Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact:Jeff Matthews

© ErN 82 Jeff Matthews     entry Jan 2003, rev. Oct 2010       
  The Castrati
"The most unkindest cut of all." —Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2.
contains audio (link at bottom of page)

Well, Will, we'll worry about your grammar later. First, let me tell you a few things about unkind cuts, which, in your frenzied groping for superlatives, you seem to have overlooked. What follows is not for the squeamish, so gird your loins. Wait, belay my last. Forget your loins. By the time I'm through, you'll never want to hear that word, again. 

In his short reign (1585-90) as Pontiff, Pope Sixtus V (no kin to Fiftus VI) strengthened the financial policies of the Roman Catholic Church, straightened out its administration, finished St. Peter's Dome and more or less geared up the Church for the Counter-Reformation. He is also known for his no nonsense interpretation of 1 Corinthians, XIV, 34, in which Paul tells us: "Let your women keep silence in church; it is not permitted unto them to speak." The Pope, hard-liner and tone deaf, reckoned that singing was just a funny kind of speaking, anyway, so let's not let them sing, either. This led directly to the wholesale revival of the ancient and hideous practice of castration. 

Being a choir master in those days was frustrating. The so-called "white voice" of children was a natural in church; it was surely the same high, pure, innocent voice as that of Heaven's own puffy-cheeked little cherubs and angels. But it still had to be trained, and no sooner did you get a young boy finely tuned and able to sing well, than Nature let him have it with a jolt of testosterone, giving him pimples and otherwise priming him for years of anxiety-filled social gaming, a dubious trade-off every now and then for brief spurts of intense pleasure. More to the case in point, it also sent his voice cracking and plummeting into the octaves below and sent the choirmaster, in his own dogged imitation of Sisyphus, wearily back for another kid, never ever winding up with a well-trained strong adult soprano singer. Women, as we have noted, were out of the question.

There were two ways to get post-pubescent male sopranos. The first was to train the "falsetto" voice, that bit of vocal chord contortionism which puts out that high, breaking voice associated today mainly with certain kinds of folk music, such as the Swiss yodel or American country music. "Falsetto", in Italian, is a diminutive of "false", and that is just how the public felt about it: a false little voice, a scrawny and brittle stand-in for the real thing, completely unacceptable to music-lovers. 

Enter a solution which made the purists happy, putting them, uh, on the cutting edge of Baroque vocal technology. It was perversely called "natural falsetto". It was, in fact, the castrato. The eunuch. Beginning in the late 1500's, young boys were routinely mutilated in this fashion to keep their voices from changing, so that they might better "make a joyful noise unto the Lord".

Portrait of famed castrato Farinelli            
   by Corrado Gianquinto
                     

The "white voice" of the subsequent adult male soprano was so remarkable that with the beginnings in the early 1600's of opera and music performed outside the church, the castrato soared to secular prominence. For two-hundred years they were the most sought-after of voices on European stages. They were wondrous: such was the dynamic, abstract quality of their virtuoso soprano and contralto voices, that they were often said to be more instrumental than vocal. They were intensely trained (loners and social outcasts that they were, they had little else to do but practice) and so flexible that they could warble along with the birdlike flights of flutes and clarinets. Today, we might describe such voices as "electronic". (Even their critics described them as heavenly: "The shrill celestial whine of eunuchs" was a favorite castratophobe jibe of the day.) Generally, however, they were popular, so much so that they often moved the public to hysteria. The great Loreto Vittori (1604-1670) used to stoke the folks to such white-hot passion with his singing that they often threw open their garments! Once, while he was singing at a college of Jesuits, a mob stormed the place to hear him and sent the cardinals and nobles fleeing. (No doubt, it was Baroque Teenager doing all this ranting and raiment rending, returning home that evening to hear Baroque Parent lecture on the evils of modern music: "Do you think your mother and I went crazy like that over Palestrina's madrigals? Now there was music!")


Because of the greater lung capacity and physical bulk of males, the castrato soprano voice was also incredibly powerful, much more so than its feminine counterpart. Napoleon had a thirty-voice castrato choir at his coronation in 1804 and they attacked the Tu es Petrus with a fortissimo that drowned out a nearby harp orchestra and three-hundred member choir of normal voices.

This illegal but tolerated practice was widespread in Italy, and though people feigned feelings of guilt once in a while, most of the time they just looked the other way. Italian cities accused one another of being hotbeds of evil surgery, but it was Bourbon Naples of the mid-1700's—entrepreneurial even back then—which was the castrato capital of Europe. Its four conservatories and opera house also made it the opera capital of Europe. This combination produced a thriving black market in eunuchs. Hustlers would buy children or find orphans, pay for the operation and music lessons and hope to multiply their investment over the long term if the child grew up to be a big opera star. 

It was changing musical tastes—nineteenth-century Romanticism's dedication to real human passion—rather than moral qualms, which brought about the decline of the strange, sad figure of the castrato. By the early decades of the 1800's they were no longer in demand, although an occasional aberration would turn up, such as Wagner (in 1880!) originally insisting on a male soprano for the role of Klingsor in Parsifal. In 1903 Pope Pius X finally and officially forbade the "cultivation" of the white voice. Again, moral qualms apparently played no part; Pius' edict declared that much contemporary church music of the day was simply too modern, including such massive orchestral works as Verdi's Requiem. He wanted a return to the simplicity of the Gregorian chant. 

With that, the castrato faded into obscurity, even within the confines of the Roman Catholic church. The last castrato in the Vatican Chapel was Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922). There is even a recording* of him, witness to one of the more bizarre sidelights in the history of music.

note: Interestingly, there are male sopranos who are not eunuchs. They are termed "sopranista" and composers such as Rossini wrote parts for them after the real castrato went out of fashion. Their vocal range is apparently due to some hormonal anomaly. They still perform today; a prominent such performer is Simone Bartolini, an Italian who specializes in the Baroque repertoire.

*"Moreschi, The Last Castrato." Pearl Opal CD 9823. Pavilion Records, Wadhurst, England. CD cover, photo, top.

Link to Moreschi singing  "Caro Ideale" (music by Francesco Paolo Tosti [1846-1916], lyrics Carmelo Errico). The excerpt is from the album cited directly above.

[There are separate entries about two famous castrati, Farinelli and Caffarelli.]


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