30 October 2009

Castrati, and the curious history of castration

Cybershrink takes a look at the huge price castrati had to pay in order to pleasure audiences around the world.

We may think of the Taliban as a current example of the irrational and cruel application of fundamentalist religious ideas, but back in the 17th and 18th century, the Vatican banned the use of woman singers in church music or on stage, which of course were the main places anyone could hear music sung. They took rather too seriously St. Paul's injunction that women should remain silent in church.

And so arose the unpleasant practice of castrating young boys, usually around the age of eight to 10, so they wouldn't reach puberty and so that their voice would not break. In fact, they ended up with a curious body, tall and with long limbs, fat, and with a larynx very much like that of a woman. Castrati came to play many major roles in the operas and oratorios of their day. Some became superstars of an extent that exceeds Michael Jackson. They were the rock-stars of their time (perhaps, no-rock stars?) and ladies apparently swooned on hearing them sing.

Farinelli, for instance, was an immense star all over Europe, and of course in those days, with no recordings, no radio, no downloads, this was far harder to achieve. Others were Senesino, Velluti, and Caffarelli. They were enormously popular all over the continent and the subject of so much interest and gossip that some even became known as legendary lovers, though they were in fact almost certainly impotent. So it is not only in our time that people with tiny talents of certain sorts could come to be believed by many thousands, to be marvellously endowed!

(The movie: "Tous les matins du monde " (1991) with Gerard Depardieu, told the story of Farinelli, but similarly exaggerated his amatory prowess.)

Big business
Castration became a large and grisly business, particularly in Italy. Boys considered to have a promising voice would be selected, and at its height some 4,000 boys a year were castrated. Though officially this may have been seen as serving God and art, in fact it was commercially motivated, like the Idols competitions, as fame and fortune could be achieved. But of the many thousands who were castrated, only perhaps 100 became successful and with secure careers, and only a handful became superstars.

Poor families would often volunteer at least one of their sons for castration, as this was like a lottery ticket, with a better chance of earning fame and fortune than any other way accessible to them.

Those who did not reach the top might work in smaller church choirs, and apparently many became prostitutes, some reputedly being favourites of some of the priests of the time. The famous composer Joseph Haydn, as a boy chorister, narrowly escaped castration, and obviously served both Art and God far better, intact.

Having a beautiful and rather eerie voice like a boy chorister, but with the power behind it of a fully-grown man's lungs and physique, the voice was large as well as lovely, with an unusual degree of power and control. And it sounded different from a normal man singing falsetto, or a counter-tenor, a normal man able to sing well in a very high voice.

The procedure was gruesome. The child was placed in a very hot bath of water with special herbs and spices, rather like a consommé, and fed a lot of alcohol to reduce the pain and struggles. The testicles were squashed so as to destroy their structure, and then an ugly gadget like a cross between garden shears and a nut-cracker, was used to cut the spermatic cord.

Many obviously died of stress and infection, and naturally there was no guarantee that their voice, even if it didn't deepen, would ever be good enough for them to succeed. The procedure was common from around 1500 to 1820, and officially became illegal only in 1870.

You can still find on the internet, some samples of the eerie sound of Alessandro Moreschi, born in 1858, who became the last castrato to sing in the Sistine Chapel in Rome (in 1921!) , and who lived long enough to become the only one to be captured on record. Not, one supposes, a great specimen, but all we have, and recorded late in life when well past his best.

He was operated on very late in the history of these macabre musicians, when there were few others around, and he lacked the examples and training others before him had enjoyed. Also, he is singing within an obsolete tradition and style that makes even the greatest voices sound odd to us.

Audio samples
Here are some audio samples on YouTube, such as:
where you can hear him sing Ave Maria, and download an mp3 file of this performance.

On a recently-released Decca album called Sacrificium, the current soprano Cecilia Bartoli sings from the repertoire of music written for the castrati, illustrating some of the forgotten music created during this strange episode.

There's another very sad historical story in this connection. In Britain, there was a brilliant scientist, Alan Turing, one of the earliest creators of the computer as we know it, and a great mathematician developing ideas of Artificial Intelligence. During World War II he was a noted cryptographer, working at the great British code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park where his work was crucial to the development of the "Enigma" code-breaking machine, which managed crucially to read many encrypted German military communications.

Time Magazine recently named him as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century, and a BBC poll ranked him 21st among the 100 greatest Britons. The highest award in the computing world is named after him.

But his tragedy was that he happened to be homosexual, which was illegal in those days, and in 1952 faced criminal prosecution for "gross indecency" (the same crime of which Oscar Wilde was convicted, after he had reported to the police a former sexual partner who had burgled his home. He accepted a form of chemical castration by taking female hormones (oestrogen), as a condition of probation, to avoid going to prison. He found the side-effects intolerable, and within two years, aged just 41, tragically committed suicide by cyanide.

Apparently he consumed this in an apple, found beside him, managing to provide his mother with a plausible reason to believe his death to have been accidental, and enacting the death scene from Snow White, one of his favourite legends. The story that the logo of Apple Computers, an apple with a bite out of it, refers to his death, appears to be an urban legend.

In September of this year, 2009, the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, made an official, public apology for the British government's "appalling" actions and the way Turin had been treated, after an online petition gained 30,000 signatures and worldwide recognition. – (Prof M. A. Simpson, October 2009)


More by Cybershrink

2013-02-09 07:27



Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.