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December 8, 2006 9:21 PM   Subscribe

Castrati were the superstars of centuries gone by! (bonus link: Countertenor jokes)
posted by furtive (13 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Some highlights:
The most famous castrato of all was Carlo Broschi (1705-82), known as Farinelli, who had a legendary voice spanning over three octaves, from C3 (131 Hz) to D6 (1175 Hz), and thoracic development such that he could hold a note for a whole minute without taking breath. Contemporary critics speak ecstatically about Farinellli. Burney wrote in his General History of Music (c1776-89) "No vocal performer of the present century has been more unanimously allowed by professional critics as well as general celebrity to have been gifted with a voice of such uncommon power, sweetness, extent, and agility as Carlo Broschi, called Farinelli"
The last castrato in the Vatican was Alessandro Moreschi who died in 1922 at the age of 64, so he was probably castrated about1865. A 20th century authority on the castrati, Franz Haböck, knew Moreschi and describes his voice as being powerful, but pure and clear as crystal, with effortless breath control.20 Moreschi, uniquely, made several gramophone recordings of his voice in 1902 and 1904, and although the recording technique was very deficient by modern standards they provide our only direct evidence of the sound of a castrato's singing voice.
In another method the boy was first put into a warm bath to make the testes more tractable. The author continues: "Some small time after they pressed the Jugular Veins which made the Party so stupid and insensible that he fell into a kind of Apoplexy and then the action would be performed with scarce any Pain at all to the Patient".
What's a countertenor's favourite computer operating system? UNIX.
posted by furtive at 9:21 PM on December 8, 2006

Ugh. UNIX. Ugh.

Bravo, Bravo.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 9:32 PM on December 8, 2006

Great post, but it makes my nuts hurt.
posted by HyperBlue at 9:44 PM on December 8, 2006

How could you put this post together and not link to a recording of a castrato? (Alessandro Moreschi singing "Ave Maria")
posted by cmonkey at 10:40 PM on December 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

Anne Rice's "Cry to Heaven" is a fabulous fictionalization of the meme.
posted by KevinKarl at 10:40 PM on December 8, 2006

I could accuse furtive of being in the middle of a really dull weekend if he's posting Castrati, but I know I've been extra extra snarky today, so I'll back off.

I wonder if a tenor gets really nervous when somebody tells him he needs to get something "fixed"...
posted by wendell at 11:05 PM on December 8, 2006

I remember the ad campaign for countertenor David Daniels' first record featured the headline "The voice of a boy, the power of a man", which always seemed a little odd to me.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 11:11 PM on December 8, 2006

File thread under: "Keeping Up With the Cojones."
posted by rob511 at 3:11 AM on December 9, 2006

Very relaxing to listen to while stroking my de-clawed cat.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:10 AM on December 9, 2006

cmonkey if I only knew that I could have! After doing all of my reading I was left witht the impression that the 1904 recording was hard to come by and of a terrible quality. To think that you're listening to the castrato voice of a 39 year old man born in 1865 turns what would otherwise sound like an attrocious piano recitle into something mind boggling. It's like hearing the warble of the now extinct dodo.

Thanks so much for putting up that link because it really makes my post worthwhile.
posted by furtive at 6:47 AM on December 9, 2006

Countertenors are amazing. I heard an interview on NPR a few years back with David Daniels, and he was suggesting that the tradition is becoming more and more acceptable/popular for singers to pursue.

But I will admit that I don't mind being able listen to choirboys before dinner.
posted by honest knave at 8:01 AM on December 9, 2006

There's another recording of Moresschi halfway down this page. (Real only, sorry). It's fascinating but not that pretty (to my ears), but as the host of that page says:
Moreschi was probably a pretty good singer, but he was no Farinelli. And this recording was made late in his career using a process that was difficult at best. I present this recording as a curiosity not only because it is a sample of a voice type no longer heard, but also because it illustrates a style of singing no longer practiced. The wild scoops into pitch were common practice in this period. Remnants of this scooping can be found today in the “sob” of some tenors and what I call the “chest attack” employed for dramatic effect by some female singers.
posted by rosemere at 8:54 AM on December 9, 2006

I would respect more stars nowadays were they willing to castrate themselves for their fame. (it would further serve to cull their breeding, a win-win!)

Farinelli was a so-so movie, but countre-tenors chill something deep inside me. (no, not those) Very moving. And hearing one perform in person makes it easy enough to imagine how/why castrati were so exalted.
posted by Busithoth at 2:58 PM on December 9, 2006

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