A Note About High Notes

The soloists in recordings of religious music include male basses and tenors, both female and male altos, and female sopranos.  Some recordings use choirboy altos and sopranos.  In Mozart’s time it was more complicated.

Women had officially been forbidden to sing in Catholic churches at least since the wisdom of Pope Leo IV (847-855) in interpreting St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 14, who decreed, for reasons known only to him and to God, that women must be silent in church.  Nobody much cared when all they had for music was Gregorian chant, which all sounds the same—a bunch of bored, sleepy tenors.  But as the centuries passed, composers discovered the bass voice—and two-part harmony was born.  If women’s voices could be included, then three-part and four-part harmony were possible.  This sounded better the more the voices were spread out, up to a combined range of about three and one-half octaves.  But not in church.

Men could and did learn to sing falsetto, but generally not very well above the alto range.  What to do for sopranos in church with all the great music emerging?  Choirboys were fine up to a point.  Their voices were pure and clear, but reedy, weak, limited in the high range—and by the time they developed decent vocal technique, they kept turning into tenors and basses and had to be replaced.

Italy to the rescue!  If a young boy of, say, seven to nine years old, should have a horrible accident in which he lost his testicles, his pure, soprano voice would never break and the lung capacity he would develop as a man would provide the power and control lacking in a boy.  The popes, and, by extension, archbishops, bishops, kings, and other Catholic nobles who had enough money for orchestras, became obsessed with this idea and there soon grew a substantial cottage industry in Italy producing castrato sopranos.  Pope Sixtus V presented the first four in the Sistine Chapel in 1589 and by 1640 there were castrati in all of Italy’s main choirs.

In 1599 Pope Clement VIII declared that castration of boys was acceptable if it was for the glory of God; otherwise willful castration of a child remained illegal and punishable by no less than excommunication.  In 1700, The Ospedale de Maria Nuova in Florence had eight dedicated beds and two respected surgeons working more or less full time to produce castrati for the Church.  Bologna, Lecce, and Norcia had similar surgical centers, but probably the majority of procedures were carried out by barber surgeons in back rooms in towns and villages.

The process was kept pretty tightly guarded, but some aspects are known.  After the parents reached an agreement with the Church, the boys would be drugged heavily with opium and placed in hot tubs.  Their carotid arteries would be compressed so they would pass out, and the cutting would be carried out by persons with varying degrees of skill.  An estimated 80% of the boys died.  One presumes the Church would have paid for funerals and families would at least have had one fewer mouth to feed.

At the height of production in the eighteenth century, about 4,000 Italian boys each year, mostly poor, were reported to have had horrible encounters with, almost exclusively, wild boars, which left them without testicles but otherwise miraculously intact.  (Pig population data for the eighteenth century is lacking, but the approximately 500,000 wild boars in Italy today account for about 50 human deaths and no reported simple castrations.)  The Church magnanimously would take the boys in, educate them, and teach them singing.

Of the perhaps 800 survivors per year, about ten per cent would have good enough adult soprano voices to sing in churches, mostly in Italy but also in the German lands and in England.  About one per cent could sing well enough for opera and could expect fame and fortune.  The 720 or so who failed to pass the audition have not been written about, but were presumably left to live their lives as best they could—perhaps back with their families (“Thanks, Mom and Dad”).  At least one successful castrato vowed to kill his father if he should ever see him again.  Successful or not, castrati were not allowed a Catholic marriage; that would be a sin since they could not procreate.  That decree went all the way back to Pope Leo VI in 928.

In 1719, George Frederick Handel, with a budget of 50,000 English pounds, went on a recruitment trip with the mandate to hire a number of singers for his newly formed Royal Academy of Music in London.  The number one target was the castrato Senesino, then under contract to August the Strong, Elector of Saxony, in Dresden.  Handel started signing up singers in Italy, then returned through Hamburg, Düsseldorf, and Dresden, attending the lavish wedding of August’s son in the fall.  A few months later, Senesino and fellow castrato Berselli engaged in a shouting match with Heinichen, whose opera they were rehearsing.  Though Heinichen had spent seven years in Italy composing operas, Senesino said he could not set Italian words properly, tore up the score, and threw it at him.  August fired all the singers and disbanded the entire company, which had been the best in Europe.  The two castrati, two female sopranos, and a bass singer, relieved of their contracts, immediately went to London and signed on with Handel.  Perhaps we have Handel to thank for Heinichen’s turning to the composition of masses.

It appears that there were no more castrati in August’s employ until 1730, when three arrived with several other singers and opera was reinstated.  For church music, Catholic choirboys were hard to find in Protestant Saxony and had to be imported.  In 1733 there were six, with Jesuit priests singing the other voices.  Did choirboys sing all the soprano solos in religious music during that decade or were women perhaps allowed to sing in church?  August had been born Lutheran and converted to Catholicism solely because it was a requirement of his acquiring the additional title of King of Poland.  There was no bishop associated with Dresden, and August even had to build the Catholic church, as there had been none.  Maybe he didn’t care who sang there.  I ask only because I’d like to know for whom Heinichen intended the gorgeous folklike lullaby “Benedictus” in his “Mass No. 12” in 1729, which I can imagine being sung only by a woman.

There were reports that women sang in some churches in Dresden and Mannheim by about 1755.  On the other hand, they were apparently still (or again) banned in Catholic churches a century later.  In 1843, a young Richard Wagner wrote a treatise advocating for women to be able to sing in Catholic churches in Dresden, but the idea was rejected.  

In Salzburg, Archbishop Sigismund von Schrattenbach disliked castrati and cultivated talented local women sopranos.  He sent Maria Anna Braunhofer, Maria Anna Fesemayr, and Maria Magdalena Lipp to Italy for study from 1761 to 1764 and appointed them to court in 1765.  All three sang in Mozart’s early operas “Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots” (1767), “La Finta Semplice” (1769), and “Il Re Pastore” (1775).  Lipp also premiered Mozart’s “Regina Caeli”, K108, in 1771.  The operas would have been performed on a secular stage at court, but I would think “Regina Caeli” must have been in a church.

But which one?  Trinity Church and the Benedictine abbey Church of St. Peter were certainly both Catholic, but could they have had more relaxed rules than the archbishop’s cathedral in allowing women singers to perform?  St. Peter, for example, had a paltry choir of five boys and five men.  Leopold Mozart’s “Missa Solemnis”, dating from about 1764, contains an operatic soprano aria and a gentle folk song whose melismas (many notes on one syllable) and vocal range seem beyond the typical choirboy.  Michael Haydn, who married Magdalena Lipp in 1768, had friends in other churches and wrote music for churches other than the cathedral.  He became organist at Trinity and at St. Peter in 1777 when court composer Adlgasser (who had married Fesemayr) died.

Shrattenbach’s successor, Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo, also employed women singers for court festivities, but never in the cathedral.  There were no castrati in his employ due (according to Mozart) to their large salary demands.  Colloredo did finally engage the renowned Ceccarelli from 1777-1788, who sang in Michael Haydn’s “Missa S. Hieronymi” and Mozart’s mass “K275” in the cathedral in 1777.  Mozart’s “Vespers” K321 (1779) and K339 (1780) and his masses “K317” (1779) and “K337” (1780) were sung in the cathedral; hence Ceccarelli must have been the soprano in these as well.

Finally, it is well known that Constanze Mozart sang the soprano solos in Mozart’s mass “K427” at St. Peter in 1783.  Colloredo was well aware of the performance, as most of his court orchestra were required to supplement St. Peter’s ten instrumentalists, and made no effort to stop it despite his acrimonious estrangement from Mozart by then.  The Soprano II part might have been sung by Ceccarelli, but could just as easily have been by Magdalena Haydn.

When Emperor Joseph died in 1790, his brother Leopold acceded to the throne.  He was crowned, as were all Holy Roman emperors, in Frankfurt in the Imperial cathedral, St Bartholemew.  Now if ever a female should be banned from singing in a mass, I would think it would be under these circumstances.  Nonetheless, a mass composed for the festivities by Vincenzo Righini was performed, with solos sung by soprano Margarete Louise Schick.  Again, as in Dresden under August the Strong, there was no bishop associated with St. Bartholemew, which was officially a collegiate church, so maybe this is the key.  What we really need here is a scholarly treatise.

In 1748, Pope Benedict XIV wanted to ban castrati from Catholic churches, but was advised that attendance would drop off sharply, so he gave up the idea.  In 1770, Pope Clement XIV outlawed castration of boys and permitted women to sing in the Vatican chapel.  As with so many papal declarations in the eighteenth century, nobody paid much attention.  The last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, retired from the Sistine Chapel choir in 1913 and died in 1922.