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An overview of a castrati and its history

For us, it is difficult to comprehend the power of seduction that their voices seem to have held, or, for that matter, the mass hysteria that some of them inspired — a hysteria that, in some cases, bordered on blasphemy. After all, it is hardly likely that we, today, will ever hear a castrato voice that has been trained in the eighteenth-century Italian tradition.

Today the beautiful singing of counter-tenors, sopranos and altos may well try to fill their stage parts, much to the delight of their audience, but the sound that ravished nations in the eighteenth century was different. No, I think not. Being a castrato was certainly no easy life. Their existence was governed by several stigmata because of their failure to adhere to the male norm.

In England they were also foreigners, representing unwanted and dangerous foreign behavior. They practiced a forbidden religion, and they were singers, in some sense a profession little above an overview of a castrati and its history. To mirror the internal and external effects of castration the article has been divided in the following three parts: The Emasculated Body 4 Later castrations did occur, for instance, the famous singer Giuseppe Aprile 1731-1813 was operat.

If castration was performed before puberty — the typical age, during the eighteenth century, being eight or nine 4 — the castrato would retain the high-pitched voice he had as a boy, and this was probably the goal of most castrations during the baroque period and late eighteenth century.

In the 1770s the English publicist Charles Burney 1726-1814 stated that the number of boys castrated every year was around four thousand. Very few of these, however, became first-rate singers.

Burney tried to ascertain the exact locations where castrations were taking place in Italy but was sent on a wild-goose chase by his informers from one town to another. The illegality of the operation did not prevent its occurrence, and even the Church had its promising boy singers castrated. Francesco Bernardi 1686-1758called Senesino because he came from Siena, was the son of Giuseppe di Domenico Bernardi, a local barber, and Cecilia Vecchioni. In 1695 he was admitted as a choirboy into the cathedral of Siena.

He was castrated on the 17th of November 1699, an operation paid for by the cathedral treasury. The operation cost fifty lire, paid to a norcino, a surgeon specializing in castrations. My voice was found to be of the finest texture, with a natural and well-performed trill, great agility in roulades and a natural taste in singing.

I was sent to Accoramboni, a surgeon in Lucca, to spend two months in his home, where I would enjoy much delightful conversation.

  1. Their existence was governed by several stigmata because of their failure to adhere to the male norm.
  2. Paper presented at the Pan-European Voice Conference 2006.
  3. Suddenly the artistic product of the castrato voice was considered alien to nature, and stood in opposition to both the male and the female voice.
  4. Theodor Baker and Nicholas Slonimsky, Nicolas [ed. The starting-point of this project was to collect all the physical data we could find and add the modern possibilities of digital analysis.

This period of conversation was so bewitching that, instead of earning the title of doctor which I could have done at any timeI received a patent to present myself as one of the frigidis et malificiatis for the rest of my life.

In a time before anesthetics or antiseptics, the operation was very painful and very dangerous. The boy would be placed in a hot bath to soften the tissue and then drugged with opiates, or sedated by pressing the jugular veins, before the surgeon performed the actual operation.

We read under the heading of Castration: The spermatic chord and artery may, in the meantime, be compressed by the fingers of an assistant: Tying […] affecting the artery only. Vocal castrati have mostly been considered to belong to the group of thlasiae. There was also a fifth category consisting of men, mostly in the orient, who were called eunuchs because they did administrative work usually associated with eunuchs.

Many such contracts still survive and give some insight into the conditions that governed vocal teaching at this time. Most of the castrati came from humble circumstances and their new father figures; music masters, patrons and friends, had to teach manners as well as music. O sieno osservazioni sopra il canto f. As was pointed out by Pier Francesco Tosi c. To answer that question we will first have to take a look at the physiology of the castrato voice.

The physiological changes most prominent in puberty for the male voice are an increase in hormonal levels of testosterone and dihydrotestosterone. This newfound length and thickness creates a lower voice. The thyroid, cricoid and arytenoid cartilages also increase in mass, becoming heavier. Receptors for dihydrotestosterone are present in most of the male larynx tissue. Growth hormones also encourage the pharynx, mouth and sinus cavities, and thorax to increase in size.

These factors are important to the adult vocal resonance an overview of a castrati and its history strength. Autopsy reports show that the an overview of a castrati and its history larynx was comparatively small, whereas the vocal chords were of roughly the size of those of a female soprano.

In eighteenth-century letters, books and narratives we are confronted with an abundance of descriptions of the castrato voice, but the vocabulary applied to sound is diverse, imprecise and colored by native, as well as personal, preferences.

For instance, the French writer Charles de Brosses wrote 18: One must be accustomed to these castrato voices to be able to enjoy them. The sound is as clear and penetrating as that of choir-boys, and much stronger; they seem to sing at an octave higher than the natural female voice.

Their voices are mostly somewhat dry and sharp, quite different from the fresh, agreeable softness of female voices; but they are brilliant, light, [and] very strong with a wide range.

To him the castrato voice was undoubtedly unsound, a product of art, and as such opposed to true natural beauty. Castrati, although singing in France were never part of French opera. The difference between the aesthetics of the Italian and the French music and their respective vocal sounds and styles was strong throughout the whole of the eighteenth century and has, to a certain degree, persisted until today.

English translation from Robert Donington, The In.

The Italian manner of singing is refined and full of art, it moves us and at the same time excites our admiration, it has the spirit of music, it is pleasant, charming, [and] expressive, rich in taste and feeling, and it carries the hearer agreeably from one passion to another. The French manner of singing is more plain than full of art, more speaking than singing; the expressions and the voice is more strange than natural. The drama was the main feature and the music should therefore be a vehicle to further the recitation of the text.

From the Italian view of opera as mainly a vehicle for beautiful singing also followed that the Italian singers were the most important thing in opera, paid much higher than the composers.


In the biographical, lexicographical literature of the time we therefore find descriptions of most of the great castrati and, of course, of their voices and manner of singing: Senesino, had a powerful, clear, equal, and sweet contralto voice, with a perfect intonation, and an excellent shake; his manner of singing was masterly, and his elocution unrivalled; though he never loaded adagios with too many ornaments, yet he delivered the original and essential notes, with the utmost refinement.

He sang allegros with great fire, and marked rapid divisions, from the chest, in an articulate and pleasing manner; his countenance was well calculated for the stage, and his action was natural and noble; to these he joined a figure that was truly majestic, but more suited to the part of a hero than a lover.

Most contemporary sources, however, agreed that the castrato voice was sweet, strong and had a prominent quality; there also seems to have been some agreement that the quality of their voices was pleasing, fascinating and compelling, but in what way? We have to remember, though, that the vocal technique of the time emphasized the different tonal quality of the vowels, giving each its optimal sound.

This was done keeping the larynx relaxed and flexible, not low, and fixed as most singers do today. The ideal seems to have an overview of a castrati and its history sweet top notes and a heavier, more masculine chest voice. This division could perhaps explain the descriptions of the vocal quality as being sweet and penetrating, light and strong.

Farinelli was an exceptionally gifted singer, whereas Senesino was a great singer and Tenducci a famous one, mostly owing to his private life. The difference was often stressed in contemporary sources: The Italian term p. Sanford has shown how the Italian vocal technique of the time rested on flexible subglotti.

The small vocal chords of a boy were combined with the chest, pharynx and muscular power of a grown person. The music written for the castrati indicates that most of them were in fact what we today would consider mezzo-sopranos, and there also seems to have been a slight change in their voices over time due to some hardening of the cartilages of the larynx, 28 which would account for the fact that some of them started off as sopranos and ended up as altos.

Did they have the extended chest register of a boy? Again, the music composed for them indicates that they had strong notes in the lower top, c2-e2, the passaggio 29 of the female soprano, which could indicate that this was the case. The lungpower of the castrati, who were reputed to be able to hold a note for more than a minute, can be explained partly by the small vocal chords in combination with powerful lungs. These physical attributes would, however, have to be teamed with a vocal technique that maintained the right pressure.

If too much subglottic pressure was applied to the small vocal chords it could, given time, cause fatigue and, in the long term, serious vocal problems. Historical, Physiological, and Acoustical. So, what do we know about the castrato voice? The only recordings of a vocally trained castrato voice were made of Alessandro Moreschi 1858-1922a member of the Sistine Chapel choir, between 1904 and 1906.

Although the quality of the voice is obscured by those technical limitations we can still pick up on some of its qualities. Giving the most famous castrato of all time a voice that could live up to the expectations created through hundreds of years of myths was, one can only imagine, no easy task. Still, I personally consider the outcome, although impressive musically and dramatically, a setback in the quest for the castrato voice.

The project electronically merged the soprano voice of Ewa Mallas-Godlewska with the counter-tenor of Derek Lee Ragin, the voice types most often used today in castrato music. In doing this they gained a combination of extended range and agility, described in connection with Farinelli at the time.

His voice was thought a marvel, because it was so perfect, so powerful, so sonorous, and so rich in its extent, both in the high and the low parts of the register […] The qualities in which he excelled were the evenness of his voice, the art of swelling its sound, the portamento, the union of the registers, a surprising agility, a graceful and pathetic style, and a shake as admirable as it was rare.

It may have captured the vocal style, the agility and the fireworks of the castrato music but the sound of the voice was not present. The starting-point of this project was to collect all the physical data we could find and add the modern possibilities of digital analysis. Among these data were the vocal recordings of Moreschi, the post-mortem reports by Tandler and Grosz and the vocal recordings of a number of Russian castrati collected by Tandler and Grosz.

One is constituted by the mechanical qualities of the vocal chords, i. These qualities change radically over the course of puberty and, though the post-mortem reports give information about the size of the larynx, there is no note about the thickness of the vocal chords.

The other factor is determined by the dimensions of the pharynx and the oral cavity, which are also subject to a radical change during puberty. In grown men the dimensions are larger than in children. On top of this we added the formants of a baritone, that is, the approximate size of the pharynx and the resonance quality of the oral cavity in a grown male.

  1. Today the beautiful singing of counter-tenors, sopranos and altos may well try to fill their stage parts, much to the delight of their audience, but the sound that ravished nations in the eighteenth century was different. If he visited London in 1763, Tenducci would not have been m...
  2. My voice was found to be of the finest texture, with a natural and well-performed trill, great agility in roulades and a natural taste in singing.
  3. Senesino also had an elder brother who was castrated, but did not have a career as a singer.

Taking the voice source from a child, however, means that you also take his breathing, vibrato and phrasing, in short his sound and music abilities.

They are, understandably, in no respect comparable to the musical abilities of a thoroughly trained castrato voice.

The result was, with all our shortcomings, of course, a long way from the Farinelli project, but still, perhaps closer to the sound of the castrato voice. It can only be f. This could, however, also be due to the length of the trachea, and would in that case, of course, be different in a singer with an adult trachea. Such a castrato voice passes with a light and sweet sound through the accompaniment, rises delightfully over all the instruments in a way that cannot be described, it must be heard.

Those are pure voices and tones of nightingales.

  • In a few cases and with a special kind of voice it seems that a female singer could be exchanged for a castrato;
  • In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it accounted for a large part of the kingdom of Naples and it faithfully reflected the economic and social conditions of the time — widespread poverty, dominance of the Church, and an economy in which owning land was the only real source of security;
  • O sieno osservazioni sopra il canto f...

The voice of Farinelli will continue to be as elusive and mythical as ever, inspiring for speculation and dreams. This is a complex question involving many possible explanations.