Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Testicle's Lament

It was with some trepidation that I started listening to the CD my partner, Leon, bought me for Christmas. You see, my experience of his choice of music has not been a good one. Indeed, after 11 years, we have come to a very sensible truce on the matter. He needs to assume that I won’t like anything he likes musically, and vice versa. I don’t waste time and money forcing him to attend symphony concerts with me, where he sits disconsolately playing games on his cellphone and stifling yawns – and he doesn’t expect me to attend dreadful concerts where you are made to stand for 4 hours and get your eardrums blasted out by frantic specks on the stage.

It is a truce. We have agreed that we will not even try to convince each other of the merits of each other’s choices. It is quite fruitless. In the car, things can get a little tense – seeing Leon operates on the seemingly unchallengeable “driver chooses” principle -and then he insists on driving. On weekends, it is slightly bearable, because the compromise channel is one which plays “Golden Oldies”, which I find, if I force myself, I can tolerate.

In the flush of new love, Leon bought me a series of CDs. Every choice seemed to me, stranger than the last one. He had identified that I liked “Classical” Music. So that seemed to mean anything with strings, vaguely playing hotel lobby music. Alternatively, anything that sounded even slightly like church – even if it was Gregorian chant with a beat. In the flush of new love – I smiled. I thanked him. I played the CDs once, and then put them on the shelf until I could secretly donate them to a good cause.

One has lasted, though – Zbignieu Preisner’s “Funeral for my Friend”, which I play, perhaps twice a year. And when I do, I really love it. So, thank you, Leon for that.

But one swallow does not make a classical CD consultant, so I was a bit fearful when I spied that one of this year’s presents was, again, to be a CD. It turned out to be Cecila Bartoli’s “Sacrificium” – an astonishing collection which features 11 world premiere recordings, in which she has teamed up with Il Giardino Armonico and Giovanni Antonini, showcasing music written for castrati. I should not have worried. It is quite brilliant.

But the history and use of castrati in the glory days of the Baroque era, is something extraordinarily odd and it appears to have involved fashion, art, eroticism and business in the same way as, perhaps, the fashion industry has, in our time. But(as the writer of the piece introducing the CD puts it), the cry, which probably rang out thousands of times in Baroque era Opera Houses - Evviva il coltellino! (“Long live the little knife!”) demonstrates just how tied into the cultural milieu this cruel practise had become. In our time, it would certainly cause consternation, if not scandal, if someone were to shout out “Long Live anorexia!” at a fashion show Does that make us less honest than they were about our likes and dislikes when it comes to our artistic addictions?

The history of castrato singing is pretty vile. The European appetite for the voice, in collusion with the ecclesiastical ban on women singing in church, meant that by the 18th century as many as 4,000 boys were castrated in Italy alone. As a matter of historical fact, however, the overbearing presence of castrati on the opera stage, was not simply because of the perceived quality of the voice. (A contemporary remark has it that “a female voice is far more beautiful than the best castrato voice” (Giovani Battista Doni – De praestantia musicae veteris ,Florence, 1647)).

The profiling of the castrato voice had much more to do with, as the writer of the article in the piece argues, more to do with the fact that “ a freshly gelded boy can be introduced to voice training at once, whereas an otherwise comparable girl must wait until the end of puberty , when the mutation of her voice is complete, before serious training can be considered”. This meant that a castrato’s voice training could begin some 10 years earlier than a girl’s.

At the same time, a castrato, at the beginning of his musical career is still a child – and because of the hopelessness of his future, is completely dependent on his benefactors for his well-being. Castrati had access to virtually no other career. At the same time, keeping the production line going and under their control, shrewd entrepreneurs could ensure that the public addiction for the castrato voice could be maintained and fed.

In Rome, for 200 years, women were forbidden on the stage and falsettists could not provide what the public were looking for. This lead to the custom of allowing women’s roles to be played by castrati. Boys of barely 15 years old, benefitting from the head-start in their training, and androgynous in their looks, would transport Roman audiences into a state of what the writer calls a state of “sinful excitement”. And it was this mixture, the sound of the voice, the extraordinary virtuosity, the costume and the almost intentional erotic gender-play that made the castrati into beings quite close to the pop stars of today.

Strange, isn’t it, how much things change, the more they stay the same? Not only in fashion, but in the church, which is now battling to deal with the homosexual under its bed. One wonders, here also, whether there is some sense of tremens et facinens – fear and awe. Because it is nothing different to the present ecclesiastical demand for emasculated gay males (and only such)who may feel called into Holy Orders which seems to be required – for the sake, of what? Order? Theology? Ethics? Pleasing God?

The music on the CD is breathtaking. There are times when I get a little weary of the endless trilling and scales – but it is still, whatever one’s musical proclivities, thrilling. However behind the music, there is a shadow - almost as if it were composed for a condemned man. There is an ethereal sadness. It is difficult to miss. It is like eating Kudu Steak with one grazing outside.

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