Music to Soothe the Mad King

Jacopo Amigoni: Portrait of the Soprano Carlo Broschi,
known as Il Farinelli (1752)

King Philip V ruled Spain from 1 November 1700 until his son Ferdinand VI eventually succeeded him in 1746. Historians have not been kind to his legacy, suggesting that he only marginally advanced the government of his predecessors and that he was more of a liability to affairs of the state. That’s rather kindly putting it, as under his reign, Spain had to declare bankruptcy in 1739. Philip, it seems, was afflicted by fits of manic depression and increasingly fell victim to a deep melancholy. He would refuse to get properly dressed, did not shave and could not be bothered to conduct State business. Clearly, his second wife Elizabeth Farnese was thoroughly in charge. Numerous remedies and cures had been unsuccessfully tried, until doctor Giuseppe Cervi, believing in the efficacy of music therapy, suggested that music might have a soothing influence. On 25 August 1737, the court engaged the celebrated Italian castrato Farinelli who was duly named chamber musician to the king.

King Philip V

According to lore, it was arranged that Farinelli should sing in a room adjacent to the royal apartments. By the time he had finished the second song, the king appeared much moved by the beauty of his voice and ordered the singer brought before him. Philip overwhelmed Farinelli with compliments and agreed to pay him a salary for life. Farinelli would sing eight or nine arias for the king and queen every night, usually with a trio of musicians. He also sang for other members of the royal family and organized private performance by professional musicians in the royal palaces. In 1738 he even arranged for an entire Italian opera company to visit Madrid, bringing opera seria to the Spanish capital. Farinelli remained in King Philip’s service for the better part of ten years, apparently singing the same songs every evening. When Philip’s son Ferdinand VI took over the reigns, Farinelli retained his position as the son had also inherited the infirmity of his father.

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