Quite recently, I was reading musicologist Martha Feldman’s book The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds, which is, unsurprisingly, a study on the castrato and the music written for the voice type during the 17thand 18thcenturies. The concept is exactly what it sounds like – a male singer whose physical development was surgically ended in order to preserve his access to the high soprano range. The surgery in theory created an ideal singer because his head and ribs continued to grow to normal male size, creating someone with tremendous lung capacity and also large head space which created greater resonance.
For anyone who might be wondering, no, castrati did not sing female roles; the type was still male in identity and was often associated with nobility or demi-gods in character casting. Incidentally, the practice of castrati eventually led to the operatic custom, beginning in the late 18thcentury, of mid-range female singers (mezzo-sopranos) singing the roles of young males because as religious and civil laws cracked down on the creation of castrati, this particular type of singer gradually disappeared, even as the music written for them increased in popularity. By the time Mozart wrote Le Nozze di Figaro(1785 – 86) and La Clemenza di Tito(1789), the roles of the junior males, Cherubino and Annio respectively, were written for women singers from the outset.
The aspect that was, for me, quite interesting about the castrati was the level to which a concept which musicians more or less take for granted stemmed from larger social, legal, and cultural changes in Europe in the late 1500s. Explaining the castrato’s history in Italy, where the practice originated, Feldman mentioned philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas and his work, particularly on the “weakening of industrialization and the refeudalization of Europe” following the Renaissance. More directly related to the trend of castrati, Feldman wrote:
Most of the time first sons were excluded (from castration in order to make a castrato) because primogeniture was the rule in Italy, hence first sons were heirs, breeders, and eventual legatees, though very poor or very ambitious families sometimes did have first sons castrated, including the family of Handel’s principal castrato Senesino (Francesco Bernardi), whose older brother was a castrato, and first son Gaetano Berenstadt (1687 – 1734), of Tyrolean descent, who ended up caring extensively for his family’s needs (Feldman, 13).
And further explained,
If some form of patriarchy had long been the rule, patriliny by contrast took root in a historically precise way only around 1570, as we have glimpsed above [a preceding paragraph on the combination of increased lifespan and the introduction of estate entail in Italy]. Prior to that time the ideal had been to marry off all or most sons to increase a family’s power not just vertically but horizontally, within a wider network of kin, with the goal of fortifying the clan as a whole. With the marrying off of first sons only, a situation arose in which younger sons were typically consigned to military or ecclesiastical careers and thus formally speaking to legal or effective celibacy at the same time as most upper-class daughters entered convents. Both strategies intensified with the severe economic crisis of the seventeenth-century, but the practice continued afterward, albeit with increasing tendencies toward diversification (45).
Before 1570, the law of entail was not prevalent in continental Europe, which also tended to include females in the line of succession – Salic law applied only to the throne in the case of France, so noble women could and did inherit their parents’ property. Since one of the central points of the Counter-Reformation was ending the abuse of Catholic religious facilities, either as retirement homes for dowagers or as cold-storage for spare heirs once their elder brother fulfilled his duty, convents, monasteries, and the priesthood quickly became unviable career options, at least for the aristocracy.
This little tweak to Canon Law had two effects: 1) the Catholic clergy gradually ceased being a profession as such, which resulted in an increased number of non-elites joining voluntarily and rising to high places, and 2) the performing arts, particularly music, exploded as the young men enrolled in ecclesiastical preparatory schools and originally destined for careers in the Church had to find new avenues for their skills. On a side note, the struggle to enforce the new regulation took centuries, was closely related to the battle for separation of church and state, and it is a story for another time.
The point to this tale is the response of the younger sons to their change in fortunes and status. Being in cathedral schools, and even more impractically in music-specialist cathedral schools, at first glance there was not much use for what these young men could do in the secular world. They were fluent in Latin, usually had a good command of Greek, frequently had a solid understanding of modern European languages and literature in general, and they were competent musicians. In a world that not only was still largely agrarian but was also “refeudalizing” into a system where they were, on the one hand, very much locked into the expectations of their caste – an impoverished younger son was still an aristocrat – while simultaneously being locked out of any claim to family property, the position of these men appeared hopeless.
Instead of giving in to the circumstances, though, these men went out and turned their skills into an industry – classical music as we know it. They taught it, wrote it, and developed it into a dominant art form. Some found multivariant use for their “irrelevant” skills. For example, the castrato Carlo Broschi (1705 – 1782) didn’t use his real name out of respect to his aristocratic family, performing under the name Farinelli. However, his birth and skill with languages also caused him to be appointed a diplomat-at-large and it was not uncommon for him to be in cities, such as London or Madrid, for opera engagements and be suddenly called upon to go to the royal court and help sort out a diplomatic issue. When he died at the unusually old age of 77 (a perfect example of Jonah Goldberg’s point about Second Sons as both victims and beneficiaries of the upper-classes having better medicine), he left behind a fortune, which in a delightful ironic twist bailed out his elder brother’s family.What is remarkable is not that he did this, but that he was only slightly unusual in terms of his financial success.
In her book The Bourgeois Dignity, Deirdre McCloskey argued, rather controversially, that all movement, no matter how organic, comes top down in terms of the social pecking order. In the case of capitalism, the movement occurred, in part, because the group whom Goldberg termed “Second Sons” and McCloskey “bourgeois” had a particular knack for both recognizing and creating markets, even in very negative situations. The resilience evinced in the story of the castrati and their role in the history of music is a type of proof that McCloskey’s thesis is correct.
In fairness to the elder Broschi, he was a well-regarded musician in his own right and had a strong career up until he inherited the estate and, following convention, retired to it to become a penniless landed gentleman, rather than a wealthy performer, like his younger brother. The suspicion is that Farinelli covered most of his brother’s family’s living expenses; it is known that he paid for the education of his nephews and niece.