Friday, June 6, 2008
The Ultimate Sacrifice for Music: Castration!
Forget Van Gogh; he only lost an ear. It was the great catrato Farinelli who made the ultimate sacrifice for art: he gave up his nuts!
Carlo Broschi was a man who really suffered for his music. Known to the world as the great opera singer Farinelli (1705-1782), he was castrated as a young boy to prevent his exquisite singing voice from ever breaking. But before you start feeling too sorry for the songsmith, it’s worth bearing in mind that Farinelli was showered with wealth and adulation throughout his career. And even with a couple of pieces missing from his repertoire, he still managed to make beautiful music with the ladies.
THE UNKINDEST CUT OF ALL
The practice of castrating men (making them into eunuchs) arose around 3,000 years ago. Castration was usually inflicted on slaves who worked in the harem of a king or powerful ruler; the object was to ensure that they could not father children. It involved the removal of the testicles only (!), and a castrated singer like Farinelli, though sterile, was often able to perform in a lady’s boudoir as well as on the stage.
Eventually, the demand for castrated men ran out, except in one area: music. The 17th and 18th centuries were a golden age of eunuchs in classical music. Especially in Italy, where boys became castrati, or "the castrated ones." The special thing about these little fellas was that they were altered just before reaching puberty, so that their voices never broke. Boys who were promising singers were selected, given the snip, and then sent to special schools for vocal training.
THE CUTTING EDGE OF FAME
From 1599, castrati were allowed to sing in the papal choir. They proved to be so popular that a whole type of music theater was invented for them, known as opera seria, from which modern opera partly developed. While a castrato’s voice always kept its high, childlike pitch, it was delivered with the power of a fully grown man. A castrato could soar effortlessly up and down the vocal registers, belting out tunes like a diva on helium. Castrati could also perform all manner of vocal tricks, such as holding a single note for a full minute. Audiences loved it, and the castrati were the rock stars of their day, complete with rampant egos, fawning flunkies, adoring fans, and obliging groupies. And the biggest star of all was Farinelli.
Farinelli, unlike many other castrati, was not from a poor background. Indeed, his father, Salvatore, was the governor of the region around Naples, in southern Italy. Young Carlo displayed vocal talent as a child. And so, some time between his seventh and eighth birthday, little Carlo said goodbye to part of his anatomy - and hello to a singing career. After studying with the greatest vocal masters of the day, Carlo, now renamed Farinelli after one of his patrons, made his debut in 1720, aged 15. From then on it was nonstop fame and fortune for the next 17 years. After conquering Italy with triumphant performances in Naples, Rome, and Bologna, Farinelli toured Europe in his early 20s, billed as "the Singer of Kings," due to his having performed for most of Italy’s many princes and minor royalty. King Louis XV of France fell under his spell, as did the British
public. Farinelli was paid huge fees to perform, either onstage or in private audiences. All in all, life was pretty good for our hero.
THE REIGN IN SPAIN
But then, Farinelli gave it all up. Maybe life on the road with wealth, adulation, and amorous women isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; but in 1737, at the age of 32, Farinelli announced he was quitting the stage to become the private court singer to King Philip V of Spain. Farinelli had originally visited Spain as part of his European tour, but he was so affected by the king’s emotional response to his singing that he decided to stay on.
It turns out that he got much more than he bargained for. Philip V was a manic-depressive, and once he’d latched onto Farinelli and his singing, he wouldn’t let go. The king claimed that he could only get to sleep if Farinelli serenaded him. So, the castrated crooner was hired to sing the same set of songs to his patron every night for the next ten years.
Farinelli was at the Spanish court for 25 years in total, outliving two monarchs. In that time he acquired great wealth and even more political power: Philip trusted the Italian artist so much that Farinelli eventually became one of the king’s most trusted advisors.
In 1759, Farinelli quit Spain and retired to Bologna, Italy, where he lived out his remaining years composing and playing music, receiving famous guests, such as Mozart, and using his great wealth to fund many charitable causes.
GETTING THE AX
In 1870 Italy finally outlawed the creation of castrati. In 1902, and again in 1904, phonograph recordings were made of Alessandro Moreschi, the last surviving Italian castrato, but he was by then old and ill and his voice was shot. We will probably never know what a true castrato in his prime sounded like - something that young Italian boys should praise the Lord every day of their prepubescent lives.