Marilyn Pemberton tells Historia about the history behind her latest novel: the lives of castrati, the choristers and opera stars with the voices of boys and the lungs of men.
As all writers know, inspiration for a novel can come in many guises. The seed for what became my second historical novel, Song of the Nightingale, came about four years ago, when I listened to a discussion on Radio 3 about Alessandro Moreschi, the only castrato whose voice has ever been recorded.
It was mentioned, almost in passing, that young boys in 17th- and 18th-century Italy were often handed over to conservatoires by their poverty-stricken parents, where they would be castrated and taught to sing, so that their sublime voices could praise God. At the same time they would be earning money for themselves and their families. My immediate thought was that this would make a great story.
After some initial research it was clear that the life of the castrato was not a popular novelistic theme and what novels there were mainly focussed on the castrato as an operatic celebrity, who indulged in court intrigues and dubious pleasures.
My interest, however, lay more in the emotional, spiritual and psychological impact on the young boys themselves and those involved in the practice. It was not so much the end result as the journey that I wanted to explore.
I decided to tell the story from the point of view of Philippe, secretary to a count who wanted to gain social respect and possibly even to be honoured by the Pope by sponsoring one or more castrati. Having Philippe as the narrator, rather than the boys, allowed me to tell more about Italian life outside of the conservatoire and to have a story that includes passion, guilt, retribution, love and redemption.
I didn’t want to write a history book but I did want my descriptions to be realistic. I bought five or so books about life in Italy during the 17th and 18th centuries and The World of the Castrati: The History of an Extraordinary Operatic Phenomenon by Patrick Barbier (Souvenir Press, 1996). In the initial chapters Barbier explains that very little is known about the life of the castrati as there are very few written records. This was a godsend to me because although I wanted the book to be as realistic as possible, if the reality is not known then I could use my imagination to its full extent.
I start the book by describing the castration of the boys – male readers may want to skip this part. Barbier again explains that little is known about how the castrations were done, so I have allowed myself a bit of poetic and medical licence.
Castration – that is, the removal of a male’s testes – has been practised since records began, and probably before. In Deuteronomy 23:1, for instance, it references men who are “wounded in the stones,” and condemns them to never being able to “enter into the congregation of the Lord.” There are characters who are castrated in both Greek and Egyptian mythology and Roman law goes so far as to differentiate between those who have had their testes pressed, crushed or completely removed, the latter being the ones known as castrati.
The reasons for castration were many-fold but one was the belief that it would cure leprosy, madness, epilepsy or gout. One cannot but feel sorry for the poor man who not only lost his balls, but also still suffered from the original illness, as castration would not have been the hoped-for cure.
Another, more successful, reason was that the removal of the testes resulted either in significantly reducing the male aggressive and sexual drive or completely removing his ability to procreate. Castration was therefore often used as a form of punishment or constraint, either to prevent criminals from reproducing, to reduce the sexual drive of soldiers and rapists, or to diminish the aggression and fighting spirit of prisoners of war.
The eunuch’s role as the ‘guardian of the bedchamber’ in harems is well known; their purpose being to ensure the chastity of the sultan’s wives whilst being themselves no sexual threat. Castration often led to a loss of sex drive, but this was not always the case and some castrati were still able to satisfy a female, although could not, of course, impregnate her. A few castrati did marry, but these do not seem to have been successful unions.
The physical changes for a castrato resulted in a very distinct appearance: there was an absence of the Adam’s apple; minimal body hair; a tendency towards obesity; and having female physical attributes such as breasts, fatty hips, thighs and necks.
The combination of the larynx not dropping and the rib-cage expanding into a more rounded shape and therefore becoming an excellent sounding box meant that the trained castrato had the voice of a child with the power of a man.
This fact was discovered in the early 1600s, and for two centuries the practice of castrating young boys in order to preserve the purity and innocence of their unbroken voices flourished.
Although the Church condemned castration, castrati were welcomed into choirs and often made a good name for themselves; a small few found fame and fortune in the opera and were feted and adored, mainly by women.
Castration only worked, from a singing point of view, if done on a child between the ages of seven and puberty. Their training in a conservatoire could last for as long as 16 years; it was not an easy life and their regime was tough. The conservatoires also trained ‘normal’ boys, who were jealous of the castrati having slightly better living conditions, and who mocked them for being “non integri”, that is, “not whole.”
Although some of the boys sent to the conservatoire came from rich families, the majority didn’t. Who can blame a parent for wishing a better life for their son, and hopefully for themselves; for being grateful to have one less mouth to feed; for being proud that their son is serving God?
But was the price worth it? For some, who became famous, perhaps it was. For others, however, the end did not justify the means, as it led to a life of misery and depression at the loss of a normal life; at never being able to be a father; at always sounding like a child; at being considered a freak.
Marilyn retired in October 2019 and can now focus on her writing. She has two previous books published: a biography, Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan, and The Jewel Garden, which is a fictional account based on De Morgan (who Marilyn admits she is quite obsessed with).
Now that Song of the Nightingale is published, Marilyn is working on her third historical novel, which is the first of a trilogy about three generations of women who are storytellers, but whose voices are not heard.
Fête musicale donnée par le cardinal de La Rochefoucauld au théâtre Argentina de Rome en 1747 by Giovanni Paolo Panini, Louvre: via Wikimedia
Alessandro Moreschi, photo c1875: via Wikimedia
Portrait of Senesino (c1720): via Wikimedia
The singer Farinelli and friends by Jacopo Amigoni (c1751): via Wikimedia
Portrait of Giusto Fernando Tenducci (c1773) by Gainsborough, via Wikimedia