This week, I want to talk about a group of men that I honor as ancestors, even though they never had physical children. For years now, I have honored the baroque castrati as a group of honored dead on my ancestor shrine. I love them, I truly do and they’ve become an integral part of my spiritual practice of honoring the dead.
Music has always been an important part of my life. I spent the first quarter of my life as a professional ballet dancer (retired in my early twenties due to injury). That was the first way by which I was introduced to ecstatic spirituality. It was the first way I ever touched the sacred. It’s an art intimately connected to that of music. One of the first really famous ballet dancers, Marie Salle, who was herself a gifted choreographer, worked with Handel and his castrati in London. Ballet and opera evolved one from the other. There’s a lineage there and in a very small way, I was part of that. Even now, when I listen to music it takes me out of myself and brings me to a place where I throw myself far more deeply into holy work. It’s a visceral, full body experience. It roars through my blood and then carries me to the spirits and worlds I seek. It was from the castrati that I really came to understand what an important journey maker music has always been for me. Now I use it consciously in my work and often under their auspices. I am grateful.
Anyway, for those who may not know – since I do have a number of new readers –the castrati were singers, first in church choirs and then in the opera, who were castrated before puberty to preserve their voices. So, they were adult men with the chest and lung capacity of adult men, but the vocal chords of prepubescent boys. They were sopranos, mezzos (both classed as “soprano” in their day) and altos and their voices were ethereal wonders. We don’t know exactly what they sounded like. There is a recording of the very last famous castrato, but he was well past his prime during the recording, had never been an operatic virtuoso, and turn of the century recording technology lacked the capacity for recording the fullness of his voice. What we get is warped and thin. The same thing occurs with female opera singers who were recorded in the first decade of the 1900s too. All we really have are descriptions from those who heard these men. They were the rock stars of their day. One woman, upon hearing the famous castrato Farinelli sing was moved to such ecstasies by the sound that she burst out with an enthusiastic, if slightly blasphemous, “one God, one Farinelli!”
Now, we usually think of the castrati as belonging to the the baroque era but they worked roughly through the 16th to 19th centuries. In reality, even longer — the first castrated singer that I’ve encountered (thanks to the work of scholar Neil Moran) is the 5th century Brisson, who was choir master in the Byzantine court of Empress Eudoxia. We know that the Byzantines had castrati in their choirs though there is no indication of an industry that castrated boys purely for their vocal potential. That comes later in the 16th century in the Vatican states where women were forbidden from performing on stage (because of a prohibition in Paul). The last well-known castrato was A. Moreschi who died in 1922. He’s the one who was recorded. Today, their repertoire, which created opera as we know it, is usually performed by women or counter-tenors. I prefer the latter (I like lower female voices, probably because I’m a tenor myself and higher male voices. Female sopranos tend to annoy me—the quality of the sound is different from a man singing in the same range. I’d rather listen to a female contralto but in the end, I’m glad for all the vocal instruments we have). By the way, that Byzantine choir master Brisson was a bad ass. He is recorded (by the 6th c. historian Socrates) as getting into fist fights with religious heretics lol.
Anyway, I consider these men, men like Atto Melani, Cafarelli, Carestini, and Senesino to be part of my ancestral house. I honor them regularly. They have immortality like the heroes of old, and it is up to those of us who recognize the beauty and sacrality in what they did to serve the function of progeny: that of remembering those who came before us. So, I hail them, regularly and very soon, I will complete a small novena book for them too. I will conclude this with one of the prayers I give them. May they always be remembered, valued, and praised – both those who were famous, and those who broke in the process.
Prayer for the castrati
By Galina Krasskova
Your predecessors haunted the courts and choirs of Constantinople.
The enchantment of your voices was heard from Italy to Spain,
England to Germany, and well beyond even to farthest Russia.
The ghostly memory of your glory haunts every operatic stage,
everywhere in the world today and that is good. We should not forget.
We should never forget the debt our artists owe to each of you,
with every voice lifted in song, every note resonant in modern throats.
You rose up from the ashes of Rome,
glittering jewels in the crown of the world,
bright, hard, glorious, unbreakable.
You shone like the sun
with the glory of the moon at your backs:
magic, allure, erotic power.
Your voices tore open the heavens
and left frenzied desire in their wake.
No king was ever more feted.
No saint ever more reverenced.
Let us taste anew that frenzy–
pouring ourselves out in offerings to you.
White, cold and unyielding,
with hearts hungry
and less than angelic,
each of your voices a blade,
inviting longing, revealing desire,
leaving ecstasy in its wake.
I praise you today and every day.
Your names sanctify my lips.
(from the forthcoming “Viva ‘il coltello: In Honor of the castrati” by G. Krasskova, Sanngetall Press).
The closest we can get is the modern counter tenor. Here are three of my favorites.
Andreas Scholl singing Bizet’s “Habanera” (he’s known for his interpretation of Bach and his voice is exactly the same vocal range as the castrato Senesino. He also went to the same conservatory in Basel as my adopted mom. I just get a kick out of him singing “Carmen” so I chose that one instead of Bach).
Michael Maniaci singing Mozart’s “Exsultate” (written for the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini).
Philippe Jaroussky singing Gluck’s “Che faro senza Euridice” (originally sung by the castrato Gaetano Guadagni).
Jakub Jozef Orlinski singing Hasse’s “Mea tormenta, properate!”
and Who’s rhythms bind my life together. Odin. Blessings on these gifted singers and on those who listen.
now, go make offerings.
I follow a historical channel on facebook that often posts really quirky or interesting facts about various periods in history. I’ve actually learned a few things from their articles and it’s one of the more enjoyable sites that I follow. Yesterday, they posted a clip of A. Moreschi, the last castrato. He was never a major operatic voice, but a well-respected singer in the Vatican choir. There are recordings of him made in 1902. They’re not great. Recording technology at the time lacked the capacity to record the fullness of a singer’s range. One sees the same issue with female sopranos who were recorded around the same time. The result is weird, thin, and reedy. Still, we have these recordings and they are an interesting nod to a group of men who transformed the musical world.
So, many of the commenters were unfamiliar with castrati and since this is pretty much exactly what my entire dissertation is going to be on, I jumped in and we were talking about it, except the women (and it was all women with whom I was conversing, something that, given the topic, surprised me) with whom I was conversing couldn’t get past “you’re disgusting” if you find beauty in this. The idea of transcendent beauty, of sacrificing oneself for something better, for an art that will impact generations, of considering an art worthy of self-transformation was completely beyond their comprehension. They could not get past, “that’s horrific and you’re disgusting unless you agree with us wholeheartedly that it’s awful.” Well, I don’t think it was.
The names of these men are sacred to me. When they were very young they (there are cases of individual castrati requesting it. I believe Caffarelli was one such) or their parents chose castration in service to Art. Instead of progeny, they reached for immortality. Instead of poverty, they chose a path that would, if they succeeded even at a modest career, elevate the standard of living and status of their entire family. They chose a path that transformed them into conduits for an awe-inspiring, transcendent beauty. I mourn the loss to our world of their living presence.
I think in a world poisoned by the post-modernism, where our idea of Art is to throw paint on a canvas and call it such, where we no longer connect the arts and the sacred, where we are, in fact, deeply suspicious of anything holy or sacred, and where we consider the human individual the height of majesty it can be very, very difficult to comprehend a time, a place, and people who have other standards. Art is the best and highest expression of who we are as a species. It is better and more important than any single one of us and those who sacrifice themselves to its fire should be honored. I was a ballet dance, professionally for a time, which means I started a career that left a brutal imprint on my body – one I still struggle with in terms of ongoing injury and chronic pain—when I was a child. This was my choice. In fact, I did it against my parents’ desires. So to say that a child cannot know what he wants, cannot make the choice to devote himself to a craft is nonsense. Children do this every day.
We have no problem today with celebrating children ranging from three on up who choose to take hormone blockers, pharmaceuticals, and to prepare for extremely painful surgery and who run the risk of rendering themselves permanently sterile to shape their bodies in accordance with their inner vision. How is this any different?
The castrati were not, despite efforts of queer theorists to use them as such, transgender. They were men, men who gave themselves over to something much bigger and more important than their individual selves. In doing so, in creating bodies capable of containing and producing a glorious, angelic sound, they transformed their world and ours. I think we must affirm their choice to shape their body as their will intends, or where is the freedom of the individual we so cherish today? Beauty at that level is always horrific. That is why it is sacred. I, for one, praise it. Moreover, I’d like to see more people willing to give their all for Art, and most of all, for their Gods.
This semester I participated in the Medieval Music group run by Fordham’s Medieval Studies and Music departments. I’d never sung in a group before (as a female tenor, it’s complicated) but did this as an act of devotion for the castrati, whom I honor as part of my spiritual ancestor house. I think it went well, we all had a good time, and performed to a full house on Nov. 29. Here’s an article I wrote with pics.
Something about this song reminds me of Odin…been obsessing over it the last few days. 🙂
I love this, both the song and the video! (the song is from the original Wicker Man). This reminds me of some of the spirits with whom I work.