In 1984, The New York Times reported on the release of a set of recordings which by any standards were historic. Away from MTV, stadium rock tours, 12″ remixes and Band Aid, seventeen tracks made their way into the public realm, having previously existed scattered across classical collections of choral music, stamped on brittle shellac and, most pertinently, housed within the Vatican’s archives. They comprised two days’ worth of recordings from 1902 and a further set from 1904 by Alessandro Moreschi – the world’s last castrato singer.
It is difficult now to comprehend how commonplace castrati singers were in music prior to the 20th century. Whether it be opera, church recitals or performances across the great courts of Europe and beyond, castrati singers became a staple of music in Europe in the 16th century, though their use goes back centuries earlier, to the early Byzantine Empire of the 4th century. For many years their existence was shadowy – labelled vaguely as soprano maschio (male soprano) or falsettists, it wasn’t until 1599 that the Sistine Chapel choir named them castrati, though it is likely they had been performing for at least fifty years prior to this – indeed, Pope Sixtus V passed a papal bull in 1589 ordering that the young boys and falsetto singers of the choir of St Peter’s in Rome be replaced by castratos.
At this point, it would be helpful to clarify exactly what a castrato was. Castrati were male classical singers with voices that were the equivalent of the female soprano, mezzo-soprano or contralto, but which carried much greater power. Their roles had previously been taken by young boys (who carried the risk of their voices breaking mid-warble and at best a limited number of years they could perform) or men who could sing falsetto (an unreliable technique, especially given every performance was ‘live’, naturally). As the name suggests, these vocal qualities in men were achieved through castration, which had to take place before puberty to prevent normal development. On very rare occasions, singers who never reached sexual maturity for medical reasons would also be trained. Eunuch singers also existed (often surgically altered after puberty), though they were more often used as guardians of harems in the Middle East.
The procedure was performed at secret locations by persons unknown. What is known are some of the methods, all of which are barbaric beyond imagination. Boys, generally aged between seven and nine were drugged with opium (or strangled until they passed out) and plunged into ice baths, and the vas deferens severed, akin to a vasectomy…or had their testicles crushed by the bare hands of their assailant. Others had their testicles removed entirely, though this was less favoured. The operation obviously, was laden with risks and countless boys died from strangulation, infection and poisoning.
Those who did survive all suffered in agony for weeks before their second trial came – up to ten years of brutal training, at least twelve hours per day of scales, trills, musical theory, and harpsichord recitals until their voices were almost supernatural in their quality. The purity of their sound and their ability to remain static, their facial muscles barely moving, was otherworldly. At the height of popularity, an estimated 4000 boys a year suffered this fate.
The surgery both impaired the development of the larynx so that the pre-pubescent vocal range was retained and altered the way in which the subject’s bones developed, which resulted often in unusually long limbs and, more significantly, very long ribs, allowing the castrato’s lungs to develop superhuman capacities. They often grew up to have feminine characteristics, such as smooth, hairless bodies, breasts, and an infantile penis. Puberty usually extends a male’s vocal cords by 67%, deepening the voice, whilst castration kept the tone but hugely extended the power. Parents would often try to explain their offspring’s conditions by claiming they’d been in accidents (mauled by a wild boar being one slightly overly-imaginative excuse) though some children, bafflingly, actually begged their parents for the operation.
With the pain came rewards, though it wouldn’t take much of an argument to suggest they were not commensurate. To be a star castrato in opera meant immense fame, wealth and all the trappings that went with it. Francesco Bernardi (1686-1758) – or Senesino as he become known, went on to appear in many of Handel’s works, including the operas Giulio Cesare’ and ‘Rodelinda’, also attracting the pen of Jonathan Swift who satirised his scandalous affairs. Gaspare Pacchierotti (1740 – 1821) was one of the most famous singers of the 18th century, performing roles by Salieri and Haydn. Most famous of all was Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi (1705-1782), known as Farinelli. A review of 1726 records:
“Farinelli had a penetrating, full, rich, bright and well-modulated soprano voice, with a range at that time from the A below middle C to the D two octaves above middle C…
“His intonation was pure, his trill beautiful, his breath control extraordinary and his throat very agile, so that he performed the widest intervals quickly and the greatest ease and certainty.”
Regarded as one of the world’s greatest musicians, the three-octave marvel performed for royalty across Europe, enchanted composers such as Handel and allegedly caused rival singers to faint with despondency.
By the end of the 18th century, castrati were beginning to fall out of favour. The likes of Verdi and Wagner had no interest in using them and the French had already begun expressing their revulsion publically. Society had always viewed castrati with an element of suspicion, even at the height of their popularity. Their physical appearance and voices were ridiculed, and they were accused of luring straight men into the dark world of homosexuality, their genders being open to debate. The last role to be written for a castrato was by a German, Giacomo Meyebeer’s opera ‘Il Crociato in Egitto‘ (The Crusader in Egypt) and the part of Armando. Giovanni Battista Velluti, or ‘Giambattista‘, was the star, causing a stir when he appeared on the stage in London. It was said that he was castrated in an attempt to cure a cough as a youth. The unification of Italy in 1861 sounded the death knell for the practice of castrating boys for public entertainment, and in 1878, Pope Pius XIII banned the church from hiring new castrati. Which you’d think marked the end of the story…
The exception to the rule was the Vatican. The Sistine Chapel choir and a handful of Papal basilicas in Rome continued to employ castrati singers, though photographic evidence shows only six remained in 1898. These six soon became one – the last castrato singer being Alessandro Moreschi, born on 11th November 1858 in a small town to the southeast of Rome.
There are conflicting stories as to his castration – one suggesting it was due to an (at the time) accepted operation to cure a hernia; the other, rather more likely, being that he was operated on at around twelve years of age due to his singing talents (at the very cusp of an age when he voice could be sustained and certainly one of the last to undergo the operation). His rise through training was swift and by the age of fifteen, he was already primo soprano in the choir of the Papal Basilica of St. John Lateran, the oldest in the Western world. Becoming known in musical circles as l’Angelo di Roma, he became primo soprano at the Sistine Chapel in 1883, holding the role for thirty years.
Often coquettish and self-aggrandising in public, he sang at the funeral of King Umberto I of Italy in August 1900, unusual as relations between Italy and the Papacy were at an all-time low at this point. Perhaps sensing that even the Pope couldn’t save tradition on this occasion, in 1902 the Gramophone and Typewriter Company of London (which eventually gave birth to His Master’s Voice) organised the first set of recordings of Moreschi, the only solo recordings of a castrato. Understandably, the recording capabilities of the time were limited, and this is reflected by what we are able to hear.
Pressed onto one-sided shellac, the sounds are familiar yet utterly alien. The crackle of static and fluctuating volume levels only adds to the drama of hearing a voice created by violence and greed and moulded by centuries of strange tradition and ritual. Remember, as you’re listening, that this is a man in his mid-40s. In the 20th century, there existed a man, surgically changed into an adult canary. Expert commentary reveals his voice to be far from its prime, nor indeed likely to compare with the very best of his kind, though it is still extraordinary.
On 22nd November 1903, in the wake of the death of Pope Leo XIII, a papal bull from the newly elected Pope Pius X, declared:
“Whenever … it is desirable to employ the high voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church.“
Though still singing in an unofficial capacity for several more years, Moreschi retired in 1914, his voice no longer approaching anything like even his own relatively mediocre standards. He died on 21st April 1923 and was afforded a large public funeral mass.
You might be lucky and pick up a copy here
…or, if you ask nicely, I can send you the MP3s.
By the way, here, on the same collection of recordings, is the voice of Pope Leo XIII. BORN IN 1810!