Artistic Sinecure – Castrato Farinelli & Philip V of Spain, from Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden II:II:4

“Chamber Musician” appears in the middle part of the second part of Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden. Although written, on Bowen Island, BC, in 2009 and 2010, its origin is earlier. In January, 2006, when reading the Durants’ 1967 Rousseau and Revolution, I came across this recounting of an interesting story of Farinelli, one of the most famous and financially successful of castrati, sought after by composers as knowledgeable of stage presence and vocal expertise as Handel:

But when the next evening came, [King Philip V of Spain] called for Farinelli [1705-1782], and begged him to sing those same two songs again; only so could he be calmed to sleep. So it continued, night after night, for ten years. Farinelli was paid 200,000 reales a year, but was not allowed to sing except at the court. He accepted the condition gracefully, and though his power over the King was greater than that of any minister, he never abused it, always used it for good; he remained untouched by venality, and won the admiration of all. (pp. 278-9)

Farinelli, Poetry, Hendrik Slegtenhorst, Music, Metastasio

Farinelli, wearing la Croce di Calatrava (Courtesy: Mario Valente e Comitato per le Celebrazione di Pietro Metastasio)

Chamber Musician

Castrato Farinelli sings to the monarch,
Catches her Spanish attention with lurid ornamentation
On the words of Metastasio, while her husband
Accompanies on the harpsichord in the style of Scarlatti.
Farinelli consummates the aria, and taking up
His viola d’amore to play with the king,
Carefully strokes his Order of Calatrava, and stands
In his place by the portrait by Velásquez,
Diamonds on his long supple fingers,
His royalty befriended by the sway of his voice.

The military Order of Calatrava originated in Castile in the 12th century. Books on the subject describe it as “the oldest military religious order of Hispanic origin.” In the 15th century the Order came to represent an honourary association of Spanish nobility.

Many correlations of the poem’s subject matter occur in the text of Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden. The poem “Spem reduxit” refers to the Order of Good Cheer founded by Samuel de Champlain; Masonic inferences appear in “Finale in Several Parts;” and, poems such as “Postscript to Siegfried,” “Even Nazis Can Sing,” “Largo,” and “Necrology,” amongst many others, refer to the influence of totalitarian regimes on artists and on society.

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