The Castrati Effect

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

Castration and Christianity
Castrati in Opera
The Castrati Advantage
The Castrati Effect
Modern Mythology and Unseen Influence

Alessandro Moreschi, the last known castrato, lived 1858-1922 and was the only castrato ever to be recorded.
Alessandro Moreschi, the last known castrato, lived 1858-1922 and was the only castrato ever to be recorded.

The Castrati Effect

The instrument created through this partnership of altered nature and arduous nurture had a profound effect on voice training as well as a musical movement already craving for the spectacular. The unprecedented skill of the castrati demanded improvements in singing technique for all voice types. With the acceptance of the castrato voice, preferences of timbre also began to change so clear and strong voices were favored over soft and airy.

One must grow accustomed to these castrato voices to enjoy them. Their timbre is as clear and piercing as that of choir boys, and much stronger….[with] a dry and thin quality, far distant from the young and velvety quality of woman’s voices; but they are brilliant, light, full of éclat, very strong, and with a wide range.”[1]

In Moreschi’s performance of the Bach-Gounod ‘Ave Maria’, for instance, notes just above middle C sound, as with a boy soprano, like the very bottom of his vocal range, but they are belted with the force of a fully grown man. As the melodic line lifts, remarkably, to take a soprano’s high B the voice seems to come more from his head, but again—recording quality aside—the sound is different: clearer and purer than the colour of either a female soprano or a male falsettists, it seems to possess an odd, penetrating sweetness, the sharp taste of an unknown fruit.[2]

Farinelli (1705-1782), the most famous of the castrati.
Farinelli (1705-1782), the most famous of the castrati.

Most vocal pedagogues describe the male voice as having two registers (di petto and di testa) and the female as having one more additional falsetto register. Before the height of the castrati, vocal treatises instructed male to sing either in their chest or their falsetto registers,[3] requiring the song ranges to be relatively narrow. Females generally sang in both, but allowed a marked difference timbre between the two.[4] In his treatise Observations on the Florid Song, however, the castrati-turned-voice-teacher Tosi claimed that certain castrati could sing di petto throughout their range and he was one of the first to instruct all singers to blend the two voices in the four or five note “passagio” between the registers.[5] By using both voices, instead of only one, and blending them together to sound as a single unified voice, some castrati extended their range to almost four octaves (A or B to a3 or b3). Farinelli himself was said to possess a range from c to d3.[6] This then encouraged other singers to use all of their registers, blend in their passagio, and sing in much wider ranges. Still, however, current practice for most singers was to sing lower notes loud and heavy and higher notes increasingly light and soft, while castrati had the ability to sing loud, trumpet-like high notes.[7] Castrato Marchesi had such powerful high notes that they were called “La bomba del Marchesi.”[8]

As mentioned earlier, castrati excelled in breathing technique, something to be attributed equally to over-developed lungs and extensive training. With these advantages, their florid ornamentation far outpaced any other voice types in variety, skill and length, leaving contemporary observers incredulous. In Aldovrandini’s Cesare in Alessandria, for example, the star castrato “performed a scare of more than two octaves and back, ending with an embellishment—all in one breath.[9] Farinelli was infamous for an incident when

during the run of an opera, there was a struggle every night between him and a famous player on the trumpet…: after severally swelling a note, in which each manifested the power of his lungs, and tried to rival the other in brilliancy and force, they had both a swell and a shake together, by thirds, which was continued so long, while the audience eagerly waited the event, that both seemed to be exhausted; and in fact, the trumpeter, wholly spent gave it up, thinking, however, his antagonist as much tired as himself, and that it would be a drawn battle; when Farinelli with a smile on his face, shewing that he had only been sporting with him all that time, broke out all at once in the same breath, with fresh vigour, and not only swelled and shook the note, but ran the most rapid and difficult divisions, and was at last silenced only by the acclamations of the audience.[10]

For such unhuman abilities, opera patrons are said to have exclaimed, “One God, one Farinelli!”[11]

The ornamentation used in the time of the castrati fall into two overlapping categories: affetti (expression) and effetti (virtuosic). The appoggiatura (also known as porte-de-voix) is described by Tosi as the first ornament to learn for its easiness, though it is quite appealing and effective. It was clearly used for beauty and its placement in the music was dictated by ear and taste.[12]

Slightly more difficult is the messa di voce that required mastery of breath and phonation coordination. Descending from early swells and esclamazione (only a “strengthening of the voice”[13]), the appoggiatura required a completely smooth change of register as well as dynamics that “can never fail of having an exquisite effect.”[14]

The shake (tremolo) falls ambiguously between the categories, as it is also difficult to specify. Vibrato, which was often referred to as tremolo, was encouraged by some[15] and not by others.[16] Continuous vibrato was always controversial and rose and fell in popularity with the times.[17] In general, it seems to have been narrow and controlled, used more sparingly for times of expressivity.

The highly virtuosic groupo,[18] an accelerating rearticulation of a single note rather than trill between two, had well gone out of favor by the height of the castrati, though its essence had come back (though not in connection with trills) with agile martello articulation (sons martellé)[19] such as in “Der hölle Rache kocht in meinen Herzen” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.

The modern idea of the trill descends from the trillo and shorter shakes and was extensively used in the Baroque. Tosi describes eight different types of trills, differing mostly in their vertical range (either a tone or a semi-tone) and speed of oscillation.[20] When used cadentially, trills could be approached either from above of below (whichever sounded better) and was sometimes accelerated like the groupo finishing with a brief pause before the anticipation and then resolution notes. Often it was combined with an appoggiatura and/or a turn. When otherwise used, trills were purely for virtuosic effect and text-painting. Castrati also took the trill to new unknown virtuosic heights: Baldassare Ferri would close sometimes close cadenzas with a lengthy trill carefully raised and lowered chromatically for two octaves. Farinelli was said to sing a trill of a major third range between.[21]

Graces and mordents were used to ornament the initiations and passing of notes, adding animation and movement to the line. The early intonazione della voce and the acciaccatura come before the beat, stealing their time from the previous note, while mordents and turns come sometime after.[22]

Well into the realm of virtuosic ornamentation are the passagi, which descend from Renaissance divisions that broke up longer notes into runs. Often written in the music by the Baroque period (though almost always still improvised on), passagi were usually done in ascending and descending diatonic scales or arpeggios, though often they leaped about.[23] Tosi describes two manners of performing them: marked (articulated) and gliding (slurred and sometimes using portamento).[24]

Also practiced at this time was il rubamento di tempo: changing rhythms, lengthening some notes and speeding up others. Also called by Caccini sprezzatura, this manner of adding realistic speech fluctuations into music was of course normal in recitatives, but also common in arias and added some of the singer’s personality to the composer’s written text.[25]

The most spectacular aspect of castrati singing was how they combined all of the ornamentations—tremolos, graces, appoggiaturas, passagi, dynamic shifts, sprezzatura, etc.—in their extended improvised melismas and cadenzas. This florid style of singing was intended purely to show off the singers’ abilities, much to the displeasure of some of the composers of the day:

While singing his aria, [the singer] shall take care to remember that at the cadence he may pause as long as he pleases, and make runs, decorations, and ornaments according to his fancy; during which time the leader of the orchestra shall leave his place and the harpsichord, take a pinch of snuff, and wait until it shall please the singer to finish. The latter shall take breath several times before finally coming to close on a trill, which he will be sure to sing as rapidly as possible from the beginning, without preparing it by placing the voice properly, and all the time using the highest notes of which he is capable.[26]

However, the public loved the spectacle and soon composers began writing music specifically to display the virtuosity of the castrati. “Son qual nave,” written by Farinelli’s composer-brother Riccardo Broschi, included lengthy passagi and all manner of ornamentation taylor-made to display his brother’s talents (see figure 4), as did the virtuosic cadenza from Giacomelli’s Merope (see figure 5). Handel originally wrote “But who may abide” in Messiah for a bass in a somewhat heavy and brooding style. When he rewrote it for castrato Gaetano Guadagni he changed it from slow, smoldering lava to a hysterical fiery show-stopper exhibition of the castrato’s talents with elaborate melismatic passages, trills, leaps, etc. It is ironic and unfulfilling that it is commonly performed today in the revised form by a bass.[27]

Son qual nave by Riccardo Broschi, mm. 19-23. [28]
Son qual nave by Riccardo Broschi, mm. 19-23. [28]
Cadenza from Merope by Geminiano Giacomelli. [29]
Cadenza from Merope by Geminiano Giacomelli. [29]


[1] C. de Brosses, Lettres historique st critique sur l’Italie, vol 3. (Paris: 1799), 246, quoted in Jenkins, 1877.

[2] Bergeron, 175.

[3] Ludovo Zacconi, Prattica di musica (1592); Giulio Caccini, Le nuove musiche (1602); Michael Praetorius, Syntagma musicum (1619); all quoted in James A. Stark, Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 34-36.

[4] Ellen T. Harris, “The Baroque Era: Voices,” Performance Practice: Music after 1600, eds Howard Mayer Brown and Stanley Sadie (New York: Norton, 1989), 100-103.

[5] Pier. Francesco Tosi, Observations on the Florid Song, trans. Galliard (London: 1743), reprint (London: William Reeves Bookseller, 1926), 23-4.

[6] Roselli, Groves.

[7] Harris, 112.

[8] Michael Kelly, Reminiscences of the King’s Theatre (London: 1838), quoted in Heriot, 157.

[9] Street, 6, referencing W. J. Henderson, Early History of Singing (New York: AMS Press), 1921

[10] Burney, quoted by Heriot, 96-7.

[11] Heriot, 99.

[12] Tosti, 32.

[13] Stark 116-7.

[14] Tosi 28.

[15] Lodovico Zacconi, Prattica di Musica (1592), referred to in Stark 123,4.

[16] Tosi, 27.

[17] See Stark, 123-130, 133.

[18] These terms can be confusing as the groupo was sometimes called the trillo and the trillo was sometimes called the groupetto.

[19] Stark, 166.

[20] Tosi, 41-50.

[21] Street, 6.

[22] Stark, 158.

[23] Duey, 77-8.

[24] Tosi 52-3.

[25] See Harris, 109 and Tosi 99.

[26] Benedetto Marcello, Teatro alla moda (Venice, 1720), quoted in Street 7.

[26] Bergman, 175-8.

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