WERE THE SUPERSTARS OF CENTURIES GONE BY!
is a known fact that castration prevents the necessary
flow of hormones, whereby the vocal cords cannot enlarge.
As a result, castrati had the high voice of a boy soprano
but the lung power of a grown man. Because the Church
always gathered pre-puberty boys to sing high parts in
chorals during service (women were not allowed to participate),
the finest boy sopranos were hand picked by the masters
of Church music. Their aim was to castrate the boys.
castrated, the young boys were sent to conservatories.
At the "Conservatorio di Sant' Onofrio" in
Napoli, during the 1780s, the work schedule was as follows:
In the morning, one hour of singing difficult passages,
one hour of literature and one hour of solfeggi in front
of mirrors. In the afternoon, one half hour of music
theory, one half hour of counterpoint on improvisation
and one hour of literature.
first castrati were reported in Spain around
1550 and their presence in the Rome Sistine Chapel Choir
was reported to have started around 1565. The Spanish
falsettisti ruled the Sistine Chapel. The falsettisti's
voices were more agile and had a richer sound. It has
been debated that some of the Spanish falsettisti were
castrati. The change from falsettisti to castrati came
about because the castrato's voice sounded more natural.
earliest castrati known were Jacomo Spagnoletti (probably
a Spaniard) and Martino, both of whom were admitted to
the Sistine Chapel Choir in 1588. Other two good castrati
were mentioned in the archives of 1599, the Italians
Pietro Folignani and Girolamo Rosini. By 1640, castrati
were used throughout Italy despite
much theological debate, the music need of the church
always prevailing over anti-mutilation surgery. They
were formally banned from the papal chapel by Pius X
of castration, castrati tended to be fat, volatile and
impossible to get along with (Handel was known to have
shouting matches with his castrato Senesino and he certainly
did not get on with Farinelli). Sometimes, they were
charming not only for their beautiful voices but also
for their mannerisms. Farinelli soothed the King of Spain
with the same songs every night for years!
the stage, the castrati were superstars. Some of them
had a range of four octaves, up to 'a' or even 'c' above
'high c''' in full voice. In fact, castrati were pioneering
singers in promoting belcanto and those with the finest
voices became operatic idols. Composers were bending
backwards to please them so that they would kindly sing
their works. Castrati were always showing vocal acrobatics
and forever changing melody lines. Indeed, just because
the notes were written, would they be sung like that
on the stage? No! They would be sung as it suited the
were often punished for being egocentric, vain, stupid
and greedy; certainly some of them were. However, several
of them, Farinelli, Senesino and Caffarelli, amassed
large fortunes and surely were not stupid. Nicolino,
who sang Rinaldo in Handel's opera, was an extremely
intelligent actor, who won praise even from prejudiced
composers and became a composer himself. Theatres were
always filled with die-hard supporters.
the second half of the 18th century, composers, such as Mozart
and Gluck, ended up using new singers and heroes: tenors instead
The composers started to rule the stage and spelled the end
of castrati. Despite all this, Mozart turned to a castrato
teacher, Giovanni Manzuoli, when he was studying in London
things are known about castrati. For example, they were not
allowed to marry in church and sing in Lutheran churches.
In France ,
Italian singers and castrati were not welcomed because of
their excessive ornamentation and decadent life style. In
the 17th and 18th century Italy
, castrati were considered
to be natural sopranos, whereas falsettisti, which would still
possess all tokens of masculinity, were considered to have
artificial voices. They were so treasured that, in 1625, all
sopranos in the choir of the Sistine Chapel were castrati.
In Bach's time, there was already heavy competition between
the clerical courts of Venice
, so that the local
opera theatres were ordered to engage the best castrati.
were paid at least double the wages of top tenors and
basses. Good female sopranos sometimes succeeded in performing
in masses and operas, disguised as castrati. The castrati
also travelled abroad and soon got famous all over Europe
, including Vienna , Munich , Dresden and Berlin , etc.
They usually sang in Italian operas and grew immensely
popular in Handel's London. He composed the aria Ombra
mai fu for the famous castrato Guadagni, who created
the role of Xerxes. Handel admired him greatly. He composed
the famous aria from his 'Foundling Hospital Anthem'
for Guadagni and re-worked an aria from the 'Messiah'.
are some additional interesting facts about castrati.
one goes through almost all the current literature (which
I did years ago before castrati were hijacked by gays.
Castrati are as far away from being gays as ordinary
young singers studying at the conservatory) one will
discover that the castrato voice did not reach 'above
G5'. Ornamentations used in their singing might go higher
but nothing may be found as proof of extremely high notes.
the peak of time, there were 4000 boys between the age
of 7 and 9 castrated per year.
young castrati would be dressed as cherubs to accompany
castrati came from poor families - except for Farinelli,
whose father was the Governor of Maratea and Cisternino.
would have one day a week solely allocated to improvisation.
Senesino was paid 3000 guineas for a season in London .
Castrato Siface was murdered by the Marchese Marsili's
countertenors/falsettisti were replaced by castrati in
the Sistine Chapel Choir, since they could sing higher
loathed their parents and families for allowing the surgical
intervention. Domenico Mustafa's family told him that,
when he was a child, his testicles were eaten by a pig
and he always swore he would kill his father for lying.
Loreto Vittori, according to books written about him
in the past centuries, told his father, who asked him
for money, that all he owned his family was an empty
last castrato to perform in opera was in 1825 London .
He was castrato Giovanni Battista Vellutti, who performed
in Il Crociato by Meyerbeer (He died of old age in 1861
- a relic of the past that could not be resurrected).
The last castrato to appear on stage in England was
Pergetti in 1844.
survived a while longer on the continent, at catholic
electorates, kingdoms of Germany and
at the Vatican ,
until 1922. Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato, died
in Rome ,
witness of a world long gone.
a few anecdotes about various castrati:
said that he met a singer, a girl, who claimed to be
a castrato (otherwise, she would not be allowed to sing
on the stage). The idea was Salimbeni's, who suggested
that she passed herself for a castrato and advised her
on how to simulate it, physically. The girl, according
to castrato Salimbeni, did exist (her name was Angiola
Caroli, a soprano) and he was very fond of her. Actually,
he was her teacher.
English painter and miniaturist Cosway, who painted the
castrato Marchesi, nearly lost his wife to the singer.
She chased him for a time all over Europe and was in
love with him.
The audio file
Maria (Bach-Gounod) sung by castrato Alessandro Moreschi c.1908
Notes (ed.) –
combination of two or more independent melodies into a
single harmonic texture in which each retains its linear
solfeggi are oral exercises in reading and pronouncing
music notes from texts and respecting their duration, countertenors
are tenors with an unusually high vocal range, falsettisti
are male singers who sing in falsetto and perform soprano
parts, belcanto is an ornamental style of singing, typical
of Italian melodrama up to early 1800.
<< back to archive