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Everything is related to Naples
Number 82 in this series. Link to all items here.
contains audio (link at bottom of page)The Castrati
"The most unkindest cut of all." —Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2.
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".
of famed castrato Farinelli
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.
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
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.