Your Book Review: The Castrato
[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked - SA]
Morning of the Mutants
“CASTRATO, a musician, who in his infancy had been deprived of the organs of generation, for the sake of preserving a shrill voice, who sings that part called sophrano. However small the connection may appear between two such different organs, it is a certain fact that the mutilation of the one prevents and hinders in the other that change which is perceptible in mankind, near the advance of manhood, and which, on a sudden, lowers their voices an eighth. There exist in Italy, some inhuman fathers, who sacrificing nature to fortune, give up their children to this operation, for the amusement of voluptuous and cruel persons, who have the barbarity to require the exertion of voice which the unhappy wretches possess.”
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Complete Dictionary of Music (1779)
In the Weird Studies podcast episode which serves as the namesake of this review, University of Indiana Musicologist Phil Ford traces the origin of the modern day mutant archetype back to the castrati, those eunuch singers produced in Italy from the mid-1500s to the mid-1800s. In support of his analysis, Ford cites the numerous similarities between the castrati and what is perhaps the most well-known fictional example of the mutant archetype: the X-men. While X-men are born as mutants, a number of X-men-adjacent superheros are so-called “mutates”, individuals who received their powers through some externally-mediated transformation (e.g. Juggernaut, Spider-man, the Incredible Hulk, Deadpool); similarly, the castrati were not born as mutants but became “mutates” by undergoing castration before puberty. Like the X-men, the castrati spent their childhood sequestered in special academies where they honed their superhuman (singing) powers with rigorous training. The mutant status of both groups made them objects of both fascination and scorn, awe and fear. In a plot twist reminiscent of X-men lore, some castrati managed to rise above their outcast status and obtain great influence as diplomats or more clandestine political operatives (i.e. spies). The X-men comparison (whatever its validity) speaks to the stranger-than-fiction quality of the castrati’s story, a story told by University of Chicago musicologist Martha Feldman in her 2015 book titled simply The Castrato. Feldman jumps around between the different aspects of the history (the biology, the music, the fame, the fortune, etc.) and I will do the same here, but we will begin, as tales of mutants and “mutates” often do, with an origin story.
Imagine you are the patriarch of an Italian peasant family. War, plague, and natural disaster have brought your family to the brink of starvation and forced you to flee from your rural home to the nearest city. Giuseppe , your youngest son (age 8), begins singing in the boy’s choir at the local conservatory, which also doubles as a charitable home run by the Catholic church (you are, of course, a deeply devout Catholic). One day, the head of the conservatory (a powerful and well-respected priest) comes to you with a proposal: allow your son, sweet little Giuseppe, to become castrated in order to preserve his angelic singing voice. Following the castration, he will live full time at the conservatory and undergo years of musical training in order to hone his talents. In return, you will receive a small sum of money and the hope that your son could become one of those famed castrati who sings in royal courts and opera houses all over Europe. Though part of you is repulsed at the very thought, you try to weigh the pros and cons of the proposal as objectively as you can. In truth, Giuseppe’s prospects are incredibly poor and his likelihood of bearing a legitimate son are virtually nil—if he even survives past childhood, he will either become a soldier (not exactly conducive to staying alive and fathering children in those days) or spend his life as an anonymous clergymen in some remote chapel. In the end, your reservations are outweighed by your desperation to improve the lot of your family and you agree to send Giuseppe away for castration.
In broad strokes, this is the typical origin story of a castrati. However in addition to this cold economic logic, there was likely much more going on in the head of the fathers who agreed to their son’s castration. Feldman argues persuasively that Catholic doctrine played a crucial role in the castrati phenomenon by providing a broader conceptual framework through which the practice was understood and justified.
“…I want to claim that the business of having a son castrated is not reducible to a quest for survival or improvement. Always mediating the phenomenon were Catholic religious ideas, often intermixed with rural folk beliefs as well as familial strategies for distributing wealth and functions within a system of primogeniture, none of the strands of which can be disentangled. As John Rosselli insisted, to offer one’s son for castration was to make an offering to God and thus a consecration to the church, which also mediated family relations. Legally the church condemned the practice as being against the order of nature and counter to the obligation to be fruitful and multiply. And yet proscriptions do not map onto the symbolic load castration bore. In some sense castration for singing, as a sacrificial offering to the church, was much like joining the priesthood. Accordingly it was freighted with beliefs and obligatory utterances—the two are hard to distinguish—about giving up procreation and sexuality in order to gain subsistence for one’s family or to improve oneself and one’s loved ones, to find salvation, a place in society, the good graces of the Lord, and the good graces of the Lord’s shepherds, meaning ecclesiastical authorities and royal patrons who ruled by divine right. Carried out in a kind of indirect symbolic imitation of Christ’s passion, such sacrifices were a more than viable alternative in a world where want and famine were rife and were mutilation, whether as physical therapy or punishment, or the harsh consequences of disease, physical labor, or other misfortunes, was commonplace. That virtually all castrati did sing primarily or (more often) exclusively for the church speaks to this issue of castration as sacrifice in the properly Catholic sense. [pg. 7]
That Catholic doctrine also happened to forbid bodily mutilation was only a minor inconvenience; there was, fortunately, a loophole—it was allowed in cases of medical necessity. This led to all kinds of fabricated stories in which an accident damaged the genitalia and castration was deemed necessary in order to save the boy’s life. The stories usually centered around animals—falls from horses, attacks by wild boar, or, hilariously, bites on the junk by wild swans (“Swans, we should remember, where renowned in mythic and lyric traditions for singing while dying”)—and also frequently involved perilous male activities such as horseback riding or hunting in order to allow the castrato to save face and maintain something of a masculine reputation.
These animal-centric fabrications point to an important piece of cultural context through which the castrati were understood in their time. Italy was very rural in the 16th century when the practice originated and many Italians had firsthand or second-hand experience with the castration of bulls or chickens (the castration of chickens, known as caponization, was commonly done in order to improve the taste of their flesh). This connection between the castrati and the animal world is further illustrated in one of the most striking (and humorous) passages in the book, an anecdote from the autobiography of Filippo Balatri. First, it’s worth providing some context on Balatri himself as his life’s story is instructive of the role that many castrati came to play in royal society. Feldman writes:
“He was sent from Italy to Moscow at about the age seventeen (in 1698), but only after extensive negotiations that took place at the court of Tuscany. As Balatri tells it, the Grand Duke Cosimo III wanted to satisfy the czar so he looked to Filippo’s father for the boy’s release. The father resisted at first, but the czar’s agent—a cousin of Peter the Great from the Golitsyn family—persisted and then succeeded on the condition that Filippo be treated “as a son.” In the end it was not really the father who released and sent him abroad, of course, but the grand duke, nor was there any difficulty breaking a three-year contract the father had recently signed with a local singing master at whose home Balatri was living in Florence.” [pg. 63]
Once in Russia, he sang daily for Peter the Great and other nobles, and gave singing lessons to the Czar’s mistress Anna Mons, with whom he secretly fell in love (more on the salacious love lives of the castrati later on). In his autobiography, "Frutti del Mondo”, Balatri tells of an encounter with a great Tartar Khan, who he astounded with his voice while visiting as a part of the Russian embassy. The Khan was so enthralled by his vocal virtuosity that he demanded to know what sex he was and where he could get one of his own (lol). Balatri writes:
“He started by asking me whether I was male or female, and where from; whether such people are born (or rain down) with a voice and ability to sing. I was all confused about how to answer. If “male”, I’m practically lying, if “female”, still less do I say what I am, and if “neuter”, I would blush. But, screwing up my courage, I finally answer that I’m a man, a tuscan, and that cocks are found in my region who lay eggs, from which sopranos come into the world; that these cocks are called norcini 2], who on brooding for many days among our people; and that once the capon is made, the eggs are festooned with flattery, caresses, and money” [pg. 18]
“Mutilation had him turned into a monster, but all the qualities that embellished him made him an angel.”
— Casanova, writing of the castrato Salimbeni
Balatri’s self-mocking origin story illustrates an important aspect of the castrati phenomenon, one that constitutes a core theme of the book. Feldman argues that the castrati are best understood as liminal beings, so-called “creatures of the threshold”, somewhere between human and animal, man and woman, angel and monster, and myth and reality. This liminality manifested as a set of deeply contradictory attitudes in the culture of the day; "They were poised between adulation and fear, approval and censure, ridiculed as often as acclaimed, and not unrelatedly were sanctioned by the church, which was dependent on but embarrassed by them” (pg. 9). Roger Pickering typifies this ambivalence and the man-animal-divinity liminality of the castrato in a passage in Reflections upon theatrical expression in tragedy (1755) that discusses Farinelli (1705-1782), an operatic superstar who was widely regarded as the greatest of the castrati.
Farinelli drew every Body to the Haymarket. What a Pipe! What Modulation! What Extasy to the Ear! But, Heavens! What Clumsiness! What Stupidity! What Offence to the Eye! Reader, if of the City, thou mayest probably have seen in the Fields of Islington or Mile-End or, If thou art in the environs of St James', thou must have observed in the Park with what Ease and Agility a cow, heavy with calf, has rose up at the command of the Milk-woman's foot: thus from the mossy bank sprang the DIVINE FARINELLI.
It’s worth lingering further on the singular figure of Farinelli (birth name Carlo Broschi) as he provides perhaps the best exemplar of the castrati’s liminality. As the above passage suggests, no one straddled the line between humanity and divinity better than Farinelli; by all accounts, his voice was so angelic that it basically just melted people’s brains. Here’s a few of the more sensational stories (courtesy of wikipedia unless otherwise noted):
Farinelli was originally called to Spain by the doctor of King Philip V in hopes that his singing could ease the King’s melancholia. “According to lore, it was arranged that Farinelli should sing in a room adjacent to the royal apartments. By the time he had finished the second song, the king appeared much moved by the beauty of his voice and ordered the singer brought before him. Philip overwhelmed Farinelli with compliments and agreed to pay him a salary for life. Farinelli would sing eight or nine arias for the king and queen every night, usually with a trio of musicians.” (“Music to soothe the Mad King”)
Writing of an opera that Farinelli performed with another castrato, Sensino, 17th century music historian Charles Burney reports: "Senesino had the part of a furious tyrant, and Farinelli that of an unfortunate hero in chains; but in the course of the first air, the captive so softened the obdurate heart of the tyrant, that Senesino, forgetting his stage-character, ran to Farinelli and embraced him in his own…The first note he sung was taken with such delicacy, swelled by minute degrees to such an amazing volume, and afterwards diminished in the same manner to a mere point, that it was applauded for a full five minutes. After this he set off with such brilliancy and rapidity of execution, that it was difficult for the violins of those days to keep pace with him."
"The librettist Paolo Rolli, a close friend and supporter of Senesino, commented: "Farinelli has surprised me so much that I feel as though I had hitherto heard only a small part of the human voice, and now have heard it all. He has besides, the most amiable and polite manners..." Some fans were more unrestrained: one titled lady was so carried away that, from a theatre box, she famously exclaimed: "One God, one Farinelli!"
“Loaded with riches and honors, he was so famous and so formidable as a performer that his rival and friend, the castrato Gioacchino Conti ("Gizziello") is said to have fainted away from sheer despondency on hearing him sing.”
It was not uncommon for castrato to display their vocal prowess in contests against other singers or musicians (I imagine it like the 17th century version of a rap battle; more later on the castrato-rapper comparison). Famously, Farinelli once got into such a contest with a trumpet player and so surpassed him in technique and volume that “he was at last silenced only by the acclamations of the audience". He wasn’t undefeated however, “Farinelli sang at Bologna in 1727, where he met the famous castrato Antonio Bernacchi, twenty years his senior. In a duet in Orlandini's Antigona, Farinelli showed off all the beauties of his voice and refinements of his style, executing a number of passages of great virtuosity, which were rewarded with tumultuous applause. Undaunted, Bernacchi repeated every trill, roulade, and cadenza of his young rival, but performing all of them even more exquisitely, and adding variations of his own. Farinelli, admitting defeat, entreated Bernacchi to give him instruction in grazie sopraffine ("ultra-refined graces"); Bernacchi agreed.”
Farinelli also provides perhaps the finest example of another important sense in which the castrati were uniquely liminal figures. As much as anyone else alive in their era, they existed with one foot in the old world—feudal, monarchical, religious—and the other in modernity—secular, dynamic, economic.
“Farinelli was part and parcel of a new bourgeois order. He had made his fame singing in large commercial theaters attended by thronging publics that included members of the haute bourgeoisie and nobility, servants, dignitaries, middle-class doctors, lawyers, teachers, merchants, military men, and sometimes royals. He had negotiated with agents over contracts. He had also purchased numerous things for himself, including practical items, musical instruments, real estate, horses, and luxury objects, and had been given many luxurious things and lots of cash…Fifteen years later, when the king of Spain made him a knight of the exalted ancient military order of Calatrava, the" crowning" was not just musical or metaphorical. By then Farinelli had already been carrying out extensive state duties in his high-powered role as minister of entertainments and had been a household intimate of two successive pairs of Spanish royal heads of state. He had consorted with numerous crown heads of Europe along the way. To commemorate all that, Corrado Giaquinto pictured him in 1755 majestically attired, wearing the cross of Calatrava with the royals of Spain hovering in the background among the angels—almost as if to declare the castrato de facto king.” [pg. 9]
Still, no matter how high their status or how divine their voice, Farinelli and his peers could not shake the perception that they were less than human (and certainly less than a man).
“That outlaw of nature is neither man nor woman but something between the human species and brute creation, like a monkey” [pg. 183]
— Anonymous, The Remarkable Trial of the Queen of Quavers
The perception of non-humanness was aided by the fact that the castrato were often strikingly abnormal in their appearance. Pickering’s aforementioned comparison of Farinelli to a pregnant cow was not random—many castrato did in fact have a “large, fatty, somewhat ill-formed body” as (of all people) the Marquis de Sade put it in one of his writings. The unique anatomy of the castrato was both their greatest blessing and their greatest curse; understanding this double-edged biological sword is key to understanding the story of the castrato and that is where we now turn.
Technically speaking, the operation was a bilateral orchiectomy. There was a great deal of secrecy around the actual operation so it’s hard to draw precise conclusions about how the operation was done, but evidence suggests that various methods were used—crushing of the testicles with fingers or instruments, severing of the spermatic cords (leading to testicular atrophy), or excision of the testicles and resectioning of the scrotal sack (likely the most common method). There was, of course, nothing like modern anesthesia; before the surgery began boys were given opium or had their carotid arteries compressed to induce a coma-like state.
“The boy was placed in a warm bath to make him more tractable. Some small time after they pressed the Jugular Veins which made the Party so stupid and insensible that he fell into a kind of Apoplexy and then the action was performed with scarce any Pain at all to the patient. Sometimes they used to give a certain quantity of opium to persons designed for Castration whom they cut while they were in their dead Sleep and took from them those Parts which Nature took so great a care to form; but it was observed that most who had been cut after this manner died by this Narcotick.”
— Anonymous, “Eunuchism Display'd” (1718)
I can’t find a primary source, but the figure that is floating around the internet puts the survival rate for the surgery for 80% (here is one article that quotes the figure). The operation was typically conducted on boys aged 8-12 as the goal was to preserve the larynx in a pre-pubescent state. One source says that 4,000 boys were castrated at the height of the craze in the 1720-30s, but many historians suggest that this number was an overestimate and that at most only a few hundred castrati were alive at any one time. Given that the phenomenon existed for nearly 300 years from ~1550-1850, it’s safe to say that thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of boys were castrated in total.
The direct consequence of the surgery was a total loss of testosterone production. The most immediate effect of this loss for the nascent castrato was the preservation of child-like vocal chords into adulthood; under the influence of testicular secretion, the vocal cords increase in length by 67% in males and 24% in females (Jenkins, 2000). In addition to lengthening, testosterone production also thickens and strengthens the vocal cords, thereby reducing their flexibility. The castrato missed out on all of these changes and thus was able to maintain into adulthood a larynx of smaller size and greater suppleness than even a female soprano.
Modification of the vocal cords is not the only way in which prepubescent castration acts to create a novel acoustical and morphological phenotype. I’ll let a medical doctor tell it; from “The castrati: a physician’s perspective, part 2”:
Descriptions of the castrati from the 18th century mention the salient clinical features associated with hypogonadism. Tallness of stature, unusual at the time, and an increase in size of the chest were features frequently mentioned and satirized in drawings (see below). Both these phenomena resulted from the delayed closure of the epiphyseal growth centers located at the ends of the long bones of the extremities and ribs. The growth centers are cartilaginous plates that normally ossify as they close resulting in the cessation of growth. Testosterone in tissue surrounding the growth plates is converted by the enzyme aromatase to estrogenic steroids that actually bring about the closure of the epiphyseal plate.
In the castrati, the absence of testosterone available for conversion to estrogenic steroids allowed for continued formation of bone at the epiphyseal plate and lengthening of the ribs and the extremities. Normal male secondary sex characteristics failed to appear and there was an absence of hair on the extremities, a lack of facial hair growth, and an absence of a receding hairline and baldness. Their skin was smooth and pale; the pallor might have resulted from a lower hemoglobin level than would have been present in a normal male, secondary to decreased levels of testosterone. There was a tendency toward obesity, rounding of the hips and narrowness of the shoulders, curvature of the spine and gynecomastia. The curvature of the spine was indicative of osteoporosis. As a group, the castrati, because they were deficient in testosterone, would have been at increased risk for this condition. Gynecomastia, or abnormal breast development in a male, occurs in the syndrome of hypogonadism as a result of a relative deficiency of androgen secretion and resulting increases in pituitary hormones, lutenizing hormone (LH), and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). The excess of these pituitary hormones in a castrated male, or an individual with hypogonadism, leads to an excess in estradiol and an alteration of the estradiol/testosterone ratio, resulting in gynecomastia.
What’s not mentioned here is that the disruption of epiphyseal plate closure also frequently caused an irregular extension of the jaws and facial bones. Taken together, these changes (an increase in stature, size of chest, and jaw) created an abnormally large resonating chamber, thus giving the castrato greater vocal power than even an uncastrated man. These changes in bone structure didn’t come without a cost however—osteoporosis was common in old age.
Okay, picture time:
In addition to these physical “gifts”, castrato’s honed their talents with legendarily rigorous training regimens. Finding the best and most esteemed instruction following the castration was crucial; troves of letters exist in which parents wheel and deal in order to find placement for their boy in a private instructor’s home or a cathedral’s conservatory. Placement in a teacher’s home was equivalent to legal adoption, as the young eunuch would typically take on their teacher’s surname and receive full-time training and room and board; in return, the teachers would receive any earnings brought in by the young castrato and sometimes part of their earnings as adults. Those castrati who were placed in conservatories lived essentially as musical monks, spending all of their time in religious worship, training, or performance.
One account from 1695 describes the strict practice schedule at the house of the seventeenth-century composer and teacher Virgilio Mazzochi (1597-1643):
Three hours of morning classes, counting one hour to practice singing, including divisions; one hour of literary study; one hour of vocal exercise with the maestro before a mirror (so as to avoid unnecessary movement of the body or facial grimaces)—all that prior to the midday meal. Then half an hour of theory, ditto for counterpoint, and another hour of literary study, followed by practice on a keyboard or other instrument and composition of psalms or motets. [pg. 59]
Nicola Porpora (1686-1768), teacher of the aforementioned Farinelli and another highly celebrated castrato known as Caffarelli, was also famed for his daunting disciplinary routines. Caffarelli claimed that Porpora “constrained his student to a single page of exercises covering a gamut of different vocal challenges for no less than five years before letting them branch out” and that when he was done with his training, Porpora declared, "Go, my son: I have no more to teach you. You are the greatest singer in Europe" (and he was probably right). Caffarelli’s anecdote may be embellished, but there are corroborating accounts which suggest that castrato often spent several years practicing vocal exercises in order to develop flawless technique.
One of the cardinal rules of the instruction of castrati is that for several years the pupil was not permitted to sing any music with a text. The teachers did not want him to be distracted by emotions from his primary task of faultless singing… Obviously the castrato was considered a sort of virtuoso instrumentalist of the larynx, rather than a singer in the sense we understand the term; he was an infallible singing machine… [pg. 128]
Now for the million dollar question(s): what exactly did these infallible singing machines sound like? What unique vocal feats were they capable of? Feldman begins her analysis (which takes up nearly half the book) by considering the scant sonic evidence that does exist—a few recordings of the last known castrato, Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), made from 1902-1904. “Ave Maria” is the most well known song from the recordings (but you can find others on youtube).
There is certainly something unusual and haunting about the voice (at least to my ears), but I imagine that some of you might be thinking, “Wait, that’s it? That’s what all the fuss was about?” A few important caveats about the recordings and Moreschi himself are in order.
1. Moreschi was in his mid-40s when these recordings were made, certainly past his singing prime.
2. Moreschi was never seen as a particularly special singing talent. Even still, here’s what Viennese musicologist Franz Haböck wrote after hearing a young Moreschi (the first and only time that he ever heard a castrati it should be noted):
“Moreschi’s voice can only be compared with the clarity and purity of crystal. The absolute evenness and coloring (i.e., timbral unity) of his sound, which was singularly powerful, bright, transparent, and yet different than both a woman’s vocal sound and also a boy’s. The complete effortlessness with which one almost physically empathizes with him aroused in me an overwhelming impression of the most extraordinary wind instrument ever given life by human breath.” [pg. 107]
3. From Moreschi’s wikipedia page: “…much of the "difficulty" in listening to Moreschi's recordings stems from changes in taste and singing style between his time and ours. His vocal technique can certainly seem to grate upon modern ears, but many of the seemingly imperfect vocal attacks, for example, are in fact grace notes, launched from as much as a tenth below the note – in Moreschi's case, this seems to have been a long-standing means of drawing on the particular acoustics of the Sistine Chapel itself. The dated aesthetic of Moreschi's singing, involving extreme passion and a perpetual type of sob, often sounds bizarre to the modern listener, and can be misinterpreted as technical weakness or symptomatic of an aging voice.”
4. Obviously the recording technology was very primitive, but it was especially poorly suited to capturing classically trained male singers as it possessed a low frequency ceiling that “eliminated many or all of the upper partials, which are especially important in male voices, castrato or non.”
5. A youtube comment from user emme piemme on the song “Crucifixus”: “Moreschi is said to have been highly uncomfortable during these recordings. He was not aware of what must have appeared to him as a science fiction technology, and he had to try and sing with his head practically stuck in a sound-picking funnel, this strongly altered his proprioceptive listening and that of the instrumental accompaniment.”
6. “All this is to say nothing of how modern-day transfers affect study of old recordings, sometimes introducing extraneous noise and removing frequencies as engineers attempt to filter nonmusical surface sounds from old and usually deteriorated originals.” [page 82]
Caveats aside, Feldman believes that we can still learn something about the unique nature of the castrato voice by comparing these recordings to four contemporaneous recordings of male and female vocalists singing the same songs and by analyzing ear-witness accounts from musical historians and teachers of castrato. This comparison begins a long section of hardcore musicology in which Feldman says all kinds of crazy things like:
A corollary of the faster vibrations and greater purity of a female soprano's head voice is that it normally produces audible harmonic overtones only up to about 2,000 hertz, as compared with the overtones of chest voice, which can reach 4,000 hertz and higher in a particularly rich timbral spectrum. Female singers enrich and darken sound by blending to varying degrees chest into head, which naturally inclines toward a sine-tone purity because the vowels in head voice have a strong fundamental. Most voice specialists say that female sopranos lack the so-called "singer's formant:' a resonance in the 2,500-4,000 hertz region that allows a voice to project over an orchestra (often described as "ring"), clustering in the third, fourth, and fifth formants. Swedish voice specialist Johan Sundberg is definitive about the absence of the singer's formant in women. In recent years he joined an international group that raised the provocative question of that formant in a castrato, noting that all reports of their penetrating quality, combined with their man- (or indeed superman-) sized vocal tract, would point to its existence. If they are right, then we have an irreducible acoustic difference between castrati and all other singers: a singer's formant in the prevalent pitch area of f'/g' through c" to e" achieved without "pushing" the voice.
I love this; it brings me great joy to know that we, us humans—us savages, have become so fucking civilized that we have international groups of experts that can raise provocative questions about such arcane subjects. Later on, Feldman writes:
By contrast, if all or most castrati retained the boy's chest on achieving adulthood, including those whose chests were of normal size, relatively large chest-to-larynx size ratio, which mitigated the need to push the chest voice even for those without an enlarged thorax. Add to this that requires less airflow than head and that castrati were trained with an intensity beyond anything imaginable nowadays and you have an extraordinary set of vocal conditions, with highly fast, efficient glottal cycles plus the potential for great breath control, power, accuracy, and often flexibility. The closest physiological cousins today at the upper vocal crust of all populations, past and present, would be muscular but flexible tenors, plus mezzos and dramatic sopranos.
If you are a classically trained singer I imagine these passages would make sense to you, but alas I am not a classically trained singer (though I may moonlight as one in the shower) and they didn’t. This review will be much too long already without extended discussion of the musicology so we will turn now to other matters, but first a brief comment on the wider significance of the castrati to musical history. Feldman is emphatic:
“By the late seventeenth century the distinct musical legacy they left had an importance that is hard to overestimate. It is no exaggeration to say that the entire classical foundation of virtuosic solo singing in the West, sacred and secular, in the early nineteenth-century singing associated nowadays with the trio of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, owes its existence to the musical traditions and practices of the castrati” [preface xii]
For a period of about two centuries, writing music for castrati was a top goal for composers, a goal that was achieved by a veritable “who’s who” list of musical greats such as Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Haydn. In addition to their singing, castrati frequently also doubled as professional composers, impresarios, and teachers. We might point to people like Dr. Dre and Jay-Z as modern analogues of the more prominent castrati—artists who were highly influential because of their own music, but also because of their personalities, record labels, eyes for talent (e.g. Dr. Dre signing a young Eminem), and business activities. As we will see in the next section, the larger-than-life singer/musician archetype can be traced back to individuals like Farinelli, Caffarelli, Tenducci, Senesino, and many others.
Life and Times
In writing any history, it’s natural to gravitate towards the more sensational stories and characters. Before fully capitulating to this impulse, I must set the record straight: the vast majority of castrato were decidely not singing to sold-out opera houses and hobnobbing with kings and queens. The real history of the castrati, not the tabloid version I’m providing in this review, is much less interesting and much more depressing. The most common fate was a lonely existence as an anonymous choral singer in some small chapel in rural Italy. Some castrato would have considered themselves lucky to have even that life—less musically inclined eunuchs usually ended up as prostitutes, thieves, or beggars. The vast majority of castrati died as penniless social outcasts, their bodies consigned to mass graves.
Now that my conscious is clear, let’s turn to the other end of the spectrum: those rock star castrati like Farinelli who brushed shoulders with the upper crust of society. Feldman spends a lot of time in the book analyzing the connection between the castrati and the aristocracy. In one sense, it’s not very surprising that the rich and powerful wanted to associate with famous musicians—it’s the same thing we see today. It went far beyond that however; in many cases castrati took on a unique symbolic role in serving as a charismatic proxy of royal power. To understand how and why this was so, we should note something that’s only been mentioned in passing: the greatest castrati rose to fame because of their performances in operas, and were thus not just singers but also actors who commonly portrayed kings, princes, and military heroes in their starring roles. Furthermore, all of this was happening at a time (the 18th century) when the monarchical order was starting to come under suspicion and a new insecurity was gripping rulers across Europe. Against this backdrop, we can see why royals gravitated towards the castrati—the fame and adulation that they garnered for their portrayals of heroic kings was something that was increasingly elusive for actual not-so-heroic kings. As they did for the Catholic church, castrati served as a kind of aesthetic-emotional technology, one that made royal power “immediate, intimate, empathetic, charming, and palpable”.
Farinelli’s aforementioned entanglement with the Spanish court was exceptional, but many castrato received royal patronage and formed significant relationships with aristocrats. Negotiating the intricacies of courtly life took a deft social hand; naturally, Farinelli was “the reigning expert at modulating the rhythms of these movements.”
“In 1732 he got an audience with the emperor and told him, all atremble, that it was the most fortunate moment in his life. After Farinelli sang magnificently, “as god wished”, the emperor exclaimed in Neapolitan, “Voi siete Napoliello” (You’re a Neapolitan), and Farinelli made him laugh with a riposte that echoed the emperor’s facility with dialect by declaring in napoletano, “I am indeed one of those true pasta-eaters.” When they met again and the emperor asked him about a rumor that he’d lost money to a bad creditor, again Farinelli broke up the room by answering that since he had earned the money with his trills, he had reason to hope they would bring him more in the future.”
The also aforementioned Caffarelli, perhaps second only to Farinelli in fame, was not quite as willing to play the game it seems.
“A story that reportedly still circulated in Paris a hundred years after Caffarelli had left there in 1753, or was cobbled together by its author Castril-Blaze to describe his Parisian reputation, told how the singer had been sent a gold snuff box from Louis XV, delivered via a distinguished courtier—presumably as a reciprocation for having sung at court or inducement to return the favor by doing so. As legend had it, Caffarelli rebuffed the gesture, showing the courtier his stash of thirty other gold snuff boxes, all fancier than what he had just been offered. And worse, when the courtier protested that his king customarily gave precisely such boxes to no less than foreign ambassadors, Caffarelli reportedly answered, “Then let the ambassadors sing.”
How sassy! In Caffarelli, notorious for his unpredictability and displays of temperament, we see the origins of the demanding egomaniac diva stereotype.
On stage, he is reputed to have sung his own preferred versions irrespective of what his colleagues were doing, mimicking them while they sang their solos and sometimes conversing with members of the public in their boxes during the same. Offstage his pugnacity and fierce demeanour led to his willingness to fight duels under little provocation. Such behaviour led to spells of house arrest and imprisonment for assault and for misconduct during performances. Most infamously he completely humiliated a prima donna during a performance of Hasse's Antigono in 1745. On the other hand, with Handel, also a famously fiery character, he seems to have been able to coexist on a peaceable basis, perhaps due to the fantastic sums of money the composer paid him for his work. (Wikipedia)
Caffarelli didn’t have the necessary constraint and discretion, but those castrati who did were sometimes tapped to perform diplomatic missions on behalf of their royal patrons.
Tosi and Domenico Cecchi (Il Cortona, ca. 1650-55 to 1717-18) carried out delicate assignments for Joseph I; and De Castris (ca. 1650-1724) in the early eighteenth century played the hopeless role of intermediary between Cosimo, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and his estranged son until the whole thing blew up and led to his exile from Florence to Rome, where he continued to carry out diplomatic missions for the Grand Duke. These positions and actions paled by comparison with Farinelli’s, but Melani’s in the previous century were equally flamboyant, if transitory and sometimes shady (he accepted favors from different princes left and right, and in 1667 he claimed chief responsibility for the election of Cardinal Giulio Rospigliosi as Pope Clement IX). [pg. 170]
As you can see, the castrati were not mere bystanders in the political arena. In fact, some even ended up joining the ranks of the nobility themselves through the granting of knighthood (as mentioned previously, Farinelli was inducted into the exalted ancient military order of Calatrava by the king of Spain) or by purchasing lands that came with a title (Caffarelli, Rivani, and Arnaboldi).
We’ve covered the rock n’ roll (the music) and there were no drugs as far as I can tell (aside from the opium that was sometimes taken during the castration), so that leaves us at last with the sex of the Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll triumvirate. A first myth to dispel is that castration makes one asexual or at least tempers the romantic passions; as we will see momentarily, this was decidedly not the case. Of course the castration did affect the growth and function of the sexual organs, but at least some castrato were able to maintain normal erections (the age at castration seems to be the main variable here, with boys who were 11-12 at the time of the surgery able to maintain some or nearly all functionality later in life). This doesn’t seem to have affected performance in the bedroom however—if anything, it might have enhanced it.
For Europe’s high society women, the obvious benefit of built-in contraception made castrati ideal targets for discreet affairs. Soon popular songs and pamphlets began suggesting that castration actually enhanced a man’s sexual performance, as the lack of sensation ensured extra endurance; stories spread of the castrati as considerate lovers, whose attention was entirely focused on the woman…When the most handsome castrato of all, Farinelli, visited London in 1734, a poem written by an anonymous female admirer derided local men as “Bragging Boasters” whose enthusiasm “expires too fast, While F—–lli stands it to the last.”
English women seemed particularly susceptible to Italian eunuchs. Another castrato, Consolino, made clever use of his delicate, feminine features in London. He would arrive at trysts disguised in a dress then conduct a torrid affair right under the husband’s nose. ( “Why Castrati Made Better Lovers”)
The role of castrati as sex symbols for both men and women has naturally drawn comparisons to the androgynous appeal embodied by musicians such as Prince or Michael Jackson (“Travelers report how coquettish young castrati in Rome would tie their plump bosoms in alluring brassieres and offer “to serve… equally well as a woman or as a man.”, from the castrati as better lovers article). However, sensational tales of castrati’s sexual prowess obscure a much more depressing story, one of unrequited love and romantic obstruction. With one or two exceptions, nearly all attempts to move beyond discreet dalliances to public relationships and marriage were shot down by the parents of the bride and authorities.
Domenico Cecchi, called Il Cortona, reportedly wanted to marry a Barbara Voglia but his petition was flat-out denied by Pope Innocent with much-repeated but apocryphal-sounding Si Castra Meglion (“be castrated better”).
This was a source of great sadness for many castrato. No matter how much applause and adulation (and wealth) they garnered throughout their career, in the end they were still an outsider, a non-man, forbidden from participating in one of life’s central rites.
The lack of familial relations meant that life usually didn’t end on a high note for most singing eunuchs (heh); even the Farinelli’s and Caffarelli’s of the world were often quite lonely and depressed in their old age. The same could be said for the end of the age of the castrati. To make a very long story very short: new social attitudes in the late 18th century brought severe criticism and by the mid-19th century both church and state had prohibited the practice (see Rousseau’s commentary in the epigraph for an example of how Castrati were perceived in 1779). The death of Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1923) marked the end of an era spanning over three centuries.
Before turning from the past to the present and future, a brief word should be said about the wider history of eunuchs. The Castrati were not unique simply because of their eunuch status; what made them unique was the fact that they formed a special caste of individuals who were systematically produced for purely artistic purposes over a period of three centuries. That some of the castrati came to also serve as trusted members of royal courts was actually par for the course. Since the dawn of civilization, eunuchs have served rulers from across the world (notably in the Assyrian, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, and in various Chinese dynasties) in a variety of roles—domestic servants, cuckold-free harem guards, advisors, and spies (there was some historical basis for Varys, the eunuch spymaster from Game of Thrones). Eunuchs were preferred for these roles for obvious reasons: it was presumed that they could be trusted to a greater degree than non-eunuch males and females as they would be less interested in seizing dynastic power (no offspring to which they could pass on their rule) and less power hungry in general (and their lack of family ties meant it was easier to kill or exile them without retribution). History doesn’t offer a clear verdict on whether or not the presumption of greater trustworthiness was warranted, but examples of eunuchs who were decidedly not trustworthy—because they usurped the rulers who employed them—are not hard to find. This was a particularly common theme in Chinese history where eunuchs served emperors, and sometimes became emperors themselves (Liu Jin and Wei Zhongxian), for over 2000 years, from the Qin dynasty (200s BC) up until the abdication of the last Qing emperor in 1912 (Sun Yaoting, the last imperial eunuch, died in 1996).
Lessons and Speculations
I know this is a very rare thing from historians (professionals or complete amateurs like myself) and you’ll probably be shocked to hear this, but I think there are some valuable lessons to be learned from the history of the castrati and eunuchs more generally. I’ll try to keep it brief as I know this review has dragged on long enough, but frankly after all this work I feel I’ve earned the right to share a few of my own thoughts and (wild) speculations.
At some point in the near future, the trends of plastic surgery, nootropics, psychedelic legalization, trans hormone therapy, and bodybuilding will collide, with spectacular results. Doing things to reshape your body and mind is an idea as old as dirt, but with recent advances in technology, and breakdowns in cultural taboos, the practice of what could be called “elective chemistry” is going to take off, probably in the next 10 or 20 years.
— SlimeMoldTimeMold, Predictions for 2050
Barring existential catastrophe (please bar it), it seems likely that sometime this century a new landscape of biological and psychological possibilities will open up before us. Whatever opportunities and challenges may lie ahead in this new age of exploration, I would argue that we should do our best to navigate away from failure modes like “the organized production of a class of transhuman entertainers by means of a dangerous non-consensual procedure that destroys normal biological function and marks these individuals as social outcasts”. The history of the castrati provides a roadmap for how such a phenomenon might arise once more.
First, we should ask if we have already started down this path, if there is some modern practice which bears at least a family resemblance to the systematic creation of eunuch singers. Viewed at at a sufficiently high level, we can discern some defining features of the phenomenon: a background of socioeconomic distress, a severe biological modification (with severe health consequences for some) and a lifetime of rigorous training in order to produce prodigious skill for entertainment purposes, a rise to fame and fortune for a chosen few, patronage by the rich and powerful, with often a sad or unfulfilling end to life. Ring any bells?
To me, this sounds suspiciously like American football (also boxing/MMA, though perhaps to a slightly smaller extent). Socioeconomic distress? Check—extreme poverty and high rates of local violence are not uncommon in the childhoods of many elite football players. Severe biological modification (with severe health consequences for some) and a lifetime of rigorous training? You betcha. For even the freakiest freaks of nature, making it to the NFL requires near constant exercise and practice. In place of hormone modification through castration, football players modify their hormone levels through nutrition, HGH supplementation, and anabolic steroids. All of this to play an incredibly violent game that causes acute damage—broken bones, ligament tears, concussions, paralysis, and even death—and lasting damage to one’s body and brain. Rise to fame and fortune for a chosen few? Out of the approximately one million high school football players in the United States, 6.5% earn a college scholarship and about 0.1% make it to the NFL and less than half of those individuals stay in the league beyond year 4. For every millionaire star athlete, there are countless stories of people whose only “earnings” from their playing career are debilitating injuries and chronic pain. Patronage by the rich and powerful? The people who own NFL teams and pay player salaries are some of the wealthiest people in the world. A sad or unfulfilling end to life? Retirement from the NFL is notoriously difficult for many athletes, not least because of the chronic pain (often leading to opiate or alcohol addiction) or cognitive decline and mood disorders from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Will modern American football eventually join the ranks of barbaric forms of entertainment from bygone eras or will it seem a mild prelude compared to what’s to come? The answer to this question may depend to a large extent on economics. With the castrati, the practice was motivated in large part by truly dire starvation-threatening circumstances (at least in the beginning, once castrati became celebrity figures other motivating factors (i.e. greed) started to play a role). It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which the four horsemen—war, plague, famine, death—return large swaths of the global population to a state of such desperation that they are willing to consider offering up themselves or their children for a transformative high-risk/high-reward procedure of some kind.
Socioeconomic upheaval of this magnitude could pave the way for the return of aristocracy, likely another key factor for the potential development of a castrati-like practice. In this neo-feudalist future, we would once again see large numbers of nobles who are, for all intents and purposes, above the law and public reproach. As in the past, these new kings and queens and dukes and duchesses could use their influence and wealth to sponsor transhuman programs that draw “volunteers” from their peasantry. Whether these programs will initially produce transhumans for entertainment (art, sport) or for labor (servants, guards), it seems likely that the line will eventually become blurred—for example, uber-athletes produced for athletic competition also coming to serve as soldiers (or vice versa). The historical and fictional trope of the court mage (e.g. Mentats in Dune, any number of sorcerers/mystics who have served kings such as Merlin, John Dee, or Rasputin) suggests that rulers may seek out (or create) individuals who have undergone some kind of transformation that gives them unique mental abilities. If these cognitively enhanced individuals offer their rulers a decisive strategic advantage in military or politics, arms race dynamics could ensue and demand for “court mages” could soar.
A return to feudalism may or may not be necessary for the return of some new castrati-like practice, but either way it likely won’t be sufficient. For the castrati, the Catholic church supplied much of the legal, social, and financial resources that developed and sustained the practice, however it also provided the emotional and conceptual resources (e.g. the Catholic notion of sacrifice) through which families and the castrati themselves understood and justified the practice. What new religion or ideology might come to play the same role in the future? Maybe radical new forms of our current -isms (nationalism, racism, sexism, etc.) will provide the requisite physical and psychological resources, or perhaps it will be an almost entirely new ideology, one that is only dimly hinted at in our own times (or maybe it will be Catholicism that once again supports the production of specialized class of transhumans). Here’s a wild speculation: future ecological collapse will propel the rise of militant eco-cults that use elaborate schemes of genetic modification, plastic surgery, and hormone therapy (and whatever else is needed) to create animal-human hybrids (think Thundercats or Stalking Cat) as a part of some master plan to bring about radical environmental restoration (steal this premise). Of course this specific scenario is probably a little far-fetched (or is it?!?), but the general picture—an ideology that currently exists in benign form turning virulent and co-opting powerful biological or psychological modifications for its ends—might not be.
When you get to the part of the book review where you discuss animal-human hybrids, that’s probably a sign you should wrap it up. One final thought: though we cannot know how our transhuman future will unfold, we can be certain that the history of the castrati (and of eunuchs more generally) will only grow in relevance as perhaps the best (the only?) example of extended human-transhuman co-existence. In a strange and hopeful twist of fate, the castrati, so often shunned and ridiculed in life, may in death come back to center stage and be honored as the rock star mutants that they were.
1: One of the funnier aspects of the book is how hilariously Italian the names of all the castrati were. A few examples: Loreto Vittori, Atto Melani, Antonio Bernacchi, Francesco Bernardi ("Senesino"), Valentino Urbani, Giusto Fernando Tenducci, Girolamo Crescentini, Giovanni Battista "Giambattista" Velluti, Venanzio Rauzzini.
2: This is a joke by Balatri as the Italian region of Norcia was known for producing traveling surgeons which commonly carried out the castration operation.
Your Book Review: The Castrato