Copyright ©2003 Elsa Scammell

Last Updated 03 March 2004

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Who were the Castrati?

Introduction

They were a strange breed. endowed, some would say with the "voices of angels"; men in size and appearance, but with feminine high voices, so people said. They earned vast sums of money; lived high, wide and handsome...and longer than the average male of the period.

They left behind them the music that they sang, the pupils they taught, the operatic arias they inspired.

But who were they? What were they? Why were they? Where are they now?

Answering the last question first; they are not around now.

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WHERE ARE THE CASTRATI NOW?

Public and Papal opinion had long since condemned the practice; supposedly by Papal decree in 1878, but not exactly on humanitarian grounds.

The last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922, leaving a legacy of 17 recordings of not very high quality and not very choice music.

He was limited by the recording facilities of the time: 1902/4; hardly CD standard. His voice was put on single-sided shellac discs, of no fixed speed, with a limited time capacity; at best, about 4 minutes playing time. He was the director of the Sistine Chapel Choir in Rome, at St. Peter's, and their soloist; he was the youngest of the surviving castrato singers there, and even so, he was in his early forties.

You can find him and his recordings of the Opal CD 9823 (Pavilion Records) still being pressed, taken from those primitive discs. Listen to him; read the extensive booklet, and see what you think.

Practically every day one hears a joke along these lines...if a man has a certain kind of accident, he will be singing soprano in the choir. Sometimes a variant of these remarks is made quite seriously in the media, but there is no truth whatsoever in that. At puberty, a boy's vocal chords grow and thicken, and so the voice deepens, in speaking and singing. The famous boy treble Aled Jones, who made gold and platinum discs in the 80's, now sings a well-trained high baritone, of no great remark...yet; he is only in his late 20's. If an accident or injury occurred, the voice would not change; transsexuals (male to female) have to risk surgery on their vocal chords to shorten them, in order that they may sound more feminine.

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WHY?

But, why, in the first place, were the castrati brought into being? It all goes back a long way, to when the eunuchs of the harem were sometimes found to have sweet singing voices, to entertain their masters' many ladies. Gradually it was realised that early castration of boys around the ages of 8 to 10 (who could already sing) would save their singing voices; first for the church and cathedral choirs, and, after rigorous training, for the opera: to sing male and female roles.

Male roles? The heroes who were the stars of C17 and C18 opera had high voices to match their high rank, as it was then conceived. Tenors and basses sang comic parts; old men types.

Female roles? Women were not allowed to tread the boards in many Catholic countries; the Popes would not permit such a thing. St. Paul said, "Let women be silent in churches", following the Judaic pattern of men being the cantors and the women sitting in the gallery!!

Opera...that was indecent; shocking; the thin edge of the wedge.

The ban was exercised particularly in the Papal States, which were extremely extensive during the 18th century and the early 19th and long before all the diverse kingdoms and principalities of Italy were "united" under the rule of the House of Savoy, and the Vatican became a kingdom on its own in 1869, with Pope Pius IX becoming the "prisoner of the Vatican".

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WHAT WERE THEY?

As has been already said, they were boys with outstanding singing voices who were offered by their families for castration, to preserve those voices. Mostly the boys came from very poor families, who saw nothing wrong in the practice, since it would lift them out of poverty, and we are talking what is called "Third World" poverty today.

But such families were often secretive about offering their children in this way, since canon and civil law would be broken. So, the victims were castrated on the grounds of: illness, injury (wild boars were favourite), accidents. These were the excuses given, on a kind of Chinese whispers basis.

The "operation" involved drugging the boy with opium, immersing him in a warm bath until he became (hopefully) insensible; then the ducts leading to the testes were severed and that was it ... if he recovered, and many did not; no aseptic procedures in those days. This information is included in Charles D'Ancillon's "Traite des Eunuques", aka "Eunuchism Displayed" (1707) and is a contemporary account of the castration of boys.

In the 16th century, the Vatican, noted for turning the blind eye, admitted castrati to its ranks in the Sistine Chapel. Up to that point, "Spanish falsettists" had been used for the soprano line, or young boys, before their voices were due to break. These falsettists had proved unpleasing to the ear as their voices became acidulous and over-strained, and the boys, as they approached maturity, became unruly.

At the turn of that century, Pope Clement VIII favoured the castrati, whom he had heard elsewhere, sacked the falsettists and endorsed the castrati, who appeared on the Chapel roll in 1599.

The falsettists were evidently rather poor male altos or countertenors, who lacked the skill and training of those we hear today. Having solved the problem of the soprano line, these "falsettists" later were asked to sing the contralto line, which would have been less taxing for them; but the castrati took on these parts.

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WHO WERE THEY?

Most people have heard of Farinelli aka Carlo Broschi (1705-1782) from the recent film of that name: "Farinelli, il castrato". He was reckoned to be the greatest singer of his kind ever; women were known to shriek "One God, one Farinelli" at his performances, and (if they were well enough educated) "Eviva il coltello"!

He did not have as long a career as his age suggests; he did not come from a particularly poor family, but he early made his name, after rigorous training by Nicola Porpora the composer, he essayed the famous trumpet duel, outlasting the poor trumpet player by his technique and length of breath.

One has to remember that all descriptions of Farinelli's voice (and, indeed, those of the other castrati) were "hearsay". Not until Moreschi's recordings can the castrato voice be heard in reality.

We do know what Farinelli sang: his arias have been preserved in score form; and Aris Cristofellis, one of the new breed of male sopranos, has sung some of them, but without some of the decorative embellishments which Farinelli was able to produce.

The film, however, gives a totally distorted account of his life, which was well documented. The problem of the "voice" for the film was tackled by the "morphing" of 2 voices: that of a counter tenor and a female soprano; Cristofellis was not used for this purpose. The CD issued to accompany the film shows how this was done.

There is so much more to say; there were many other successful operatic castrati. They demonstrated bel canto singing; operas were written for them; Handel wrote oratorios and Italian operas for them; Rossini and Meyerbeer wrote for them and a whole group of forgotten composers is emerging which will reveal their talents, and passed on to their pupils; and so, musical history was made.

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Copyright ©2003 Elsa Scammell

Last Updated 11 March 2003