Thursday, July 13, 2006

Body of Farinelli Exhumed to Study Castrati


It has just been announced that the remains of the castrato, Farinelli have been exhumed so scientists can study what made the voices of the castrati (besides castration, that is).

Born Carlo Broschi in 1705, but known as Farinelli, he is the man who cured the King of Spain of his depression by singing to him.

Farinell’s stage career lasted from 1720 to 1737. At the height of the popularity of the castrati, he was one of the most famous.

The best castrati were as rich and famous as a rock star today. You can read more about him on the Club Vivo Per Lei/I Live for Music website.


The castrati (that’s the plural) were boys who were castrated before puberty to preserve the purity and sweetness of the little boy voice. If you’ve listened to Boys’ Choirs you know there is nothing quite like that sound. Watch this video, a scene from The Great Caruso, with Mario Lanza, where Caruso is singing with a boys’ choir. Alas, it is the dubbed voice of a soprano, but a beautiful scene still, and the most beautiful song ever written.

Of course you can’t tell what little boy will grow up to have a singing voice, particularly one good enough for the Sistine Chapel choir, so mistakes were made. Parents were tempted to do it, however, as life was hard, and such a career could provide money.

With voices frozen in time, they went on to develop a huge lung capacity, giving the voice a special quality. They were often quite large and sometimes fat. An unfortunate analogy is to the ox (a castrated bull), which is generally bigger and stronger than a bull, with more endurance.


Farinellli was no mistake. He was beautiful in appearance and his voice was truly exceptional by reports made at the time. He reputedly had a range of more than 3 ½ octaves, could sing 250 notes in a single breath, and sustain a note for more than a minute. Here, in the movie, Farinelli, you see him do this, wearing the famous mask. (Or go here: )

The castrati were so skilled, their music cannot be sung today. In this clip you see the soprano Vivica Genaux singing the aria Farinell’s brother, Riccardo Broschi wrote for him. Do take a look at it and observe the machinations she must do with her mouth and face to perform this music. (Yes, it’s out-of-synch.) (Or go here: )


What are they likely to discover?

Well, it’s true that anatomy is destiny. We have no tiny opera singers of note (you should pardon the expression), and a barrel chest in both genders seems to prevail.

The personal physician of Enrico Caruso (1873 – 1921), perhaps the greatest tenor who ever lived, noted some important things about Caruso’s anatomy. The Great Caruso, as he was known, virtually made the brand new phonograph industry by agreeing to be recorded. He came from an impoverished background in Napoli, Italy, that allowed for little development of his singing skill beyond church choirs; however, little was needed.

His London throat specialist, Dr. William Lloyd, noted that Caruso’s vocal tube (distance from front teeth to vocal chords) was ½” longer than any tenor’s he’d seen; his vocal chords were at least 1/8th” longer (every little bit makes a difference); he had the usual tremendous lung capacity of the great opera singers, able to sustain a note for more than 40 seconds; and as to deep breathing, he could expand his chest and push a piano a couple of inches along a carpet with his chest.

The voice? When Caruso showed up to audition for Puccini himself, for a role in La Boheme, the astonished Puccini blurted out, “Who sent you to me? God himself?”
You will probably agree. Original recordings of Caruso are available here. Enjoy!(Click here: )

It is natural to want to know more about these heavenly voices, which please us, and may even heal us. When Farinelli was 32, the wife of King Philip V of Spain called him to the court where it is said that he sang the same 4 songs to the King each night, and cured (or helped cure, or ameliorated) the King’s depression (or schizophrenia, or “ailmen”). “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” wrote Congreve. (It is King Philip V who got the Pope to ban bullfighting in Spain, no small feat since the Catholic Church at the time had the biggest and best bull-breeding farms.)

What did Farinell’s voice sound like? We do not know. Dr. Nicholas Clapton, who is an expert on the castrati and has an outstanding voice himself (this one is my favorites of his), wrote us at Club Vivo in personal communication: [Farinelli’s voice in the movie] was “achieved by the electronic synthesis of the voice of a colleague of [Clapton’s], Derek Lee Ragin, and a female soprano.” Clapton has played Farinelli several times in various stage performances and you can hear his beautiful voice in clips on his website:


There are many theories why music heals. One is that the vibrations of the human voice can be perceived by parts of the body corresponding to pressure points used in acupuncture. We also know that music goes directly to the deep pleasure centers of the brain (along with sex and eating), and as such is deeply satisfying. "Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.,” said Confucius. It evidently even supports the immune system, which is our health. Read more about the healing properties of music on Club Vivo Per Lei.

The castrati choirs were eventually banned by the Catholic Church though they were part of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel until as late as 1903. Of course music at that time was closely aligned with the church, and when Farinelli finally retired, he turned to the spiritual life, helping families in need, organizing concerts to benefit orphans, and giving away all his belongings to relatives and servants who had cared for him before his death.

The last surviving castrato was Alessandro Moreschi, who sang in the Sistine Chapel, and left some recordings from around 1903. You can hear one here. Critics disagree upon the quality of his voice; however, the recordings are poor, and it must be kept in mind that in his youth, there were no longer any teachers capable of teaching the castrati. (Never underestimate the effect of these wonderful unsung teachers. See out section on TEACHERS on Club Vivo; and re: Farinell's teacher, Porpora.)

You can order a Farinelli poster here: : .


Castrated around the age of 8, in a barbaric practice designed to fill the choir loft at the Vatican, he was left with a beautiful and innocent voice, frozen in time. Years of training with Porpora, probably the best music teacher of all time, it became something quite exceptional.

“Touch the heart,” he tells his brother in the movie. “Find the true essential feeling. I want your music to rouse the fragment of the infinite that sleeps in their stomachs.”

One reason we turn to music is to express the true essential feelings for which there are no words. I had such feelings when I read of the exhumation.

Ah well, he is not there. He has long been off singing to the angels, I’m sure, or even to god himself, having done his work here on earth; the same god who sent Caruso to Puccini, and all the beautiful singers and gifted composers to us here on earth, to be there for us when we need them.

“There is no feeling, except the extremes of fear, and grief, that does not find relief in music.” -- George Eliot

Susan Dunn, Coach, . Founder of Club Vivo Per Lei / I Live for Music, dedicated to Dr. John Alifano. We invite you to join. It’s fr**.

Susan offers individual coaching, business programs, a coach certification program (worldwide), Internet courses and ebooks. Email for information on programs and fr** ezine. Take THE EQ FOUNDATION COURSE and watch your life improve.

Testimony: "Since starting the EQ program I was able to make positive progress in a relationhip that has been tedious at work for 20 years. Thank you, Susan." -- Phyliss, Trinidad

No comments: