Francisco Viñas: the golden era of castratti II

Second part of the description of the golden era of castratti singers, through “the fascination of the great singing celebrities, the idolatry of the singing musicians and the tragic end of some of them, including anecdotes about Queen Christina of Sweden, Farinelli in the court of Spain and other eminent singers” by Spanish tenor Francisco Viñas (1863 – 1933).


Christina of Sweden

Going through the annals of song, it is not possible to read the august name of that distinguished patron of the arts, Christina of Sweden, without feeling veneration. Of such an exalted queen, who —as we mentioned— had already been fascinated by the supreme art of Baldassare Ferri, it is said that she protected other singers who serviced her court; among them there was a favorite of the beautiful sovereign, called Bianchi, whom she lavished with gifts and attentions. She kept him in her palace for a long time and, eager to deepen the secrets of the divine art, took singing lessons from him. But this remarkable sopranist, perhaps jaded, left in 1663 for the court of Savoy, at the invitation of the Duchess Mary, during the reign of Charles Emmanuel III, in the absence of the august lady.

This irritated the Swedish queen to such an extent that it created a serious conflict between the two royal houses, bringing Queen Christina’s anger to such an extent that from Hamburg, where she was, she wrote the following letter to Count d’Aliberto, her embassy secretary: «Je veux qu’on sache qu’il n’est plus au monde que pour moi, autrement il ne chantera pas longtemps pour qui que ce soit. Quoique s’il est sorti de mon service, je veux qu’il y rentre; tachez donc de declarer mes sentiments d’une manière qu’on fasse passer l’envie aux gens de lui faire l’amour; car je veux le conserver à quelque prix que ce soit. Et quand même on voudrait me faire croire qu’il a perdu la voix, tout cela n’en ferait rien, car tel qu’il est il doit vivre et mourir à mon service ou malheur lui arrivera. Tachez de me rendre compte de cette commission d’une manière que j’aye sujet d’être satisfaite de vous.» Such was the queen’s passion for her favorite singer, who returned to court out of fear of a tragic end.

It should be noted, says Monaldi, that the famous sopranist singers Cecconi and Monescalchi, who served this queen in different times, died suddenly in her palace, and that people attributed those mysterious events to poison or alle sacchettate, which was then very much in use, with no one caring to discover the cause or the authors of the crimes. However, this capricious sovereign was so prodigal with many artists that her name was evoked as that of a new Maecenas. Established in Rome, after her conversion to Catholicism, she transformed her palace into a temple where all arts were cultivated, especially the art of singing. There came the most famous artists, whom she protected and honored with her familiarity.

The great musical solemnities she organized were memorable, and deserving perennial remembrance was a feast in honor of King James II of England, in which the artists performed a cantata by Scarlatti —who was encouraged by her in his glorious path— with a large orchestra, with two hundred string instruments and two hundred and fifty castratti, sopranos and contraltos. Such a magnanimous queen, on account of her devotion to the Papacy and her merits in protecting the arts, raising many of its humble cultivators, was considered worthy to have her memory perpetuated upon her death, and her mortal remains were buried in a beautiful mausoleum in the Vatican Basilica, next to the most famous Popes.

Farinelli at the court of Spain

All theatrical chronicles in Madrid, from 1737 to 1755, abound in anecdotes of this portentous singer whose real name was “Carlo Broschi.” Of beautiful and arrogant figure, attractive features, of affable, sweet, good and humble character, it was due to these moral virtues loved by all who knew him, in such a way that even the greatest of Italian poets, the spiritual Metastasio, implacable enemy of the sopranists, made of him an exception, saying that “Farinelli must have been touched at birth by the invisible hand of the Divine Creator,” and he added: “In the voice of this strange being there is something superhuman that inflames and fascinates both the wise and the ignorant, friend or foe; in the pathetic passages his singing rises with such a sweet expression of mystery that it penetrates the deepest part of the soul and draws tears from our eyes.”

At a young age, under the light of the stage, Farinelli appeared as a gleaming beauty; and there is nothing strange about the worldly chronicles ever taking care of his adventures, which, fortunately for him, never ended tragically. The devotion he awakened, especially in England, took on incredible dimensions. On leaving the theatre, people squeezed to see him up close, and it was considered very lucky for someone to touch his cloak. One fortunate night he was surprised by a gentle lady wearing a mask: was she perhaps of noble lineage? She took the right hand of the sublime singer, slipped a marvelous ring into his ring finger and disappeared. Farinelli never disclosed, not even to his most intimate, the enigma of the mysterious encounter; but that sacred talisman, they said, was his inseparable companion until death.

Farinelli’s fame grew day by day, and he was the favorite of all the courts in Europe. While in Vienna at the service of the Emperor, the Queen of Spain asked to see if Farinelli’s marvelous singing virtues could work the prodigy of alleviating the downhearted spirit of Philip V. Indeed; as we read in different chronicles, like David, who had the gift of dissipating the gloomy shadows in the soul of King Saul with the harmonious chords of his harp, Farinelli had the virtue of relieving melancholy with his splendid singing and even of curing the strange insanity of the lethargic sovereign, who returned to his pleasant existence, taking care of his person, of his beard —which he had abandoned—, and he returned to occupy himself with the business of the State, presiding with renewed energy over the national councils.

This event was discussed in all the courts of the world, which increased the fame of the prodigious singer. The king wanted him always by his side as adviser; he assigned him —by Royal Order on August 31, 1737— an annuity of one hundred thousand francs, which at that time was a fabulous sum; he also offered him a magnificent residence in the Royal Palace, a big coach, and he was made Knight of the Order of Santiago. Whoever wanted sovereign favors, turned to Farinelli, because he never denied them, though everyone recognized his great care not to abuse his omnipotence, always trying to do all the good he could and repairing injustices on many occasions. However, he could not get rid of harsh criticisms by satirical poets, who ridiculed royalty, which was so deferential to the superb singer.

He remained in the court of the apathetic King Philip V for ten years and during this time he gave a recital almost every night in the presence of the court, singing always the same romanzas, without ever producing the least fatigue with that uniform continuity, thanks to the virtue of his marvelous art and his musical knowledge, of which we cannot form an idea, as well as to the technical mastery he possessed over his vocal mechanism that, without betraying rhythm or rules of harmony, allowed him to make brilliant improvisations that transformed the musical piece into another ever-new creation. Farinelli usually performed music of his own composition, as he was also a remarkable composer and poet. But his favorite romanzas were those of Maestro Hasse: “Pallido il Sole” and “Per questo dolce amplesso,” where he had gathered infinite and extremely varied difficulties he had prodigiously resolved.

He must have been very likeable to people, to the point that he continued to enjoy the favor of Ferdinand VI, who honored him by naming him a member of the Order of Calatrava, after the death of Philip V. He was also entrusted with the direction of the performances of the Opera, a position that he carried out with great success, and he had under his tutelage the most celebrated artists of the time. The sweet, good and humble man had such a deep artistic feeling that he was strict and uncompromising when directing the productions, subjecting everyone to the toughest discipline, which is why Farinelli’s times were a glorious period of lyrical art in Madrid.

When Ferdinand VI died, he was succeeded by Charles III on the throne and the singer saw that the friendship of the new monarch was not for him like that of his predecessors, due —it seems— to the antipathy that Farinelli felt for the Court of France, and he decided to ask for license to leave Spain. The King willingly granted it, writing Farinelli a laudatory letter “because he never abused the benevolence and magnanimity of his predecessors.” He then retired to the city of Bologna, where he had a magnificent palace built which is still known today as “Palazzo Farinelli.” The divine singer never forgot the chivalrous treatment he received at the court of Spain, and he carried the memory so deep in his soul that he constantly repeated to his servants: “If you find a Spaniard in the streets of the city, ask him to come and see me.”

We translate from the book of Giambattista Mancini, famous sopranist and contemporary of Farinelli, the opinion he had about the marvelous art of this famous singer: “Carlo Broschi, commonly called “Farinelli,” in addition to all the singing virtues that nature was pleased to bestow on him and which he used masterfully to adorn his singing, he possessed the half voice with such perfection that in the opinion of the people it was that singular quality that elevated his name as a singer to immortality. Carlo Broschi, the knight, who can undoubtedly be called the Baldassare Ferri of our century, was born in Naples in 1705. He made his first studies with the famous master Nicola Porpora and his progress was so fast that his fame soon spread throughout Europe.”

“The voice of this sublime singer was considered miraculous; it was perfect, warm, sonorous, rich in range, of the sweetest timbre, in the deep as well as in the central and high sounds; such a thing was never heard. He was endowed with natural inspiration, so wisely arranged that in his singing one could perceive strange and peculiar things no one could imitate. The art of knowing how to preserve or retain the breath with utmost discretion and purity, without anyone noticing, began and ended with him. The intonation, the way of modulating and reinforcing the voice, the portamento, the union of the registers, the surprising agility, the singing that reached the heart both pathetically and joyfully, his most perfect trills in six different manners, were in him qualities of such balance and equality that not a single one failed to reach the most sublime degree. In spite of his memorable triumphs this great singer never stopped studying; and even after a few years he abandoned his first system for another one that seemed more perfect to him. Such was the sublime singer Carlo Broschi-Farinelli, which in many chronicles is also mentioned with the name of “Farinello.””

The prodigious healing of the illness of Philip V by virtue of Farinelli’s singing, leads us to remember that, since ancient times, writers and philosophers of great renown attributed therapeutic virtues to this art. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and St. Augustine praised this incomparable art that some call “divine discipline,” others ” heavenly pleasure, enjoyment, and comfort of humanity.” Macrobium, for example, says in his second book “that singing cures the diseases of the body and vanishes the horrors of melancholy.” Likewise, Marciano Capella states that in ancient times they got rid of fever through singing, “which favors the recovery of strength and sets the organic system up for joy.” The reader will realize that it must have been a marvelous thing that we do not know of today; for singing in our day —especially that of those who perform modern works— it is a series of sounds unpleasant to the ear, often intolerably out of tune, that usually alters the nerves, a denial of what was and should be the divine art of singing, “a wholesome delight.”

Part III

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