Decline of the Castrati

This article is part five in a six part series on the rise and decline of the castrati in Western music. The six sections are:

Castration and Christianity
The Castrati Advantage
The Castrati Effect
Decline
Modern Mythology and Unseen Influence

Giovanni Velluti (1780-1861), the last of the great castrati.
Giovanni Velluti (1780-1861), the last of the great castrati.

Decline

At their height in the late 1700s, castrati were popular all over Europe in opera seria, as well as as composers, dramatists, court performers, and teachers. By then, however, they had already begun to be scarce. Economic situations had improved in Italy and the accompanying zeal of monasticism had likewise diminished, making people less comfortable with the idea of castrating their children. About mid-century, Benedict XIV (1740-1758) took the progressive steps of outlawing singers of secular entertainment from singing in churches, thereby ending the Baroque secular-sacred aesthetic synthesis,[1] and declaring castration illegal, calling it “an unnatural crime the victims of which are young boys, often through the complicity of their parents.” [2] However, he failed to enact aggressive measures to combat it and turned a blind eye to those castrati in his own chapel choirs. In theory, anyone caught performing human castration at this time for any purpose other than medical was excommunicated. In practice, however, castration was a great “open secret” known by everyone but admitted to by none.

Outside of Italy, where castration was never practiced, castrati were a fascinating novelty, to be treated with facetious curiosity. One Englishman traveling through Italy attempting to discover the place where the Italian castrati were made describes the runaround:

I was told in Milan that it was at Venice; at Venice that it was at Bologna, but at Bologna the fact was denied, and I was referred to Florence; from Florence to Rome, and from Rome I was sent to Naples….At Naples, Mr. Gemineau, the British consul…assured me…that this practice is absolutely forbidden in the Conservatorios.[3]

By the late 1700s the public as well as the church displayed a deep double-standard, crying “Evviva il cotello” (long live the knife) in their appreciation of their abilities, but condemning and ridiculing their “incompleteness.” Singers began to make excuses for their state, most famously claiming attacks by wild boars or (in Farinelli’s case) falling from a horse.

Castrati began to become less popular towards the end of the century for many reasons. Opera seria was identified with monarchies and class societies, which made it very unpopular with the new humanist movement, thereby making the castrati themselves target for ridicule. Revolutionary philisophes championed the common man and called for a return to nature in theater. Opera buffa with its everyday characters and plots began to rise in prominence to take the place of opera seria, but offered no place for the fundamentally unrealistic singers.[4] It became literary convention to attribute the shortage of castrati to moral and musical decadence,[5] though it seems clear that their scarcity was due to an earlier changing religious aesthetic rather than a later public opinion. In the Late 16th and early 17th centuries, castrati were ruthlessly ridiculed by the press in Europe in a manner Rosselli compares to that of women and Jews.[6]

In spite of their scarcity, however, castrati existed long after the decline began. The last of the great operatic castati, Giovanni Velluti, performed his last new castrato role in Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato in Eggito in 1824,[7] but Verdi also wrote a minor role for one and Wagner even considered casting Klingsor in Parsifal as a castrato.[8] Alessandro Moreschi has the dual fame of being the last known survivor of the Italian castrated singer tradition, as well as the only one ever recorded. Though the primitive gramophone distorts the voice somewhat and Moreschi uses much more Romantic scoops and portamenti than the Baroque and Classical castrati would have, the timbre of his voice on the recording give a tantalizing glance into a phenomenon otherwise lost in time and space.[9]

Notes

[1] Rosselli, 167.

[2] Barbier, 124.

[3] Charles Burney, The Present State of Music in France and Italy (London, 1771), 301-2.

[4] Stark, 199.

[5] Rosselli, Groves.

[6] Rosselli, 177.

[7] Jenkins.

[8] Oberlin, 50.

[9] Alessandro Moreschi: The Last Castrato, with Chorus of the Sistine Chapel and Roman Chorus of Choristers, Gramophone (Gramophone & Typewriter Company, 1903/4), reissued CD (Pearl, 1993).

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John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Great article. This is one topic that rarely gets talked about these days...

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