Thursday, October 08, 2015

Lost sound

At the LRB, a great piece by Colm Tóibín on two new books about the eighteenth-century castrati:
The French soprano Emma Calvé wrote in her autobiography about hearing the castrato Domenico Mustafà in 1891: ‘He had an exquisite high tenor voice, truly angelic, neither masculine nor yet feminine in type – deep, subtle, poignant in its vibrant intensity … He had certain curious notes which he called his fourth voice – strange, sexless tones, superhuman, uncanny!’ Another writer wrote of a castrato voice that it was ‘so soft, and ravishingly mellow, that nothing can better represent it than the Flute-stops of some Organs’, which themselves were ‘not unlike the gentle Fallings of Water’.

Nonetheless, as Feldman writes, ‘we still lack access to the sound of the castrato’s voice, save some early recordings of the last castrato.’ It is as though we had the letters of Wordsworth and Coleridge and some reviews of their work, or some wonderful descriptions of Impressionist painting, but not the things themselves – the poems or the paintings.

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