Francisco Viñas: the art of the castrati I

In the third chapter of his book The art of singing: historical data, advice and guidelines for educating the voice, published in 1932, the Spanish tenor Francisco Viñas describes the educational system of castrated singers and the absolute dedication that brought the art of singing to the height of its expression, the differentiation between modernist and classical singers, and the decline of bel canto until the disappearance of the last sopranist singer.


The educational system of the evirated singers.

Just like little birds when human cruelty blinds them so that they cry out singing, so did it happen with those beings who were mutilated by barbaric ignorance; their voice acquired a strange timbre, full of mystery. But in order to make the most of such cruelty, of such a great sacrifice for the sake of the divine art, a rigid preparation was necessary, which to many will seem fantastic. However, young people who are dedicated to the study of singing must take note of the academic course to which those virtuosi were subjected, in order to infer that the teaching of singing, as it is usually practiced today by the generality of qualified teachers, is a ridiculous deception, a farce… and thank goodness when the natural conditions of the deluded neophyte are not ruined in the process.

We understand all too well that this way of teaching of the classical age is not possible today; but if professional dignity is to be raised, it is necessary to go back to the olden days, trying to adopt as far as possible those wise rules that had their basis in common sense, strengthened by a glorious practice. Evirated children, who attended music schools from a very young age, before entering fully into the study of singing, were subjected to a series of preparatory exercises in accordance with the nature of each individual, in an attempt to favour and prepare the development of their voice. These studies were directed by specialised teachers, who took care to polish the child’s faculties with the burin of scientific prudence, so that in his growth he would preserve the purity of sound, creating at the same time strength, extension and resistance, according to the nature of each larynx; but cemented in such a way, that later on he would be able to preserve all the charms of his voice until a very advanced age; and, contrary to what happens now, the older they became, the greater was their perfection.

Buontempi, in his Musical History, referring to the teaching method of the Italian Academies, says “That in the Academy of Rome (we suppose it was that of St. Cecilia) the disciples were obliged to spend one hour every day singing difficult and malleable things in order to gain experience; another hour was spent on solfeggio, study of the lyrics, Latin and poetry; another in the practice of pure vocalisation exercises, censored by the refined ear of the master, in front of a mirror, to become accustomed to immobilising the muscles of the face; and in order to give the fullest sensation of naturalness, the least effort was outlawed, so that the forehead, the eyelids, the mouth and the body should not suffer the slightest contraction. This set of exercises occupied the whole morning. In the afternoon, half an hour was spent acquiring theoretical knowledge; the phenomena of vibration, sound, vocal chords, timbre, etc. were studied; another half an hour was spent on counterpoint on cantus firmus; one hour was spent writing down on paper what the teacher had explained; another hour was spent on composing a psalm, motet, canzonetta or cantilena, of one’s own choice; and the rest of the day was spent studying the harpsichord. This was the daily academic routine.

But there were other exercises that were carried out outside the school; breathing practices outdoors in nature; and once a week the preceptor accompanied his disciples to an enclosure behind the Vatican (fuori Porta Angelica) where there was a wonderful echo, and those with defects emitted their voice here; in this way the young singers judged for themselves the wrong emission of some rebellious sound or incorrect accent, which they then easily corrected. Others say that the famous echo was produced “fuori Porta San Paolo.” The teacher who used this trick was the exalted maestro Fedi. The young singers also often went to the basilicas, where an infinite number of very remarkable singers flourished, and took part in the great religious solemnities alongside them. Once again at school, they had to present to the maestro a critical study of what they had heard. In this way good taste was formed, and these disciples learned to judge and distinguish qualities or defects with precision.

With such a powerful ornament, acquired through a preparation that on average lasted no less than fifteen years, since it began in childhood, as soon as the mutilation was completed, it is understandable that at the end of their studies they knew all the secrets of the art of singing and had an absolute mastery of the technique of their vocal organ, which obeyed without hesitation the commands of their will; and as they were also skilled in harmony, counterpoint and harpsichord, they had the refined taste to make use of the marvellous faculties with supreme art. Moreover, due to the orchiotomy, devoid of the predominant passions of all men, they lived in general almost exclusively devoted to the worship of the divine art.

The modernists and the classics.

In the 1700s and 1800s, the school of singing in Italy reached such a level of perfection that the vocalists that were issued from it, having completed the period prescribed in their studies, possessed a vocal mechanism capable of overcoming all technical difficulties. But the difficult ease of executing chromatic or diatonic scales with granitic, limpid, vertiginous agility adorned with simple or double grupetti, trills and all sorts of chirping without detriment to the purity of sound, soon led many singers to abuse such virtuosity, encouraged by the approval of the audience that, increasingly admiring and surprised by that laryngeal acrobatics, indulged in delirious enthusiasm towards these artists that were called “modernists” or fashionable singers.

But there were many who refused to betray the fundamental rules of the good school, or of “bel canto”, on which the style, all poetry and feeling, had been founded, and though they knew the secrets of the technique and mastered it in the most perfect way, they were disgusted by its abuse, in spite of the enthusiasm that such marvellous fireworks aroused in the public; fireworks that inevitably perverted the good taste and purpose of the art. These severe, uncompromising singers, with a very pure style, are called “classics”. A formidable struggle ensued which divided the audience into two factions. For a better understanding we will give the following examples, which are part of the history of famous singers. A type of modernist singer was Caffarelli in his time. It is said of him that when he said goodbye to the Emperor at the Court of Vienna to go to London, the autocrat wanted to give him his portrait, in which he put the following dedication:

“Oh, prodigious Caffarelli! There is something superhuman in your singing for the incomparable bravery or skill with which you overcome the most arduous difficulties; but you must think a little about speaking to the heart, trying to move as well as to surprise, so that they do not keep saying that you are a modernist.” It is said that Caffarelli made good use of the Sovereign’s discreet lesson.

In the theatrical chronicles of Naples we read: that the great singer Pacchierotti of the classical school took part in a performance of the opera “Il Corsaro,” after having interpreted the famous “Di chi mi fiderò se tu m’inganni,” the orchestra stopped playing; and the maestro (who was then conducting behind the prompter’s shell) having inquired about the cause of that interruption, they replied: “We are all crying.” Such spiritual sensations, which chained the soul of the listener without incurring in abusive mannerisms of the mechanism, were the fundamental basis of the classics. One of the most illustrious cultivators of the severe style was Loreto Vettori. It is said that in the cities of Rome and Naples, his fans promoted real battles against the Modernists, to such an extent that during a performance at the Jesuit College of the Eternal City, a cardinal was thrown out of the room and others rolled on the floor because they showed their enthusiasm for the Modernists.

Eryfraim —who wrote Vettori’s biography— says that when this classic singer sang, many people would suddenly unbuckle to breathe, as they felt suffocated by the emotion. Such were the classics and the modernists. But it is necessary to confess that the histrionic virtuosity of the vocalists came to captivate the public in such a way that the divine classicism was defeated; and when art deviates betraying the laws of aesthetics, it inevitably declines as we will see next.

Part II

Text excerpted and translated from El arte del canto, Francisco Viñas, Barcelona, 1932.