Castrati

Farinelli, the famous 18th century castrato

My old blogger friend Arturo has produced a very interesting posting On the castrati, concerning an old practice of castrating pre-pubescent boys so that their voices do not break. They continued to be able to sing with a high soprano voice. The last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, made a recording in 1904. Even with allowances made for the recording of its time, the musical effect is disappointing. He seemed incapable of singing a melisma with a nice legato, one of the first things a singing teacher will teach you, along with proper breathing. Our attention is brought to a programme of scientific research using computer technology into the reconstructed sound of the castrato voice, completely different from female sopranos and pre-pubescent boy trebles.

Officially, the Church excommunicated castrated men but made use of their musical talents in choirs and as soloists. We arrive at a problem of moral theology, that of physical mutilation and rendering a human being incapable of reproduction. Has the Church always been constant and coherent in its application of moral teachings and canonical discipline? I will not attempt to answer that question.

We can be thankful that this practice has disappeared along with that barbaric operation performed by surgeons of the past. Many boys died from infections following the operation.

Sometimes, normal men with (presumably) their “equipment” intact, have voice abnormalities and such differences can be put to great effect. A singing teacher I know here in France, Renald Laban, is a male soprano and has had quite a distinguished career as a soloist. Smoking too many cigarettes and age have taken their toll, and he now continues to teach and sing counter tenor at concerts and other musical productions in our area. With training and practice, it is amazing what we can do with our voices – without any physical “modifications”!

The article is worth reading.

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4 Responses to Castrati

  1. shane says:

    I had to cease watching a few minutes in. I am so squemish about these things! I once fainted in a first aid class. (I also have a deep aversion to blood or body parts …even toes.)

    What barbarism this was.

  2. As an alto myself, I often give my students a bit of a start at the first school choir rehearsal of the year.I have also threatened (all in jest) our best trebles with the bolt-cutters because it is such a joy to hear them sing so beautifully and then to lose it. Yet, the practice of producing these castrati was barabric and it is good that it has stopped even if it has rendered some of those arias originally written for the voice somewhat less than the composer intended.

  3. James Morgan says:

    We had a proto-folk singer here in the USA named John Jacob Niles. I attended a concert of his back in the early ’50s. He told us before he began to sing tht he had an unusually high voice, and he certainly did! There are probably a few recordings of him out there in the ether, and I would surmise that he was a rather high alto.

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