Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Peter Phillips

Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Peter Phillips

Article excerpt

One of the most complete bars to the authentic performance of both baroque opera and some renaissance polyphony is the current unavailability of castrati. There isn't much to be done about it of course, but we might regret that we can no longer hear a sound which, at its best, fascinated all who did hear it. And we don't know what that sound was. The two famous and unique recordings of Alessandro Moreschi, made in old age in 1902 and 1904, give us some clues, but can hardly represent the sound of the greatest 18th-century practitioners.

There are some pointers in contemporary reports. Gounod went to the Sistine Chapel in 1839 and got hooked on the sound of Palestrina being sung by a choir that included castrati: 'This austere, ascetic, passionless music, with an intensity of contemplation that bordered on ecstasy,' he wrote, going on to refer to the 'firm attack, verging on harshness of those special voices ...I returned again and again until at last I could not stay away'. I would give anything to hear Palestrina sung like that -- it might explain much about what inspired him that we cannot understand. And of course there are many reports from the 18th-century heyday, though often the words used to describe sound are as confusing as words used to describe taste, as wine lovers will know. In 1755 Roger Pickering wrote: 'Farinelli drew every Body to the Haymarket. What a Pipe! What Modulation! What Extasy to the Ear!' This kind of adulation came from the fact that training for castrati was uniquely arduous, the logic being no doubt that since the deed had been done they might as well make the most of it. If sufficiently talented, a castrato could make his debut in his mid-teens with a perfect technique and a voice of such flexibility and power that no woman or ordinary male singer could match it. And the money to be earned encouraged upwards of 4,000 poor families to castrate their sons annually in the 1720s and 30s.

This famed vocal prowess came from an increased breath capacity. The lack of testosterone allowed the skeleton to continue to grow beyond what was normal. Limbs would elongate. As would ribs. This was why castrati had such exceptional lung power. And flexibility. The child-sized vocal cords contributed to this. It made for a sound quite different from the voice of the adult female. …

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