Francisco Viñas: the art of the castrati III

Third part of the third chapter of the book The art of singing: historical data, advice and guidelines for educating the voice, published in 1932, in which the Spanish tenor Francisco Viñas describes the educational system of castrated singers and the absolute dedication that brought the art of singing to the height of its expression, the differentiation between modernist and classical singers, and the decline of bel canto until the disappearance of the last sopranist singer.

The last sopranist singer.

When, at the beginning of my artistic pilgrimage around the world, I was avid for knowledge, convinced of how little and scarce I had been taught, in search of guidance to be able to reconstruct some of the damage done to my vocal organ by the fatuity of a master who enjoyed great renown, I always remember that, running after the few remaining examples of eminent artists, believing that this was the only path to follow if I wanted to have an approximate guide, the fates brought me to Rome. Once there, one fortunate day, I went to the Vatican, eager to hear the singers of the Sistine Chapel, where, I was told, there was a remarkable sopranist, an emulator of the glorious castrati of other times.

It was the solemnity of Holy Thursday, and I was so moved to hear the Miserere by Allegri! A composer and eminent singer of the classical period (16th century), whose merits we have commemorated and exalted in another chapter: this work is the most inspired, simply tragic; but in order for such a sublime musical page to produce the desired effect, his interpreters must have exceptional singing qualities, which at the time were based on technical education and style, and the Popes understanding that this work, without their protection, perhaps could not be appreciated in its just warmth due to poor execution, always refused to authorise this immortal composition to cross the threshold of St. Peter’s Basilica.

It is said that the Emperor of Austria, Leopold I, who was so keen to possess such a precious jewel and was blocked by papal prohibition, delegated Mozart to go to Rome during the days of Holy Week and try to find a way to satisfy the noble desire of the Monarch. He brought the great master to the Eternal City and, trusting in his prodigious memory, he could copy the famous work by the sopranist Allegri, whose main theme is constantly repeated. The belief of the Pontiffs was not mistaken; the famous Miserere was then performed at the Court of that Emperor under the direction of Mozart himself, but without the proper elements that were the privilege of the Sistine, it was a complete failure, to the point that the immortal Viennese master was doubted, believing that he had not faithfully copied that sublime lamentation.

In fact, the singer to whom I refer —and whose name I omit here, because despite having all the characteristics he never wanted to pass for a castrato, even though it was said that the cause was some childhood misfortune— gave such a surprising performance, that when I heard him in that Psalm and in the Lamentations singing alone without accompaniment, I was amazed at the enormous difference in the effect of sweet sadness that his voice or his style produced, while the other voices left me indifferent. In spite of the vastness of the temple, I did not lose any detail; I felt as if I was enraptured by that masterful, painful and untranslatable singing, that went straight from the ear to the soul, subjugated by such celestial mysticism; virtues that I had not observed even in the greatest stars of that time, such as Patti, Massini, Cotogni and Gayarre. All of this was regulated by a very refined technique that went from register to register, from note to note, without the slightest inequality of timbre in the entire musical range of the voice, gently emitted as a caress, as something diaphanous, ethereal, that evaporated into immensity. It was for me a new language, musically solemn, that came out of a larynx in which the most beautiful qualities of the voice of man and woman seemed to be enclosed in sweet connubiality, forming with this union a timbre without equal.

Later, when I fell in love with the severe beauty of Rome and decided to make my home there as an artist, I never stopped attending the religious performances in which the famous sopranist took part. How can we forget the enthusiasm produced during the festivities of Santa Rosa de Viterbo, and in the cathedral of Orvieto, where this illustrious singer gave the greatest prominence to the solemnity of a centenary commemoration being held there? People came from all over the Roman province, and countless foreign tourists filled the hotels; likewise, many peasants went miles and miles to hear the divine accents of the marvellous singer. Then I did not fail to watch him on his way through the years, and I listened with regret to his pitiful decline! Such was the last eminent sopranist of our time.

Following a “motu proprio” by Pius X, at the behest of the illustrious maestro Perosi, perpetual director of the Sistine Chapel, such singers cannot now be admitted to it, if the phenomenon would unfortunately be reproduced. However, the singing of these beings is irreplaceable for the purposes of Art. As this chapter is written, I receive the sad news that the excellent singer to whom the above lines are addressed has just died in the Eternal City; and as all the newspapers in Italy speak of him, dedicating apologetic obituaries to him, there is no reason to keep the secret of his name, which is that of Alessandro Moreschi, whose portrait is reproduced below.1

1 The death of the famous singer Moreschi was reported in the newspaper La Tribuna as follows: “This morning in his room in via Virgilio, the illustrious sopranist of the Sistine Chapel, Prof. Alessandro Moreschi —the last singer evirated singer— died in Rome (21 April 1923). He began his studies at the age of eleven with Maestro Gaetano Capocci and later perfected his skills under the wise guidance of the great singer, also an evirate, Domenico Mustafa, who was a teacher in the Sistine Chapel. Moreschi was gifted with a voice that was exceptional for its beauty; it was suggestive like that of the singers of other times; very pure, silvery, limpid and flexible, preserved by his good method until mature age. He had such a refined taste and confident style of his own, that he was able to interpret with immaculate expression, without any hint of morbid sentimentality, the most noble pages of the art of religious music. People flocked to his performances. It is still remembered when he went to Lyon, requested to commemorate the divine Beethoven, the delirious, unlimited enthusiasm of that public for the sublime singer. The funerals, in the church of San Lorenzo in Damaso, were a manifestation of devout respect for such a distinguished artist. The great Mass of Absolution for eight voices by L. Perosi was performed, and he wanted to conduct the sacred rite, paying the last tribute of affection to his favourite singer: all the singers of the Roman Basilicas took part, as well as countless other artists. The sad ceremony was presided over by the Minister of Public Instruction. May the unforgettable singer rest in peace.”

Text excerpted and translated from El arte del canto, Francisco Viñas, Barcelona, 1932.