Napoleon’s Castrato: Girolamo Crescentini
In Napoleon in America, Joseph Bonaparte laments the lack of fine arts in the United States. “There are plays in the cities,” he tells Napoleon, “but not one Italian singer.” Joseph knew that his brother was particularly fond of Italian musicians. Napoleon’s favourite composer was Giovanni Paisiello. His favourite singers were the Italian opera virtuosos Girolamo Crescentini and Giuseppina Grassini. (1) Madame Grassini became the lover of both Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington. Here’s a look at her teacher, the castrato Girolamo Crescentini.
Rise to fame
Girolamo Crescentini was born on February 2, 1766 in Urbania, part of the Papal States. He was a castrato, thus throughout his life he had the voice of a male soprano. When Crescentini was 12 years old, his father sent him to Bologna to study music and singing with the singer and composer Lorenzo Gibelli. Crescentini made his debut five years later, in 1783. He played female characters in serious – as opposed to comic – operas at the theatre in Rome (women were not allowed to appear on the Roman stage). This was followed by engagements in Leghorn, Padua, Venice and Turin.
In 1785, Girolamo Crescentini appeared on stage in London.
Crescentini was thought so moderate a performer, and so little liked, that before the season was half over, he was superseded by Tenducci…an old man, who had never been very capital, and could now have scarcely any voice left…. It is but justice to Crescentini to add that when he was here he was very young, and had not attained that excellence which has since gained him the reputation of a first-rate singer. He never returned to this country. (2)
Poor reviews in England did not diminish Crescentini’s appeal to his countrymen. By 1796, when General Napoleon Bonaparte was leading the French army across northern Italy, Girolamo Crescentini was famous. Two operas were written with roles expressly for him: Gli Orazi e i Curiazi by Domenico Cimarosa, and Giulietta e Romeo by Niccolò Zingarelli. Crescentini himself composed an aria for the latter, “Ombra adorata aspetta,” which became known as Romeo’s prayer.
It is claimed that immediately before the start of a performance of Gli Orazi e i Curiazi, Crescentini (Curiazio) observed that the costume of Orazio was more magnificent than his own. Enraged, he sent for the stage manager and insisted that the costume be given to him.
An exchange was therefore made, in spite of the remonstrances of the manager; and throughout the evening a Curiatius, six feet high, was seen wearing a little Roman costume, which looked as if it would burst at any moment, while a diminutive Horatius was attired in a long Alban tunic, with its skirt trailing on the ground. (3)
Crescentini spent four years in Lisbon, returning to Italy in 1803. He then went to Vienna, where he was a great favourite of Maria Theresa of Naples (wife of Francis I of Austria and mother of Napoleon’s future wife, Marie Louise). He became a regular participant in concerts at the Viennese court.
An Englishman who heard Crescentini perform in Vienna in October 1805 wrote:
Crescentini has a remarkable fine clear voice, of vast compass and great power; he manages it with great taste. There was something very disgusting and unpleasant on his first coming on the stage; my feelings were shocked by hearing such a high shrill voice come from such a large stout tall man; the recollection, too, of what he is, added to the disturbed association. It was some time before I could get over a sort of repulsive dislike to the man, but by shutting my eyes and listening to the exquisite tones he uttered, I was highly gratified. He is certainly the finest he-singer I ever heard; a woman, or a boy, or a man with a feigned voice, would answer the purpose just as well. And I am told it is not the fashion now, even in Italy, to resort to this brutal and inhuman practice for the sake of pleasing the ears of a refined audience. (4)
At the court of Napoleon
In November 1805, Napoleon occupied Vienna. He heard Girolamo Crescentini sing and decided that he wanted the castrato for his own court. In the words of Madame de Rémusat, whose husband proposed the arrangement to Crescentini on the French Emperor’s behalf:
By engaging Marchesi, Catalani, Crescentini, etc., Paris would soon possess the finest possible school of music. There is a very good company in Vienna just now, who may perhaps come to us as trophies of our conquest. I wish it may be so, for Italian music is all the fashion, and it would be a good opportunity for calling it French music. (5)
Crescentini moved to Paris in 1806. Napoleon’s valet Constant writes:
I saw Crescentini make his début in Paris as Romeo in Roméo et Juliette. He came preceded by an immense reputation as the first singer of Italy. This fame he completely justified, in spite of all the obstacles he had to overcome, for I can well recollect the many hard things that were said of him before he appeared. According to certain wiseacres he was a bellower, devoid of taste or refinement, having no method, an executants of silly roulades, a cold, unintelligent actor, &c. When going upon the stage he was aware how ill-inclined were his judges to show him any signs of favour. Yet he was not in the least embarrassed, but his majestic bearing came as an agreeable surprise to those who expected to see an ungainly boor. A murmur of approval greeted him, with such electrical effect upon himself that in the very first act the whole house was with him. Gestures full of grace and dignity, absolute mastery of the art of acting, a mobile face, expressing with amazing truth all the varying shades of passion and despair – all these rare and precious equipments did but deepen the magic of this great artist’s entrancing voice, the charm of which was inconceivable, at any rate for such as had never yet heard him. With each exciting scene the audience grew more and more enthusiastic. In the third act, however, the delight of the audience became positively frantic. It was in this act, played almost entirely by Crescentini, that this admirable singer touched the souls of his hearers by his movingly pathetic presentment of love and despair, as expressed in delicious melody. The Emperor was charmed, and caused a handsome fee to be paid to Crescentini, while expressing in most flattering terms the great pleasure it had been to hear him. (6)
Napoleon, who was said to be moved to tears by Crescentini’s performance of Romeo’s prayer, conferred upon the singer the Order of the Iron Crown. This did not go down well with Parisians. Napoleon commented on the episode when he was in exile on St. Helena.
‘In conformity with my system of amalgamating all kinds of merit, and of rendering one and the same reward universal, I had an idea of presenting the cross of the legion of honour to Talma; but I refrained from doing this, in consideration of our capricious manners and absurd prejudices. I wished to make a first experiment in an affair that was out of date and unimportant, and I accordingly gave the iron crown to Crescentini. The decoration was foreign, and so was the individual on whom it was conferred. This circumstance was less likely to attract public notice or to render my conduct the subject of discussion; at worst, it could only give rise to a few malicious jokes…. I believe my experiment with regard to Crescentini proved unsuccessful.’
‘It did, Sire,’ observed some one present. ‘The circumstance occasioned a great outcry in Paris; it drew forth a general anathema in all the drawing-rooms of the metropolis, and afforded ample scope for the expression of malignant feeling. However, at one of the evening parties of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, a bon-mot had the effect of completely stemming the torrent of indignation. A pompous orator was holding forth, in an eloquent strain, on the subject of the honour that had been conferred on Crescentini. He declared it to be a disgrace, a horror, a perfect profanation, and inquired what right Crescentini could have to such a distinction? On hearing this, the beautiful Madame [Grassini] who was present, rose majestically from her chair, and with a truly theatrical tone and gesture, exclaimed, ‘Et sa blessure, Monsieur! [And his wound!] Do you make no allowance for that?’ This produced a general burst of laughter and poor Madame Grassini was very much embarrassed by her success.’ (7)
Girolamo Crescentini served as a performer and teacher at the French Imperial court for six years. He was paid a large salary. In 1812, his voice suffering from the climate, he with difficulty obtained permission to retire. Crescentini devoted himself to teaching singing at Bologna’s Liceo Musicale. He had a country house about two miles from Bologna, to which he made improvements costing over 100,000 francs. In the winter, he occupied apartments at the Palazzo Legnani. An Englishman who met him in Bologna in 1819 wrote:
His manners were highly pleasing, affable, and polite – those of a man accustomed to the best society. At this time, he had long retired from public performance. He was a man about five feet ten inches in height, somewhat corpulent – of very plain, or rather coarse features; and had lost many of his teeth. His voice, in speaking, was high-pitched and shrill….
[At the Liceo] the care and patient attention which he bestowed on the singers were admirable. He seemed all ears and eyes; now turning to one and now to another. Whenever he perceived the slightest inaccuracy in intonation – or change of the text by an improper appoggiatura, or otherwise – or any false expression – he stopped the whole, and made all begin again until he was satisfied. His unerring ear detected, instantly, in any single voice among all those voices, the slightest deviation from the correct reading and rendering of the music. He pointed to the delinquent, and called out, ‘Come sta!’ – ‘as it is written!’ – and, at last, all went as he desired. I never witnessed the training of a numerous body of singers so patiently and perfectly conducted. (8)
In 1825, Girolamo Crescentini moved to a teaching position in Naples. He died there on April 24, 1846, at the age of 80. By then castrati were out of fashion.
The young Italian composer, Gioachino Rossini, a sane, red-blooded genius, could find no place in his operas for sexless heroes. To him the virile personality and art of Manuel Garcia were worth a thousand male sopranos. It was Rossini’s scorn of the whole tribe that drove the castrato from the operatic stage. Henceforth the tenor was the King of Singers. (9)
A contemporary biographer wrote:
Crescentini is the last great singer that Italy produced…. Nothing could exceed the suavity of his tones, the force of his expression, the perfect taste of his ornaments, or the large style of his phrasing. (10)
Girolamo Crescentini wrote several ariettas for a soprano voice, as well as a number of chamber cantatas, airs with full orchestral accompaniments, and numerous solfeggi. You can download some of his scores from the Petrucci Music Library. Click here to listen to mezzo-soprano Marina Comparato perform Crescentini’s ariettas.
You might also enjoy:
- “The Emperor’s favourite singers were Crescentini and Madame Grassini.” Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, translated by Percy Pinkerton, Vol. 3 (London, 1896), p. 96.
- Richard Edgcumbe, Musical Reminiscences, Containing an Account of the Italian Opera in England, From 1773 Continued to the Present Time, Fourth Edition (London, 1834), pp. 45-46.
- George Grove, ed., A Dictionary of Music and Musicians (A.D. 1450-1880), Vol. 1 (London, 1879), p. 416.
- Henry Reeve, Journal of a Residence at Vienna and Berlin in the Eventful Winter 1805-6 (London, 1877), pp. 16-17.
- Claire Élisabeth de Vergennes, A Selection from the Letters of Madame de Rémusat to Her Husband and Son, From 1804 to 1813, edited by Frances Cashel Hoey and John Lillie (London, 1881), p. 196.
- Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, translated by Percy Pinkerton, Vol. 3 (London, 1896), pp. 96-97.
- Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. III, Part 5 (London, 1823), pp. 276-278.
- F. Graham, “The Singer Crescentini,” The Athenaeum Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts for the Year 1846, No. 979 (London, August 1, 1846), pp. 795-796.
- Francis Rogers, “The Male Soprano,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 3 (July 1919), p. 422.
- J. Fétis, Biographie Universelle des Musiciens et Bibliographie Générale de la Musique, Vol. 3 (Brussels, 1836), p. 216.
It was some time before I could get over a sort of repulsive dislike to the man, but by shutting my eyes and listening to the exquisite tones he uttered, I was highly gratified.