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The Castrato
by Martha Feldman

Reviewed by Richard Adams


Published:

Published by University of California Press, 2015   |   496 pages

My first encounter with a castrato—the name for male singers castrated as boys to retain a high singing voice into adulthood—came while listening to a well-worn LP in a dusty Midwest college basement classroom. Behind the sandy scratches and the tin can resonance I heard a voice that was confident, powerful, and more than a little strange. The singer was Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), a male soprano and the last known castrato. His recordings, most dating from 1902-04, are among the few aural records we have of a vocal type that dominated Europe for nearly three centuries. Martha Feldman’s The Castrato is a history of these singers, an examination of how they emerged, what they meant, and why they vanished.

In males, castration causes a dramatic decrease in testosterone production, one result of which is that the voice does not drop as it naturally would in most males. Throughout The Castrato Feldman utilizes a vast array of evidence—including contemporary descriptions, satires, and references both obscure and famous—to “reconstruct” what earlier castrati may have sounded like. She cites twentieth-century musicologist Paul Henry Lang, who described “the shock” he felt at first hearing a castrato: “Their voices were white, clear, and powerful and had absolutely no resemblance to a woman’s voice.” In another description, from the seventeenth-century, the voice of a particular castrato “made inferior the very song of the angels.” Feldman supplements these descriptive quotations with an analysis of the key sonic features of the castrato voice: high tessitura (the range of notes that a particular voice or instrument can sound), strong resonance, and agility. The high tessitura suggests, ostensibly, that we classify them as male sopranos. But castrati were not simply men who sounded like women. Their vocal ranges were wider (they could sing both lower and higher) and included more notes in a portion of that range termed the chest voice. The resonance and agility castrati derived from their high chest voice set them apart not only from female sopranos, but also from male falsettists, who cultivated the high notes of their head voice. In fact, early acceptance of castrati arose in part from their perceived superiority over early falsettists, whose singing—in their attempts to reach the high range that would otherwise be occupied by the female voice—was often criticized for sounding distorted and “unnatural.” The lack of testosterone resulting from castration meant that the larynx remained small and did not descend (i.e., they had no “Adam’s apple”) and the vocal folds (vocal cords) remained short. These physiological changes to the voices of castrati meant that, for many, they more “naturally” inhabited the higher ranges. While there was always opposition to castrati for many reasons—social, religious, and musical—their prevalence and status nonetheless steadily increased over the course of the seventeent- and eighteenth-centuries.

As Feldman emphasizes throughout her book, setting aside for a moment any artistic concerns, the vast majority of castrati were simply tragic pawns in the power games of others. Castrato voices, as already suggested, were valued not just for their physical qualities, but for their more abstract, symbolic qualities of power, excellence, and majesty, and the creation and use of castrati, Feldman argues, supported the power structures of patriarchy, Church and Monarchy. In their origins in the relative obscurity of church choirs, castrati were sonic reminders of the maleness of the Catholic Church. As the patriarchal and homosocial space par excellence, the church’s use of these uncharacteristically high male voices was a sign of the resources at its disposal and social control that it could wield. (The church had used falsettists for hundreds of years and so the use of castrati was a conspicuous change.) On the opera stage, castrati reserved the highest pitched, most powerful, and most elaborate singing for the portrayal of those figures who were at the top of the social hierarchy. Even with their high voices, the “maleness” of castrati was not usually questioned as such and, in fact, hyper-maleness was a common posture of castrati throughout the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries. As castrati moved onto the secular stage, this hyper-maleness became their defining characteristic as symbols of patriarchal power. As Feldman writes, the castrato “serves as a representational substitute for the king and his domain by impersonating, metonymically, the king’s war hero, his general, his ideal citizen, his son or future son-in-law, the prince or noble as torn lover, and sometimes even the ruler himself.” In other words, Castrati played kings and other powerful figures from history and myth, eventually becoming extensions of the monarchs whose patronage they enjoyed.

The most famous castrati were wildly celebrated and brought immense prestige to those to whom they were associated. They could, accordingly, demand positions of considerable power and wealth. For example, the renowned Farinelli found security in his later years as a music teacher and diplomat with the King of Spain. It was a career path that many castrati followed to some degree. For many others, however, musical and financial success remained elusive. Moreover, most, if not all, castrati suffered physical ailments as a result of the castration. In most cases, castrati would develop bodily “abnormalities” that led to painful maladies including osteoporosis and occasionally even to death.

The end of the era of the castrati coincided with the coming of the age of enlightenment and the end of the era of absolute monarchy and church ideology. Feldman cites an optimistic reading of this transformation: “Europe had learned (it thought) how to be more humane to children.” A more negative reading dovetails with Foucault’s argument in The History of Sexuality. As Feldman summarizes, European society sought “to align gender with sex in strict polarities—to make men like men and women like women.” The enlightenment, the argument goes, made possible a stricter policing of moral and sexual behavior in the, ostensible, service of science and reason.

It is true that by the nineteenth century there were more prominent roles for female singers. However, Feldman points out, it does not necessarily follow that opera’s new female cast members were filling the void left by castrati. To the contrary, it was the tenors that took over after the castrati, compensating—in the music of Verdi and Wagner—for their lack of agility with a style that Feldman describes as “heavier, more muscular, and more declamatory.” Others who came in the wake of the castrati would, and continue to, occupy similar roles, dominating both popular and classical genres. Both Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake, for example, share much in common with their castrati predecessors—child stars whose voices and images were heavily manipulated to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of an elite group of men.

An excellent history of its subject matter, The Castrato simultaneously functions as a broader exploration of the intimate interplay of power, artistic expression and technology in the development of European modernity. This wider view helps make the book both an important musicological study and an accessible exploration for non-musicians. In the book’s opening pages Feldman writes, “Exactly what kind of acoustic trace the castrato’s singing left to the mid- to late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries is impossible to say with assurance, but that its trace was powerful there can be little doubt.” At the end of book many of those traces and much of the power of the castrato feels that much closer, providing new perspectives on how we value and consume music today.


Richard Adams lives in Chicago and writes about music, among other things. As a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is currently writing about voice and excess in the music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier. You can find some of his other writing on his blog.

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