Martha Feldman: A Castrato Fantasia (on maleness and voice love)

Archive photo showing a group of Italian men sitting around a newspaper in the late 1800s. Alessandro Moreschi is on the bottom left, and Giovanni Cesari is on the bottom right.
A group of Roman musicians, ca. 1885. The three unmustachioed men are all castrati, including Alessandro Moreschi at bottom left and Giovanni Cesari at bottom right.


By Martha Feldman, Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor of Music and the Humanities in the College

The following piece is a modified excerpt from Chapter 4 of my book-in-progress The Castrato Phantom: Moreschi, Fellini, and the Sacred Vernacular in Rome, with most of the notes left out.

In the eyes of nineteenth-century literary critic Francesco De Sanctis (1817-1883), writing in his History of Italian Literature in 1870, the Italian love of sound and music was threatening to Italian nationhood and character, and no less to gender distinctions. Would that De Sanctis had weighed in on the fact that during his time, the churches of Rome, notably the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, were still stacked with powerfully resonant male eunuchs specially castrated by the church, who remained there through the earliest years of the twentieth century. Let me seize upon the unsaid as a way of meditating on the castrato phenomenon in its waning days before 1900 and its ghostly aftermath in the twentieth century.

Since I recently coedited a volume on voice, The Voice as Something More: Essays toward Materiality, with Judith T. Zeitlin, I could hardly help reading De Sanctis against the grain of Mladen Dolar’s Lacanian gloss on voice, A Voice and Nothing More (2006). This small gem of a book opens with a joke aimed at highlighting the troubling disjuncture between vocal sound and vocal meaning but superficially telling of a group of Italian soldiers whose reaction to an order to attack captures this sense of the Italian attachment to the sensuality of the voice.

In the middle of a battle there is a company of Italian soldiers in the trenches, and an Italian commander who issues the command “Soldiers, attack!” He cries out in a loud and clear voice to make himself heard in the midst of the tumult, but nothing happens, nobody moves. So the commander gets angry and shouts louder: “Soldiers, attack!” Still nobody moves. And since in jokes things have to happen three times for something to stir, he yells even louder: “Soldiers, attack!” At which point there is a response, a tiny voice rising from the trenches, saying appreciatively “Che bella voce!” “What a beautiful voice!”

Prima facie what we have here are soldiers more smitten with voice than disposed to battle. But it isn’t just voice that’s at stake, and not just Italian voice, but Italian masculinity, including all the issues surrounding the voice/gender relation raised by the prospect of soldiers so enamored with the sound of the voice that they fail to attack when commanded by a superior, perhaps even under threat of bodily harm. Love of sound is effeminizing, the joke says. And still worse, it reduces national interest to the shallow, the sensual, and the aesthetic.

Here I want to return to a story that has been much cited in castrato scholarship but never closely studied: Enrico Panzacchi’s “Cantores!” first published in 1885 in his Racconti credibili ed incredibili (Believable and Unbelievable Tales) and republished in various later editions, in 1889, 1890, 1894, and 1900. Panzacchi (1840-1904) was an emphatically minor writer and critic, given to a kind of literary braggadocio though lacking the literary gifts to fully carry it off. His story, of going to the Vatican on Ascension Day and being entranced by the voice of a castrato, has entered the annals of castrato literature because it contains one of the most pointed depictions of a castrato voice anywhere, a voice described as high-pitched, mellifluous, exquisitely refined, as sweet as a flute and as light and untrammeled as a skylark, with a perfect intonation and an effortless passaggio from one register to the next.

The mise-en-scène of this description, indoors and out, is St. Peter’s. The author announces his approach in the proleptical terms of an unnamed "desire that's at first glance inhuman, grotesque, odd, and a bit monstrous [teratologicol]" yet not out of keeping with "a high sense of truth," a revelation presented brinkmanlike by a man on the verge of a fall. As he enters the church at sundown, with the great shadows of the colonnade settling onto the square, he finds a mix of natives, tourists, religious people, and gapers all heaped together in a peculiarly Roman anthill lost in the immense naves and pylons of the church, then apprehends a sound of inexpressible, unearthly beauty.

Was it an instrument? Was it a human voice? At first I could not understand… It was the sound of a tone that was extraordinarily high, very fine, yet vibrant for that vast space in a way that seemed to fill it completely. After taking a few steps into the basilica I heard distinctly the phrase of a Biblical verse reaching my ear via notes… So there was no doubt it was a human voice.

And what a voice, signora! Imagine a voice that combines the sweetness of the flute and the lively mellifluousness of the human larynx, a voice that rises, light and spontaneous, as a skylark flies through the air when it's inebriated by the sun; and then when it seems that this voice must be poised on the topmost vertices of its highest range, takes further flight and rises and rises, always with equal lightness, equally spontaneous, without the least expression of force, without the slightest indication of artifice, of searching about, or effort; a voice in short that gives you the immediate sense of "feeling made sound" and of the ascendency of a soul toward the infinite wings of that sentiment.

The voice Panzacchi heard was almost certainly not that of the most famous of the last castrati, Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), but of his older colleague Giovanni Cesari (1843-1904) who fits Panzacchi’s physical description and was known for brilliant coloratura. All these vocal and to an extent surface elements of the tale have drawn musicologists and melophiles to it like proverbial moths to the flame. But what “Cantores!” really is is a love story—a love story that, like many others, is finally a story of self-love. Panzacchi listens to the castrato and instead of hearing in it an alien Other hears himself. This is not to ignore the fact that the castrato is useful to Panzacchi because he enables his trope of himself as prone to, indeed victim of, bizarre illicit impulses, far from the bourgeois norms that so sharply differentiated men and women in his time, including in the church: the voice here is a springboard for telling of dissolute or disorderly passions, pretending to relate to higher truths inaccessible to conventional beings (a trope that aligned Panzacchi with the arts and writers known as Scapigliati—literally, Disheveled Ones—who flourished earlier in the century and prided themselves on bohemian ways). But it is to attend to the fact that the voice of the castrato functions as a proxy, impelling the protagonist to a zone of dangerous self-discovery, outwardly motivated by attraction and passion. And it is to claim that in order to pull off this sleight of hand, Panzacchi has to stage himself as a man driven by necessity.

All this is told to a skeptical auditor, a disapproving but mysterious because absent lady friend whose regard Panzacchi laments protestingly that he may have lost (“I do not think I have been unworthy of your esteem”). As with much else in the text, filled with allusions and gaps, we know his auditor only elliptically, through Panzacchi’s reference to a missing letter from the “dolce amica” to whom he addresses himself and through allusions to her withering contempt for his passions. Nor do we understand why he’s unready for the day, why he’s unaware that it’s the feast of the Ascension, and why he’s therefore unprepared for St. Peter’s to be thronging with crowds (“I believed that as usual I would find the great church empty at that hour, but I was mistaken”).

This thwarting of signs through hints, circumlocutions, and mistaken pathways is part of what makes “Cantores!” a racconto incredibile in a way that already suggests a combination of veracity and make-believe. It is also what puts the reader hand-in-hand with the author at a moment when something takes total possession of him. That something is not just music, although music is its trigger, but a vocal sound that agitates him so thoroughly as to change his status as a human being, causing him finally to object that he has “not ceased to be a man” but rather added to his manhood. It matters that Panzacchi enters St. Peter’s at the witching hour, in the shadow of Vespers, and exits in love with a castrato’s voice and with his very imagining of the castrato, which constitutes a being in love with himself. The castrato’s sound is bewitching, seductive, irresistible—something outside the ordinary sphere of sounding and hearing. For the body to submit to such forbidden pleasures requires the vast mysteries of the Vatican piazza and the Sistine Chapel, uncertain and haunting in its disclosure of a voice that is “feeling made sound,” that plunge the author into love as an immediate and inevitable kind of self-loss, and with a sound that’s at first a mystery. “As I pushed open the heavy curtain of the door a musical sound suddenly struck me. Was it an instrument? Was is it a human voice? At first I could not understand.” The voice exceeds words, even though words alone can ensure its humanness (“After taking a few steps in the basilica, I distinctly heard notes of a phrase from a Biblical verse reach my ears. So without doubt it was a human voice.”)

Once our hero finds his true love, he also finds a voice worthy of the term “soprano” by natural and divinely ordained right, unlike what should apply to the venal women who populate the operatic stage.

Finally I had heard the true voice of the soprano. Let the female sopranos who usurp this name hide themselves! We will call them “soprane” [female sopranos] if they like; but it is to be hoped for the sake of the art of singing, which is greatly declining, that they once again cease the wretched ambition of rising through the efforts of their larynx to certain diatonic vertices only legitimately permitted to true (male) sopranos, to sacred sopranos, to sopranos by divine right.

We might almost blush to insist on a quasi-psychoanalytic reading of a tale that delineates the operations of voice in these terms. Voice here is a crucial remainder, something that goes beyond words and beyond phonology, a remainder that cannot be incorporated fully into the subject who experiences it as an “object” in the peculiarly Lacanian sense of something that disturbs the psyche. Music may try to win over the subject with its irresistible qualities—its luxurious sounds and harmonies, entraining rhythms, and seductive timbres, which capture the attentions of the listening Panzacchi—but the castrato voice will always remain troubling and therefore prone to being fetishized as it opens up disconcerting, inexplicable gaps in the listener’s psyche.

Enter love in the form of self-love. The voice here, though adored and idolized, is narcissistically so. Consider (as Dolar and Shane Butler do elsewhere) the narcissism of the eponymous Ovidian character Narcissus in his affair with the nymph Echo to whom he speaks, but only to hear his voice return to him, devoid of new words and meanings but filled with entrancing sounds. Panzacchi’s narcissism, like that of Narcissus himself, is (he admits) a failed one, because, as Dolar notes, the voice of the Other is “intractable” and Narcissus would rather die than abandon himself to it: “at the very core of narcissism there lies an alien kernel that the narcissistic satisfaction may well attempt to disguise, but which continually threatens to undermine it from the inside.”

This problem of self-recognition emerges starkly in Panzacchi’s story, which first recites his excited admiration for the castrato he hears but then ends in a mad fantasy of merging with this strange and seductive Other—leaping into a bizarre form of paraphilias situated disconcertingly in the holy grail of Catholic sanctuaries.

In the heat of my enthusiasm I pronounced to myself a mad wish that I had the candor to express to you and which threw your expressions of horror onto me.

What do you want me to tell you? During that motet of Allegri’s a strange change occurred in me, and it seemed that suddenly a great light shone in my soul. In that light I saw a bizarre vision—the ancient Corybantes who, with gestures and cries of ecstatic people, led around a vertiginous dance, and in the middle of that welter I saw rising up the weighty and serene figure of Origen who, extending a hand and his eyes straining toward the stars, was exclaiming: Blessed!...1 At the same time, certain words came to mind with which the Duke of Richelieu thanked the divine Goodness when he realized that he had reached the end of his career as a man—not meaning the diplomatic or the military one, of course.

And I thought: when this young man is further along in years and one day notices himself no longer having a voice suited to a mystical office…, with what words will he thank God for the career he has completed? … my mind went clambering up through the perilous and splendid spire. I felt chords and dissonances ring in my ears and vibrate throughout my whole being, full of strange, voluptuous pleasures… I raised my eyes and it seemed to me that even the Evangelists, from the gigantic plumes of the vault, were nodding to me with their heads that I was right. I must have been mad, if you like, but I was proud and happy.

Caressing his ears, the sensation produced in Panzacchi becomes a "mad” castration desire that arises at the very moment when the choir sings that most mythologized of all Vatican repertory, Allegri's Miserere, performed in the late nineteenth century with a hyper-expressive romanticism (as evident in the heavily annotated surviving score). Instead of feeling ambivalent, much less ashamed, that the Vatican is still making castrati, he feels proud of his countrymen who castrate young boys to make them glorious singers and happy for the rapturous fantasies that allow him to imagine himself as one of them—precisely what many Romans were no longer proud of. This may sound like popular romantic philosophy, but the procreator and keeper of all this is the Catholic Church, which in 1885 was still closeting any reservations it might have had about butchering boys for the papal choir. Its stewardship alone allows this enrapturing sound to fall upon the soul like a "heavenly dew."

It matters that Panzacchi gets to this stage through a combination of seeing and hearing. At first his encounter is blind, his gaze severed from his eye, but he pursues the voice, pushing across the crowded church, body by body, till he’s staring up at the cantoria. And what he sees then, standing above him, is his double, the creature who has invaded his ear and will disrupt his everyday sense of reality. Panzacchi hears and finally sees himself in the castrato but the sensations come hauntingly from inside himself. Music is a danger, and the central conceit of Panzacchi’s tale is his giving himself over to that danger by merging with the castrato in whom he discovers himself. And again: it is by virtue of this maneuver that Panzacchi dramatically (en)genders the voice.

Of course music in the church was soon to be in a drastically ambiguous position, because its cadre of castrati were already radically outmoded and threatening to the social and political order, even if still deemed necessary from some reactionary core within it. By 1898, when the new Sistine chapel co-director Lorenzo Perosi entered the picture, amending the matter of voice and body, correcting it, had become an urgent task. This meant, excising castrati by the very early twentieth century, a task that Perosi—always of very precarious mental health—claimed to have taken very much to heart:

The substitution [of boys for castrati] has cost me more mental strain than all the music I have composed. But I insisted on it for grave moral reasons, since shortly after my arrival in Rome, so many requests to join the choir began reaching me from abnormal men that I suspected some ignoble speculation behind them.

Inextricably, however, correcting voice and body also meant confining the voice quite literally to the letter of the liturgy. When a new papal encyclical was put in place on November 22, 1903 that replaced castrati with boys (in principle if not in fact), it also insisted that each note of a vocal composition take just one syllable, that words no longer be broken up and texts of the mass no longer be arrayed in multiple movements. The voice had to carry the word not in the lively and sensuous way that Monteverdi and his brother intended with the seconda prattica but in a return to the withering, dehydrating norms the Council of Trent intended when it demanded during the Counterreformation that voice and verse march to the tune of the symbolic order. And while the Sistine Chapel would march that way once again, the voice of the castrato would stop marching altogether. No more rapturous lyrical flights, no more ravishing coloratura, no more Rossini, and no more castrati.


New Buffalo, Michigan
January 25, 2021


1 The self-castration of Origen (185/6-254 A.D.) is recounted by Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 263-339), following Matthew 19:12: " For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from [their] mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake." Presumably the reference to Richelieu is to the Duke Armand de Vignerot du Plessis (1696-1788; grandnephew of Cardinal Richelieu), who was allegedly cured of conjugal impotence by Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738). See Institutions de Médicine de Monsieur Herman Boerhaave traduite de Latin en francois par Monsieur de la Maettrie, docteur de médecine, vol. 2 (Paris: Huart, 1740), 76-77; and Angus McLaren, Impotence: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 93.