What kind of voice is it?
What kind of voice is it?
In Lotus Eaters, after thinking of how Catholic
church choirs once employed eunuchs, Bloom wonders, "What
kind of voice is it?" Anyone in 1904 (to say nothing of
today) might well ask that, since Italian civic authorities
had outlawed the practice in 1870, and in 1878 Pope Leo XIII
had prohibited the church from hiring any more such singers.
The choir of the Sistine Chapel continued to employ some of
them, but that exception ended in 1903 with Pope Pius X's proclamation
that henceforth only boys should take the high parts. One of
the last of the Sistine castrati, Alessandro Moreschi,
did record some solo performances on gramophone discs in 1902 and
1904, providing the sole surviving records of what was once a
popular and varied species of vocal performance.
This "kind of voice" was usually produced by surgical
castration before puberty, but it can sometimes result from
hormonal imbalance preventing the changes in the male larynx
normally experienced in puberty. Affected singers' voices
remained in the high range of a child's, but since that range
varies among individuals a given eunuch might have been a
contralto, a mezzo-soprano, or a soprano. Whatever the range,
the timbre would have been very different from male falsetto
voices. Those are weaker, more breathy sounds produced mostly
in the head, but the intensive vocal training of castrati,
often aided by unusually long ribs (testosterone deficiency
kept their bone joints from hardening off), gave them great
lung capacity and diaphragm control, allowing them to sing
powerfully from the chest.
Bloom thinks of the elongated limbs of eunuchs, and also of a
tendency to become fat: "Fall into flesh, don't they?
Gluttons, tall, long legs." Gifford and Slote both
affirm that pre-pubertal castration can cause fat to build up,
but they do not document their sources. It seems possible that
the unusual skeletal development of the castrati
simply made them appear fat. Bloom's other thoughts about
eunuchs need no explanation. Instead of the obvious horror
that most people would dwell on in contemplating this method
of cultivating beautiful art, he thinks sympathetically that
the operation would free the victims from the torments of
sexual desire: "Suppose they wouldn't feel anything after.
Kind of a placid. No worry." And then, poignantly, he
even imagines this lotus
state as an attractive option: "Who knows? Eunuch.
One way out of it."
Castrated young men began singing in Italian churches in the
16th century and the practice soon spread to parts of France
and Germany. Many 17th and 18th century operas employed these
voices, often in the showiest roles, and singers like
Farinelli (Carlo Broschi, 1705-82) and Caffarelli (Gaetano
Majorano, 1710-83) became international superstars comparable
to the famous heroic tenors of the modern era. It is probably
impossible to say how much or little the Moreschi recordings
may resemble their operatic performances or even the choral
singing of the Sistine Chapel. Moreschi had been known as "the
Angel of Rome" in his heyday, but he was nearing 50 when he
made the recordings and may have lost some of his power and
control. To my ears, his high singing is impressive but not at
all beautiful. Countertenors like Alfred Deller and his
successors, and the "male soprano" Michael Maniaci, produce
far more lovely sounds by means other than castration.
Ulysses makes one more reference to the singing of
eunuchs. In Cyclops Commendatore Bacibaci
Beninobenone belts out "a high double F recalling those
piercingly lovely notes with which the eunuch Catalani
beglamoured our greatgreatgrandmothers." It seems that
Joyce here must have relied on a faulty memory. In Surface
and Symbol, Robert Martin Adams observes that "The
eunuch Catalani is unknown to musical history. There was a
famous soprano, Angelica Catalani, but she was warranted
female. Possibly Joyce was thinking of the tenor Campanini, of
whom J. S. Joyce was once supposed to be the destined
successor" (72). Ellmann's biography notes that when John
Stanislaus Joyce first came to Dublin "he went to a music
teacher who, after listening to him sing for a few minutes,
called in her son and said, 'I have found the successor of
Campanini'" (15). Campanini was a leading operatic tenor of
the 1870s, 80s, and 90s, but he was not emasculated and he did
not sing in the soprano range.
If Joyce was instead thinking of the wildly popular Angelica
Catalani (1779-1849), it may have been her stupendous range
that recommended her. Gifford notes that this Italian soprano
was "famous for her three-octave range (the normal soprano
range is two octaves above middle C)." He suggests that
perhaps "Her range suggested that of a boy soprano or a
In a personal communication, Vincent Altman O'Connor observes that operatic castrati were well known in 18th century Ireland. One in particular, Giusto Fernando Tenducci (1736-90), caused both sensation and scandal. After performing in his 20s in Venice, Naples, and London, this Sienese singer came to Ireland and charmed audiences not only with his operatic repertoire but also with Irish and Scottish songs. Perpetually in debt, he did time in the Cork jail. In 1765, he took up with a 15-year-old Dublin girl, Dorothea Maunsell. The two were married a year later, at night, but a court later annulled the marriage. These doings filled the scandal sheets in Dublin. For more on Tenducci's life and music, see Aoife Barry's 6 March 2021 online article at www.thejournal.ie, which references the Irish Baroque Orchestra's CD The Trials of Tenducci (2021) and Helen Berry's biography The Castrato and His Wife (2011).