Friday, December 15, 2006

The Strange World of 1903

Last night as we were working on Mozart's Ave Verum, we had the idea to play a recording of the same piece as sung by the Sistine Chapel choir in 1903.

Yes, it was recorded and it can be heard on a very interesting and strangely alarming CD that is currently available. It mostly features the highly unusual voice of Alessandro Moreschi, the last living castrato and director of the choir. He was recorded past his prime but, even so, there are moments when his voice is dazzling, a sound you have never heard and we will never hear live again.

But what is interesting for purposes of this post are the choral pieces included here, among which Mozart's Ave Verum and Vitoria's "Improperie."

How does the choir sound? How to put it politely? Let's just say that no one would welcome such sounds in liturgy today. Is it because our culture has changed, and what we expect from liturgical music is different? Or is what we are hearing just a peculiar feature of a very weak choir? Why is there no attempt to stabilize the sound and create something more prayerful? I really don't know, but I'm sure an expert in historical singing practice could say something about this.

The sound images created by this CD are truly hard to shake. The idea of liturgical music is that it should enter into the realm of timeliness, but I can't ever remember hearing music that seems to be so tied to a period and a place as this recording.

By the way, after we listened to this CD, our sound improved. It had served us in an unusual way: how not to sing Ave Verum.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: