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February 2014
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Web Exclusive: An Uncomfortable Chapter in Music

countertenor Philippe Jaroussky

countertenor Philippe Jaroussky

New Release of the Week/Impromptu, Thurs. at 12:00 PM


You can’t exactly order the sheet music on Amazon. For the last 250 years, this music has existed in manuscript only, deep in the archives of the British Library. Its all-but-forgotten past puts at least half the population ill at ease; it was written for a legendary castrato. It’s true, eunuch singers were part of Europe’s musical life well into the 18th century, and were documented as far back as 400 AD.

The most famous of the castrati was known as Farinelli. Farinelli’s vocal prowess inspired many composers to write for his voice. These compositions have peeked the interest of today’s countertenors, male singers who approach a similar vocal range by singing falsetto (minus the mutilation), but with some trepidation: the music is really hard. Countertenor Philippe Jaroussky admits he was cautious about delving into this music, not because of its quality, but because of the virtuosity of the vocal part. After hard work and close study, Jaroussky has come around, finding the works of the 18th century Italian Nicola Porpora to be a good fit.

Jaroussky’s discovery process revealed a troubling story. Farinelli was born Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi; his was a well-to-do Neapolitan family. He had shown early talent as a singer. When his father died suddenly, the family decided to perform the procedure, dedicating the boy’s life to music. He went to study with the famed opera composer Nicola Porpora. Sources suggest the boy’s training was arduous, and possibly inhumane. As an adult, however, Farinelli collaborated closely with Porpora, starring in his London opera company. Farinelli became one of the most acclaimed singers of his time.

In an interview with WFMT’s Noel Morris, countertenor Philippe Jaroussky discusses the relationship between pupil and master:

Philippe Jaroussky is in Chicago with the Venice Baroque Orchestra to perform a concert in Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago on Friday, February 28 at 7:30 PM. He will perform a live Impromptu on WFMT, Thursday at 12:00 PM.

  • Ginny Stanton

    Mary Mazurek, thank you for your fine report on February 15th!!