Alan Sciberras

The phenomenon of the Castrati - Part B

This week we have the second part of Mr. Alan Sciberras’s article about the castrato phenomenon.

Conservatories for the education and training of the young castrati had often begun as charitable schools or orphanages for poor children. Funding at these institutions was often lacking. With the growing popularity of the castrati and the increased demand for singers, young boys became very valuable commodities, and cash-strapped conservatories adapted to meet the demand for singers across Europe. Life in the conservatories closely resembled that in a religious order, with strict rules, curfew, insufficient food and clothing, and long hours of study and musical training for both the castrati and other boys who had been taken in. In return for room, board, and education, the schools financed the upkeep of their poor charges by treating them as a sort of 'export product'. They provided these young singers for funerals, masses, processions, private concerts, and sacred plays.

In spite of intensive training with the most famous singing teachers, only about one percent ever reached the kind of international recognition and popularity of castrati such as Farinelli, Matteuccio, or Caffarelli. Others, who had reasonable voices but did not succeed on the stage had to be content with singing in church choirs, an occupation for which they had been principally trained.

In the 16th century, the Vatican, notorious for turning a blind eye to the problem of illegal castration, admitted castrati to its ranks in the Sistine Chapel. Up to that point, either young boys (before their voices were due to break) or "Spanish falsettists" had been used for the soprano line. These falsettists had proven unsatisfying to the ear, as their voices became over-strained, and the boys, as they approached maturity, became unruly. At the turn of that century, Pope Clement VIII favoured the castrati, whom he had heard in other places. He dismissed the falsettists and endorsed the castrati, who appeared on the Chapel roll in 1599. Composers began to write music that could demonstrate the castrati's extraordinary abilities, and to Baroque composers, better music simply meant more difficult, with very elaborate, ornamental melody lines. The music of the late Baroque was complex and customized to the demands of the prima donnas and castrati. The harmonies and melodies became more simple and clear-cut, and the bass became unvarying and iterated.

One of the most notorious castrato was Marchesi, who insisted that his first appearance on stage, no matter which opera he was performing, had to consist of himself at the top of a hill, carrying a lance and wearing a helmet adorned with red and white feathers.  Another infamous castrato, Caffarelli, often left between two halves of an aria to talk with the ladies in the audience but would just as regularly insult his audience, the impresarios, and other singers, and sometimes refused to sing with his partners.

The success of the castrati was relatively brief. Just as all trends expire, new advances in opera and in public preference indicated the gradual decline in the use of the castrati in the second half of the 18th century at the end of the Baroque era. From 1744 to 1790, the Conservatories in Europe had either been closed down or were in severe financial trouble because of managerial carelessness and growing incompetence of musical instructors. By 1790, the Pope had withdrawn the ban on women to perform on stage and allowed for increased competition for the envied soprano roles. The development of comic and romantic opera around this period also took parts away from the castrati, because they did not have a place in these new genres of opera, and the opera seria was becoming less popular to audiences.

By the 19th century, the castrati had practically disappeared from the operatic scene, but the musical tradition did not disappear right away in the conservative church. Until 1878, castrati singers were used instead of females in many churches in Italy and even in the Papal choir in Rome. But even in the church, public attitudes were ultimately felt. In 1870, the practice was completely banned in the Papal States, with the last surviving castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, having to endure the surgery around 1865. The practice was universally condemned and gradually forgotten. However, in 1900 there were still 16 castrati singing in the churches, including in the Sistine Chapel Choir; but in 1903, Pope Pius X formally banned adult male sopranos from the Vatican.

The last Sistine castrato to survive was Alessandro Moreschi, the only castrato to have made solo recordings. While an interesting historical record, these discs of his give us only a glimpse of the castrato voice – although he had been renowned as "The Angel of Rome" at the beginning of his career, some would say he was past his prime when the recordings were made in 1902 and 1904 and he never attempted to sing opera.  The recording technology of the day was not of modern high quality. He retired officially in March 1913 and died in 1922.

Next week’s blog is the last by Mr Joseph Vella Bondin for this series about Maltese (unperformed) composers of Opera. 

Download attachments: Castrati.jpg