Every now and then I have an attack of musical fever and have to listen to a piece of music a hundred and thirty-seven times in a row. Examples of past episodes are Dylan singing Blind Willie McTell, Carlos Gardel singing Milonga Sentimental, Tupelo Honey sung by Cassandra Wilson as well as Uri Caine and Paolo Fresu performing Si dolce è il tormento.
Sometimes I get a more serious case and I want to listen to everything a peformer ever played or sung or a composer ever wrote. The most recent occurrence was an attack of Handelitis. Hepatitis has various forms: A, B and C. So does Handelitis and I came down with Handelitis O, because I specifically felt a compulsion to attempt to listen to every Opera he had ever written.
It was only in the late 20th Century that Handel’s operas began to be performed regularly again, because previously there were so few singers who had been trained so as to be capable of taking on the parts written for castrati.
The explanation generally given for the spread of castrated singers is Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians that women should be silent in church (“mulieres in ecclesiis taceant” in the Latin Vulgate). As a result women were not allowed to sing in choirs in church. But who was going to sing the top line in the harmony ? For a while boys were used. But as music became increasingly complex it was discovered that boys’ voices inconveniently broke before they had time to become proficient enough to master the parts. If they were castrated, they maintained their upper range and also developed the power of adult lungs as they grew. Gradually the demand for castrati increased and families with a talented musical child often found it a good investment for him to undergo an unexpected accident. (Because in most cases these were presented as accidents.(As William A. Frosch puts it in this interesting article: There were a surprising number of children who were attacked by wild swans or geese, gored by wild boars, or who were kicked or fell in ways that damaged or destroyed their testes.) This all because somebody said women should not be heard in church. It might be worthwhile thinking about this the next time you are on the point of voicing a very strong opinion: you can never really tell what effect it might have in 1500 years’ time.
However one feels about it, it would seem that the castrati had voices of unequalled beauty. (I found one quote according to which, when asked by Pope Paul VI what the Church could do for music, Stravinsky answered “Give us back the castrati”.
The most famous of them, Farinelli (real name Carlo Broschi), given the kind of media promotion we have today, would have made many of our superstars look like midgets. After making half of Europe swoon in the theatre, he ended up being employed on an exclusive contract by the Queen of Spain who had come to believe that his voice could cure the severe depression of her husband King Philip V.
One of my favourite Handel arias, from the opera Ariodante, is generally known as Dopo Notte. It is one of the most rejoiceful pieces of music I know. The text gives the feeling clearly :
Dopo notte atra e funesta, splende in ciel più vago il sole e di gioia empie la terra
(After a black, doom-laden night, the sun shines brighter in the sky and fills the earth with joy.)
This aria was written for a singer called Carestini, who was not far behind Farinelli in terms of fame. (That’s his portrait at the top of the post). I decided to find something out about him and was astounded to learn that he was from a place called Filottrano (population 9,449 in 2004). Filottrano is about 25 kilometers from Ancona, a place I have lived in and which I have been going back to all of my life. And yet, I had never heard Carestini mentioned. It seemed to me that since Filottrano can’t have that many famous people, the main square must be named after him. But it turns out it isn’t. There is no road named after him in the town. I may be wrong but I have searched hard and I have not found one single street in Italy named after one of its famous castrati. “Not one” is, I think, putting it accurately, because I found that half a street had been named after a castrato. In Andria, Farinelli’s birthplace, there is a via Carlo e Riccardo Broschi. Riccardo, who he shares the street with, was his brother, a composer and the person most people think was responsible for having Carlo operated on (he had a very promising voice and the family was in financial straits).
I am wondering why there is such reluctance to name streets after these people. When I walk around towns and read the names of the thoroughfares it often occurs to me some of the people in our addresses haven’t really done that much to be remembered. Is it embarrassment about the practice that brings this about ? Or are mayors wary of the inauguration ceremony in which they would have to cut a ribbon with scissors. Perhaps they think it would bring bad luck. (I can think of one politician at least who would be terrified at having a road named after a castrato in his home town). Perhaps we will have to wait for a woman mayor in Filottrano before we have a via Carestini. But I remember that I once wrote something here where I argued against naming streets after famous people. So my suggestion is the following: use some of the words from the wonderful aria written for him, call it via Splendilsole (The-sun-is-shining Road).
At this point, some of you who do not know the aria might like to hear it. There are versions on YouTube which have a much clearer sound, but the one I have chosen, sung by Vivica Genaux, is my personal favourite and I am very grateful to the person who recorded this because the aria, for reasons I can’t understand, has not been included on any of her CDs. I have never heard anyone sing it with such ease and accuracy, and her ornamentations in the repeat, the da capo, are amazing. (Anyone who can sing this is outstanding, but most singers have a slight hesitation just before they take on the trickier bits which reminds me of the way horses sometimes hold back a second before jumping a fence in show jumping).
Just so that you can hear what her voice sounds like when you can really hear it, here she is singing Sta nell’Ircana from Alcina. (The aria is about a tiger and the clip is illustrated by some exciting Chinese tiger paintings).
And finally another aria by Handel which has given other people Handelitis. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing As with rosy steps from Theodora, an oratorio which contains what Handel considered to be his best chorus (better than the Hallelujah Chorus). This clip is from a Glyndebourne production which is wonderful from every point of view.
Some final notes: nowadays castrati arias are sung both by women and by men (countertenors) with a equivalent singing range. Both approaches have their supporters.
Vivica Genaux has recorded a CD entitled Arias for Farinelli which contains music composed specifically to show off his vocal abilities.
Philippe Jaroussky, a French countertenor, has recorded a CD entitled Carestini, the story of a castrato. You can see a trailer for the album here.
For the film Farinelli, an interesting attempt was made to reproduce the possible sound of his voice by merging the sound of a soprano and a countertenor. You can hear a piece of a Handel aria given this treatment here.
But now I must stop before I get a relapse.