March 23, 2012 3:25:00 PM
The Roman Catholic Church is rightly credited with the patronage and inspiration for countless works of art. In the musical world, however, it inspired an outrage for centuries. It wasn't so much that the church banned women from singing in the choirs which it had deemed essential for proper devotion, though many find the church's refusal to admit women to all levels of duty an anachronism that ought to have been corrected by now. There was a specific and peculiar evil that this ban caused for church music; since women could not sing, and since angelic high voices were still needed, the church fostered castration for boys who were good singers before their voices broke. The church did issue a prohibition against the barbaric practice late in the sixteenth century, but sopranos were still needed, and though castration was banned, the church did find and use its castrati. And so it was that Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci became a superstar in the eighteenth century. That had not been the church's intention, but Tenducci had a brilliant career. He also had a less brilliant, problematic, and curious marriage. In The Castrato and His Wife (Oxford University Press), historian Helen Berry has given as much of Tenducci's story as can be known (there are lacunae), but also has insights about the media and stardom, not to mention the religious and social meanings of marriage at the time. This is a well-told story fit for the tabloids, with plenty of serious ramifications.
Tenducci was born in 1735 near Sienna in Italy. When he was thirteen years old, he underwent the operation by which he lost his testicles. (Actually, he didn't lose them, they were simply detached. There is a report that he kept them as an amulet all his days.) Of course it wasn't his idea. His father was a mere servant, and there was testimony later that the father was the one who ordered the operation. Perhaps the priest in charge of the boys choir in which little Giusto sang paid the father a fee to keep the youngster's voice part of the choir. The mother's consent to the operation would not have made much difference; she was not on the scene, but was within earshot of the boy's screams. The castration was performed by an itinerant barber-surgeon named Pietro Massi, who may have done the operation on humans before, but whose usual patients were pigs. Massi would have used the same hardware on Tenducci that he did on a boar.
Tenducci was one who survived the operation, and it is presumed that his voice continued its place in the choir. Every report throughout his life testifies to his angelic voice, and he was soon performing opera and popular songs for fees. He was a hit in his homeland, but the real stars went to England, where despite their austere Protestantism and distrust of Europe, Britons were eager for all things Italian, like the cargoes of antiquities their young men would ship back from their Grand Tours. Tenducci was a sensation. At a time when a maid might have made £2 a year, his first season in London got him £700. Quite probably, enthusiastic crowds would have yelled for encores, "Long live the little knife," in praise of the blade that had brought them such music. Tenducci's voice made him famous, of course, but as a famous castrato, he held a peculiar position in society. Castrati were held to be freaks by many, described as "neuters" or "geldings" or "things." For some men or women, however, there was a curiosity about castrati, and a strong sexual appeal. Lydia Melford, the fictional heroine of the novel Humphry Clinker, described Tenducci's voice as "neither man's nor woman's: but it is more melodious than either... while I listened, I really thought myself in paradise." That sort of swooning did not happen only in performances. The real-life Lady Lyttelton started writing Tenducci love letters during his debut season in 1759, and while we don't know of Tenducci's response, her correspondence was one of the reasons that her husband separated from her. She profited from whatever relationship she had with Tenducci; she got alimony and lived in comfort upon it, while the separation would have been less to her benefit had she been having an affair with a "normal" man. Tenducci could boast that he could satisfy women without any risk to them, but it is not clear how far such satisfaction ever went; castrati could get erections and orgasms and even ejaculations, but there was no danger that there would be any risky sperm.
Lady Lyttelton was certainly not the only Englishwoman besotted by the star. While he was on his performing travels in 1765 in Dublin, Tenducci met the young Dorothea Maunsell, daughter of a prominent lawyer, and began her instruction in singing. When her father selected a groom for her she did not want, she asked Tenducci to take her away as his wife. Berry has taken details of their relationship from the 1768 pamphlet "The True and Genuine Narrative of Mr. and Mrs. Tenducci" which is written in Dorothea's voice and may indeed be by her. The poor couple were persecuted by the father and other family members who imprisoned them both. There was a partial reconciliation with the family, and the couple moved to Italy. This was a problem; they had indeed become Mr. and Mrs. Tenducci, but castrati who married in Italy were subject to prosecution, even to execution. She took the role as his student, and sang to accompany him in his performances; she seems to have had some talent.
And she had a child. This is mysterious; Tenducci could not have been the father, and who the father might have been is not known. Casanova met the couple and recalled that they had two children (which Berry doubts), but also recalled Tenducci saying, "... that a third testicular gland which had been left him, was enough to prove his virility, and that the children could not but be legitimate since he recognized them as such." The third testicle is doubtful, too, but indeed the child was Tenducci's, even if not genetically so.
It didn't matter, as the marriage was falling away. Sometime in Italy, while her husband was on tour, Dorothea met up with William Long Kingsman, and fell in love. She had used Tenducci so she could avoid marrying an unwanted appointed husband, and she dropped Tenducci in order to have a marriage that was unquestionably legal and also approved of by her family. Indeed, it is because of this second marriage that Berry gained much of the material in this history. The new couple, back in England, although they had been through two wedding ceremonies, needed to show that Dorothea had never been married before. If Tenducci was a eunuch, he would not have consummated the marriage, the argument went, and so there had been no prior marriage. The legal aspects are complicated, but Dorothea and her family would have thought them important. Testimony about the operation and Tenducci's capacities was all written down. More interesting is the realization that although the marriage to Tenducci was regarded with titters by some and scorn by others, it was accepted by many Britons, and grudgingly, if temporarily, by Dorothea's family.
There are few happy endings here. Dorothea's fully-legal marriage to a fully-equipped man may have been successful, but the man died in a debtors' prison. Tenducci had seen the inside of debtors' prisons as well, but went on to have concerts, for instance, with J. C. Bach. Mozart composed a piece for him, but it is now lost. In his decline, he gave music lessons, and he got a dandy funeral mass with lots of musicians in attendance, and interment in a church in Genoa which is long gone. The last castrato was singing in the Sistine Chapel in the early twentieth century, so the evil tradition had a long run. In Berry's retelling, Mr. and Mrs. Tenducci pushed the limits of their times regarding marriage, sexual mores, stardom, and media coverage, and were regarded by many as shocking. Readers will be reminded of how those limits are being pushed in other ways in our own time, shocking us in our turn. It is fun, and pleasant, to know that the process never ceases.