas­trati, became “high-sopra­nos, mez­zos, and altos, stri­dent voic­es and sweet ones, loud and mel­low voic­es,” writes Martha Feld­man in her book The Cas­tra­to.

The pur­pose of muti­lat­ing these singers ini­tial­ly had to do with a ban on women in church choirs. Cas­trati took their place, and were in very high demand. “Oppor­tu­ni­ties for cas­trati were stag­ger­ing,” writes i09, “and many fam­i­lies were fac­ing star­va­tion” in 16th cen­tu­ry Italy, where the prac­tice began. Despite a church pro­hi­bi­tion on unnec­es­sary ampu­ta­tion, par­ents and sur­geons con­spired to ille­gal­ly cas­trate boys cho­sen to ful­fill the role, and the prac­tice con­tin­ued into the 19th cen­tu­ry.

Sev­er­al cas­trati achieved last­ing pop­u­lar fame. “The best cas­trati were super­stars,” remarks Sarah Bard­well of the Han­del House Muse­um, “adored by female fans.” Oth­ers, io9 points out, “were low-rent singers who spent their time doing small gigs in small towns, and oth­ers spun their singing careers into posi­tions as min­is­ters at roy­al courts.” One of the more glam­orous fates await­ed one of the last of the cas­trati, Alessan­dro Moreschi, who may have been cas­trat­ed to rem­e­dy an inguinal her­nia or may have been inten­tion­al­ly muti­lat­ed to become a cas­tra­to.

How­ev­er he came by it, Moreschi’s voice so impressed a Roman choir­mas­ter that he appoint­ed the singer first sopra­no of the Papal basil­i­ca of St. John Lat­er­an in 1873 at age 15. Soon after, Moreschi, his fame spread­ing wide­ly, joined the Sis­tine Chapel Choir and took on sev­er­al admin­is­tra­tive duties. By this time, it’s said that Moreschi was so pop­u­lar that audi­ences would call out “Evi­va il coltel­lo” (“Long live the knife!”) dur­ing his per­for­mances. While still with the Sis­tine Choir and near the end of his career, Moreschi began to make record­ings for the Gramo­phone & Type­writer Com­pa­ny of London—the only known record­ings of a cas­tra­to.

Between 1902 and 1904, Moreschi record­ed 17 tracks, and you can hear them all here. At the top of the post, hear a restored ver­sion of “Ave Maria,” fur­ther down, a ren­di­tion of Euge­nio Terziani’s “Hos­tias et Pre­ces,” and here, the com­plete record­ings of Alessan­dro Moreschi, in their noisy orig­i­nal state. Nicholas Clap­ton, cura­tor of a 2006 cas­trati exhib­it at the Han­del House Muse­um in Lon­don, describes Moreschi’s voice as “Pavarot­ti on heli­um” and his­tor­i­can David Starkey tells of the “full hor­ror” of the pro­ce­dure, but also adds, “it’s hor­ri­bly like the child star of today, forced into this arti­fi­cial­i­ty, forced… to deliv­er that ineluctable, strange, desir­able thing of star qual­i­ty.”

Sad­ly, like many of today’s har­ried child singers and actors, few cas­trati actu­al­ly achieved star­dom. But those few who did, like Moreschi, “had a tremen­dous emo­tion­al impact on the audi­ences of the day,” Bard­well tells us. Moreschi’s record­ings, made while he was in his mid-for­ties, sound alien to us not only because of the strange­ness of cas­trati singing but because of the high­ly melo­dra­mat­ic style pop­u­lar at the time. His singing may not be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of some of the most renowned cas­trati in his­to­ry, like the 18th cen­tu­ry sen­sa­tion Farinel­li, but it is—barring a resur­gence of the pret­ty bar­bar­ic practice—probably the clos­est we’ll come to hear­ing the infa­mous cas­trati voice.

via His­to­ry Buff

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rare Video Cap­tures 29-Year-Old Luciano Pavarot­ti in One of His Ear­li­est Record­ed Per­for­mances (1964)

Watch Clas­sic Per­for­mances from Maria Callas’ Won­drous and Trag­i­cal­ly-Short Opera Career

What Beat­box­ing and Opera Singing Look Like Inside an MRI Machine

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Randy says:

    Regard­ing male muti­la­tion, hope­ful­ly one day we can stamp out the prac­tice. We don’t need any more bleed-outs and her­pes deaths.

  • Marjorie says:

    Just imag­ine hear­ing this voice back before the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, sit­ting in a hall where sound was ampli­fied with angles and walls instead of micro­phones. It must have been tru­ly astound­ing for con­cert-goers, the thrill of the high­er notes, the dra­ma in his singing. Yes, he prob­a­bly over-act­ed, as was the style of the day, but though he gave a per­for­mance of real pas­sion, he sac­ri­ficed too much for his art.

  • Davey Mueller says:

    Vis a vis.…the rage of the CASTRATO; Me say.….…if it ain’t broke…then don’t fix it——–that being, revive that LITTLE KNIFE.….…and let the good times role once again :-).….…..

    Oh…ps…open mouth, and into my cheek.…INSERT TONGUE.…. :-D

  • Stephane Kovacs says:

    J’en avais enten­du par­ler. C’é­tait de la cul­ture.
    Enten­dre cette inter­pré­ta­tion, c’est autre chose.
    Impos­si­ble de retenir l’hor­reur et la tristesse.
    Quelques cas­trés étaient acclamés comme des rocks stars.
    Pra­tique courante et banale dans la société de l’époque, j’au­rai cer­taine­ment réa­gi comme tout le monde.
    Sans pos­er de ques­tions. En par­ti­c­uli­er, celle de l’ac­cord préal­able de ces gamins.
    Dans un siè­cle, en 2100, quand notre époque sera regardée avec la dis­tance du temps, quelles pra­tiques banales d’au­jour­d’hui soulèveront-elles de l’ef­froi ?
    Je ferai bien de sur­veiller mes lec­tures du matin.

  • Nicholas Ennos says:

    This is not the only cas­tra­to on record. Most of the big sopra­nos like Callas, Suther­land, Flagstad and Bir­git Nill­son were secret cas­trati

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