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The Castrato

The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds

Martha Feldman
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Pages: 496
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  • Book Info
    The Castrato
    Book Description:

    The Castratois a nuanced exploration of why innumerable boys were castrated for singing between the mid-sixteenth and late-nineteenth centuries. It shows that the entire foundation of Western classical singing, culminating in bel canto, was birthed from an unlikely and historically unique set of desires, public and private, aesthetic, economic, and political. In Italy, castration for singing was understood through the lens of Catholic blood sacrifice as expressed in idioms of offering and renunciation and, paradoxically, in satire, verbal abuse, and even the symbolism of the castrato's comic cousin Pulcinella. Sacrifice in turn was inseparable from the system of patriarchy-involving teachers, patrons, colleagues, and relatives-whereby castrated males were produced not as nonmen, as often thought nowadays, but as idealized males. Yet what captivated audiences and composers-from Cavalli and Pergolesi to Handel, Mozart, and Rossini-were the extraordinary capacities of castrato voices, a phenomenon ultimately unsettled by Enlightenment morality. Although the castrati failed to survive, their musicality and vocality have persisted long past their literal demise.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-96203-3
    Subjects: Music, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xxii)
    (pp. xxiii-xxiv)

    • 1 Of Strange Births and Comic Kin
      (pp. 3-39)

      Sometimes a project begins with a clue or a hunch from an unexpected quarter. I date the beginning of this one from a time when I began stumbling over a number of unrelated facts, among them a peculiar repertory of explanations for castration, resemblances between various castrato caricatures and feathered comedians, jokes that cast castrati as capons, fears of castrati as strange, grotesque, and overly moneyed, images of castrati as angels, and a myth of origins that assigns the castrato’s birth to a rooster’s egg. Imagine, then, my fascination when I read this passage from Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s story “A...

    • 2 The Man Who Pretended to Be Who He Was: A Tale of Reproduction
      (pp. 40-76)

      In 1734 a newcomer was given seven arias and a duet to sing in the pasticcio ofArtasersestaged at London’s Haymarket. Most leading men got four or fi ve numbers, but this one was already a legend. That night he debuted as Arbace, the son betrayed by his own father who has not only killed their king but also framed the son for the king’s murder in a twisted scheme intended to elevate him to the throne. Midway through the opera, the singer stood in chains while his father made a show of condemning his son to death before...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)

    • 3 Red Hot Voice
      (pp. 79-132)

      Most of what we know about castrato voices is how little we know. We presume that some physical constants among them once existed in their full acoustic presence, yet we remain agnostics about how they sounded because they now elude all sensory access. In phenomenal terms we might call their conditions prehistoric, for the visceral, tactile je ne sais quoi of those voices is gone. I’m not talking about anything so slippery as a psychoanalytic Lacanian voice, the voice as an “acoustic mirror” of the listening “subject,” the object of a drive, or the uncanny space between mechanism and cause;...

    • 4 Castrato De Luxe Blood, Gifts, and Goods
      (pp. 133-174)

      Sometime during the 1720s the starry image of the castrato became entwined with the sound of a fiery allegro. Not that fiery allegros were new at the time, but they had not been written through with agility figuration, often instrumental in kind, nor had the public imagination been so singularly held in their thrall. Most of the castrati from that period who loom largest in memory were renowned for such singing: Bernacchi, Senesino, Carestini, Farinelli, and Caffarelli. The capacity endured in a number of later castrati. Aprile and Marchesi were expert in it, as were Crescentini and Velluti in the...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)

    • 5 Cold Man, Money Man, Big Man Too
      (pp. 177-210)

      The great art of singing, descended largely from castrati, had, by the later eighteenth century, become clouded with charges of aristocratic luxury, vanity, and decadence, charges that were inseparable from critiques of castration itself. In the 1780s the marquis Francesco Albergati Capacelli, a Bolognese playwright, penned a strident denunciation on both fronts:

      I owe . . . a public pronouncement to Truth. In speaking against castrati, I do not . . . deny any one of them the merits of culture, honesty, and civility that are found in few of them, but are nevertheless found. I inveigh against their profession,...

    • 6 Shadow Voices, Castrato and Non
      (pp. 211-262)

      On January 21, 1792, Louis XVI was killed off and many of his entailments eradicated from public life. Two eunuchs from the royal chapel who faithfully accompanied the king to his meditation and attended the last mass of the royal family were among them. After the king was decapitated, the two had to scurry away, bits of debris from the volcanoes of horror and exultation of that time.¹

      The number and stature of castrati had always been paltry in France compared with elsewhere: about sixty over the course of a century and a half, all confined to the Chapelle Royale.²...

    (pp. 263-266)
    (pp. 267-268)
  10. NOTES
    (pp. 269-368)
    (pp. 369-400)
  12. List of Illustrations
    (pp. 401-404)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 405-421)