Monday, July 13, 2020

Two books on the Italian castrati singers

Two books about the castrati.

Francis Toye (1952)

Toye finds "no necessity to discuss the physical aspect of the operation" but says it "was introduced into Italy either from Spain or from the Orient, was known in the twelfth century and common in the sixteenth when, owing to the difficulty of polyphonic music, castrati were preferred to boys in church choirs. They were associated with opera from its very beginning [in the 17th century] and the title-role of Monteverdi's Orfeo was sung by one of them." (p. 18) At first they played masculine roles; later, feminine. Goethe came to approve of castrati in feminine roles because they "emphasized the artificial conventionalism of the stage." (p. 19) Their singing voices "represented nothing effeminate but the tonic attributes of perpetual youth..." (p. 19) By the mid-eighteenth century, women were participating in opera nearly equally with castrati. "...the attainment of perfection in the art of singing was a castrato's whole life, and it was usual for him in old age to take pupils and thus hand on the experience." (p. 21) They did not provide merely "acrobatics" and "vocal fireworks" but also "the emotional and expressive element in opera seria." (p. 21) Toye adds that "many of the castrati lived normal and exceedingly active lives." (p. 19)
"In Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra, Rossini "first established the innovation of writing down exactly what the singers had to sing instead of conceding the latitude of embellishment and improvisation which they had for so long enjoyed. Rossini is said to have come to this decision after hearing the male soprano Velluti in Aureliano — almost the last appearance of a castrato in opera. Not apparently that he was so much dissatisfied with Velluti's performance as frightened by what might be the result had his music been left to the mercies of a singer with inferior musical training, one of the new now all-powerful tribe of primadonnas for instance." (p. 40)

Francis Toye. Italian Opera. London: Max Parrish and Co, 1952.


Patrick Barbier (1989)

Barbier opens his book by reserving judgment on the historical castration of boys (which was "never performed before the age of seven and rarely after twelve" (p. 12)):

There is no point today in reopening the case so often brought in the past against castration and those who practised it or underwent it. How can we judge a medical procedure which influenced the whole of western music for more than two centuries, now that we are so far removed from the conditions prevailing in the baroque period? How can the 'modern' mind, moderately influenced by the nineteenth century, understand how a particular period dared to seek pure and 'gratuitous' Beauty through a mutilation so 'costly' to the individual who was subjected to it? Above all, how can we adopt an attitude towards emasculation when no great castrato has confided his deepest feelings to us? Was the operation inflicted on him felt as a tragedy? Was it not sometimes sanctified by a voice and a 'nature' which overturned the traditional plan of the masculine or feminine condition? We know, for example, that when people expressed pity for them the castrati Carestini and Salimbeni burst out laughing: were they exceptional or fairly normal?

For the historian only one thing matters: the presence and triumph of the castrati for nearly two hundred and thirty years on the stages of Europe, and still longer within the Roman Catholic Church. The Italians were of course the promoters and the greatest 'consumers' of these singers. (pp. 1-2)

The Byzantine Empire began employing eunuch singers in churches (per Theodore Balsamon's 12th century Commentary on the Nomocanon) and subsequently it conquered Constantinople which had many eunuchs in the harem. (p. 7) There were also eunuch singers in Mozarabic Spain in the 12th century who increasingly influenced Catholic liturgy. (p. 8) Later, however, they were "an essentially Italian phenomenon in the sense that they were recruited and trained only in that country." (p. 174) In France, they were sometimes derided as "cripples," and in one instance "Luigi Rossi was forced into hiding, Torelli, the famous producer and creator of theatrical machinery, was imprisoned and some castrati only just escaped lynching." (p. 191)

The Pietà taught music to uncastrated boys (integri) and eunuchs (non integri), and one day in 1782, the boys rebelled against the eunuchs in the dining hall because the eunuchs were given equal privileges. (p. 57) If students ran away from the conservatory, they would not be allowed to return. (p. 58)

He says: "The castrato voice differed from that of the normal male singer through its lightness, flexibility and high notes, and from the female voice through its brilliance, limpidity and power. At the same time it was superior to a boy's voice through the adult nature of its musculature, its technique and expressivity." (P. 17) However, boys were generally castrated first and then sent to musical training to find out if they could sing. "Castration," therefore, "was like a lottery from which very few emerged victorious...Some castrati in fact had horrible voices, shrill and strident." (p. 29)

Farinelli sang every day to Philip V, the Bourbon ruler of Spain, at the request of the Queen, who hoped that the music would cure the King's mental illness. The King seemed to recover, and Farinelli became his confidant. (pp. 203-204)

None left memoirs (p. 3), and they received quiet funerals. (p. 222)

He points out that eunuchs were regular human beings. Performers in general "had their moods, their weaknesses and their financial demands. The much talked about, long-standing image of the castrato as arrogant and capricious by nature [emphasis mine] makes no sense..." (pp. 107-108) (He adds that "if you didn't like the castrati that was enough to transform them very quickly into monsters" (p. 108), though it is unclear whether he means that people would portray castrati as monsters or if the castrati would behave in monstrous ways in reaction to being hated.) Similarly, some artists "knew each other well, appreciated and respected each other, while others were jealous and hated each other." (pp. 147-148) And "they were often accused of corrupting morals" despite being "no more inclined to sexual crime than other men." (p. 152) It is strange, then, that his final sentence is: "This adventure lasted for three centuries, defying all the laws of morality and reason to achieve the impossible union of monster and angel." (p. 242)

Chapter 6 (pp. 122-135) is about how Popes regulated the castration of boys.

Patrick Barbier. The World of the Castrati: The History of an Extraordinary Operatic Phenomenon. Translated by Souvenir Press and Margaret Crosland. Souvenir Press, 1996. (Originally: Histoire des Castrats, published in France by Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, 1989.)

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