What kind of voice is it?

What kind of voice is it?

In Brief

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.

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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 castrato."

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).

JH 2022
A much-exaggerated caricature of operatic castrati, whose long-limbed bodies tower over the female singer between them. Source: www.abovetopsecret.com.
Photograph of Italo Campanini (1845-96), date unknown.
Source: www.historicaltenors.net.
1806 oil on canvas portrait of Angelica Catalani by Élizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, held in the Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Mezzotint print of Giusto Fernando Tenducci, date unknown, held in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.