Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Things We'll Do for Art's Sake!

The things we’ll do for art’s sake!

Some people, worshipers in the cult of genius, will attribute to artists a godlike status, exempting them from the normal rules of morality. Fortunately, most people would shy away from such a repulsive conclusion. Aspiring artists will show their devotion to art not by explicit artist-worship but simply by devoting their energy and talents to their chosen field. Practice (and study) makes perfect, right? A professional violinist will practice for hours each day perfecting his technique and learning new music. A serious sculptor will examine the works of past masters and learn more about the materials he uses.

Some artists, though, will resort to more extreme measures. Robert Schumann allegedly permanently injured his right hand when, in an attempt to strengthen his weaker fingers, he used a device that held back one finger while he played the piano. Schumann didn't realize that what the device really did was destroy the finger--as well as his concert career. A little manic, no?

But, what happens when the potential artist is only a child, and his parents really want to encourage him in his art? How much pressure should they put on their child? To turn to a more specific example, what about a young boy who is a promising singer? It would be a shame if all his hard work went to waste when he hit puberty, wouldn't it? So, why not just castrate him?

What, that isn’t a reasonable solution? In the last few years a lot of ink has been spilled over the phenomenon of overbearing parents who force their children to become the perfect golfer (e.g. Tiger Woods), or pianist, or whatever. But, at least contemporary parents have not been castrating their boys to advance their singing careers. But, in the 18th century, castration was a surprisingly—shockingly—widespread practice.

The theory was that that for certain physiological reasons only men—albeit evirati (“de-manned men”)—were capable of singing certain soprano pieces. Half a man apparently had more singing power than a whole woman. In the 18th century, the sound of a castrato's voice was all the rage in the opera world, and even in church music. Some historians have charged that besides aesthetics, the Church's restrictions on laywomen singing in church led to the widespread use of castrati. However, it should be pointed out that Pope Benedict XIV had already tried to ban the use of castrati in churches as early as 1748, though this attempt was unsuccessful. No matter what the cause was, at the height of the castrati craze in the middle of the 18th century, hundreds of parents, many of them poor, were castrating their young boys each year. The key advantage in the parents' eyes was that they could assure their boys entry into a lucrative career. Of course, there were also distinct disadvantages. As one might imagine, the surgical procedure was probably not entirely sanitary. Furthermore, these castrati didn't really have any options in life besides singing. (Marriage, of course, wasn't really an option either.)

One (the only?) benefit of the French Revolution is that it seems to have brought castrati into disrepute, since they were closely associated with the reigning fashions of the ancien regime. The last opera to be written specifically for a castrato was probably Giacomo Meyerbeer's Il crociato in Egitto in 1824. In Italy, the use of castrati was outlawed upon unification in 1870. However, it actually survived into the 20th century in the Vatican, until Pope Pius X, with the cooperation of Don Lorenzo Perosi, finally ended the practice in the Sistine Chapel choir. In fact, there are some early sound recordings of castrati available, such as this clip of Alessandro Moreschi singing the Ave Maria.

The phenomenon of castrati is one of the more memorable examples of the mania which art is capable of inspiring: otherwise sane parents mutilating their young boys. But, there must be other examples of this type of behavior, such as Schumann's finger. Is there any general explanation for this mania, or is this phenomenon too idiosyncratic to admit of one general explanation? If you can think of an explanation, please let me know.
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