Superstardom is something that permeates today’s musical landscape. Many kinds of music have superstars: pop giants like Lady Gaga, emerging YouTube stars, or jazz greats and legends such as Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis. In the classical music world they abound too—perhaps not as widely known to the general population as the former—but many of these living superstars serve as role models for young musicians to aspire to. They too, through a combination of their gifts, hard work, and perhaps even some luck (!), might someday live out their dream to pursue music as a career and possibly even enter into that world of musical superstardom.
How long have musical superstars existed for? This is a question that often comes up in my music history classes, although students are often shocked when they find out the answer! Did superstardom start with the amazing virtuosic escapades and fireworks of Franz Liszt at the piano or Paganini on his violin in their 19th-century European tours that truly astounded audiences? Did it begin with labels of compositional genius and heroism attributed to the rising star of Beethoven by E.T.A. Hoffmann in Vienna in the early 1800s? Or what about accounts of the young Mozart playing and wowing kings and nobles? While these were all superstars in their own right, we have to go back further in time to locate the beginnings of this phenomenon.
It turns out that the first musical superstars were famous castrato singers who enjoyed tremendous careers and public prestige across Europe throughout the 1700s. Famous castrati, like superstars, were given “stage names” like Farinelli, Caffarelli, Nicolini, Senesino (Handel’s favorite singer), Tenducci and many more. Around 70 such singers hit the “big time” in the 18th-century and enjoyed successful careers and popularity. They were also paid very handsome sums of money for singing, and were often one of the most expensive aspects of putting on an operatic production (so expensive, that they were one of the factors in almost bankrupting Handel’s opera company!). They served as their own financial agents, so they were also independent musical entrepreneurs while also enjoying superstardom. They were also musical “gurus” and proficient not just with their powerful high range soloistic voices, but on the keyboard, in composition, music theory, and other musicians would frequently seek out their advice (e.g. the Mozart family).
The first reaction that students sometimes have to the above is one of disgust and even horror! How could such a brutal practice such as castration have gone on for so long, and how could it have been encouraged? We know for musical purposes (to keep their voices in the range of a boy), the practice started in the late 1500s and continued into the 1800s when it was finally outlawed around about the same time that Italian operatic tenors rather than castrati were becoming famous. Like many stars today, castrato singers often came from poor backgrounds and their rural families in Italy were told lies about the nature of the procedure, that it was therapeutically beneficial. Some poor families probably submitted their boys to the procedure in the hopes of them finding a better life and a music career in a chapel or perhaps even becoming a famous opera singer. Most never became superstars of course, but church choirs and chapels abounded with such singers across Europe.
Pictures of castrato singers from the 1700s tend to exaggerate their bodily features such as having long fingers, large stomachs, puffy faces, thin arms and legs etc. not so much as objects of ridicule or disgust but more in the sense of good fun and popularizing the singers themselves in the public arena.
People were in awe of the wonders of the castrato’s voice and its capacity for powerful improvised and ornamented singing.
We really have no idea how these singers actually sounded like, and for a long time they were forgotten to history, mainly out of a sense of shame that the practice was so common and condoned by musical and other institutions for so long. It is only now that the castrato’s history has recently been revived and uncovered in a serious way. Solving that mystery is an intriguing puzzle because it tells us something about how the phenomenon of the superstar in music actually began, and what it might be in the future.
Andy Greenwood, Assistant Professor of Musicology, SIUE