I noticed on Facebook on April 1st that many people were somewhat bemused by a YouTube announcement from King’s College. Recent regulations coupled with the broadcast of live performances from King’s meant that it would be impossible to continue using boys to provide treble parts. Wanting to stick with a traditional all-male choir, and unable to persuade their choral scholars to go for the “surgical” option, King’s came up with a suitable solution to the problem.
Although many people got the joke immediately, the panicked response of some to the unconventional news from King’s provided even more amusement to April Fool joke afficionados.
Oddly enough though, the UL recently acquired an unusual little volume that might have encouraged King’s to think some more about the “surgical” route. Johann Philipp Lorenz Withoff’s De Castratis, commentationes quatuor (coming to the Rare Books Room of the UL shortly) is an historical and medical treatise on castrati. Published Lausanne : Chapuis, 1762; it’s one of the earliest in-depth books to be written about castrati. Following a long section on their history (right back to the Assyrians and eunuchs), there are some stomach-churning medical chapters investigating why the process might be necessary, and the possible pitfalls. On the plus side there is (allegedly) added protection against hernias – although one would think that the negatives probably outweigh the positives. This theory, in which castrati singing is compared to falsetto singing, was quite novel and ran contrary to some earlier beliefs (see The castrato and his wife by Helen Berry (C206.c.1282)).
Castrati were extremely popular, the divas of their day. And for some impoverished families it was a way to wealth beyond their wildest dreams. A boy could be taken from a poor background, and with the right coaching and support could become a superstar. Farinelli, for example, was able to earn £1500 in a season officially, but the gifts that he was given throughout that season could easily push his annual income up to £5000 (see The world of the castrati / Patrick Barbier).
The interest in castrati has stayed alive into the twenty-first century. In 2006 an exhumation took place in the Certosa cemetery, Bologna. Farinelli’s body was disinterred and examined; the first exhumation and examination of a castrato in modern times. There have even been attempts made to reconstruct the sound of a castrati blending voices of different pitches electronically.
Castrati seem to be a very distant memory, a slice of unusual life from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In fact the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, was born in 1858, and only died in 1922. He was the sole castrato to make sound recordings.
In a sense the world of the castrati is still with us. Many of the most glorious arias of the eighteenth century were originally composed for castrati, and the music remains with us long after this strange musical tradition had faded away, to be briefly caught in the early days of sound recording.