Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The High Notes

Here's a demographic you don't hear much from these days: the castrati.
Castration before puberty (or in its early stages) prevents the boy's larynx from being fully transformed by the normal physiological effects of puberty. As a result, the vocal range of prepubescence (shared by boys and girls) is largely retained, and the voice develops into adulthood in a unique way. As the castrato's body grows (especially in lung capacity and muscular strength), and as his musical training and maturity increase, his voice develops a range, power and flexibility quite different from the singing voice of the adult female, but also markedly different from the higher vocal ranges of the uncastrated adult male. (From Wikipedia.)
This BBC article includes a 1902 sound clip of the only castrati ever to be recorded: Alessandro Moreschi, who directed the Sistine Chapel Choir until 1913. (Moreschi also recorded an Ave Maria.) His voice is odd and freaky and gives me the shivers, frankly -- I can't really be comfortable listening to it, knowing how the bizarre vocal quality was obtained.

H/T Whispers in the Loggia


Amber said...

I'm glad a recording of a castrati has survived... not that I would want to listen to it often (or again, for that matter), but because I have wondered in the past what they did sound like. Very strange, really - I can't really even think how to describe it. I wonder how people first figured out that castrated males would have such a different voice?

Rick Lugari said...

Yeah, interesting question, Amber. I have no idea, but I could imagine it is something that could be discovered by observing that eunuchs who were castrated at a young age had that "angelic" tone.

Pro Ecclesia said...

If angels sound like that, I hope there are earplugs in Heaven.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to think of how Farinelli must have sounded. A story from my music history text said that, at the height of his vocal powers, he had an onstage competition with a trumpeter. Not only could Farinelli sing longer phrases than the trumpeter could play, he could sing them louder!

It's an interesting voice quality! I thought I could hear the boy soprano in there...

I think another reason for the fad might have been the fact that male soprano/alto voices have a different quality than female ones (even pre-pubescent females, I think), so this was another instrument to add to the musical arsenal.

Ouch! But again, these boys largely came from dirt-poor peasant families. Would you give up your testicles if the alternative was starvation? What about your son's?

The comment on the BBC about stage parents is particularly apropos.

mrsdarwin said...

I suppose the question is, do you have the right to mutilate your son in that fashion? Remember that only 1% of castrati went on to fame and fortune, and the operation didn't always take completely. Those are pretty lousy odds.
According to some of the articles I read last night, Farinelli was a gentle and humble man despite his outstanding talent and fame. A woman is supposed to have screamed upon hearing him, "One God, one Farinelli!"

Perhaps if we had a recording of him, the allure of the castrati voice would be a little more comprehensible. Moreschi (the castrati on the recordings) was in his forties and past his vocal prime. It's eerie to think of a 40-year-old man with that kind of singing voice. Still, you can hear the power behind the high notes and imagine what it must have sounded like live.

Rick Lugari said...

Wow, I finally got to listen to it. It's beautifully annoying. The super high stuff strikes me as being as good as it is remarkable, but the lower stuff is just bad IMO.

In a way his singing reminds me of Alfalfa from the Little Rascals.