The Castrati (Part 1): Origin of the Castrati

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This article is part one in a six part series on the rise and decline of the castrati in Western music. The six sections are:

Origin of the Castrati
Castrati in Opera
The Castrati Advantage
The Castrati Effect
Decline of the Castrati
Modern Mythology and Unseen Influence

Castration and Christianity

2432281 f260 The Castrati (Part 1): Origin of the Castrati

The first castrati in Europe sang in church choirs in Italy and were viewed much the same as celibate monks.

Human castration for religious, medical, punitive, or enslavement purposes dates back well before written record and is known to have been practiced particularly in the Orient. The New Testament seems to encourage castration for religious monasticism,[1] a practice that was sometimes performed in the early Byzantine and Coptic Christian churches. It is to these traditions that the first castrations for vocal purposes have been traced. With instrumental and female participation strictly forbidden in their religious ceremonies,[2] high-voiced males were an integral part of Eastern Christian liturgical practice.[3]

In Western Europe, official sources claim that exclusively boys and falsettists were used for the treble parts of liturgical music up until the middle of the 14th century, though other evidence suggests the limited existence of castrated male singers even earlier.[4] Indeed the first records that clearly recognize castrati being admitted to sing in chapel choirs in the 1550s seem so casual about the event as to suggest that they had become somewhat typical by then.[5] The first openly castrated singers were enthusiastically admitted to the Vatican chapel by Pope Clement XIII in 1599 and by 1625 had completely replaced the soprano falsettists. Taking their example from Rome, the other major Italian chapels quickly sought out and admitted castrati among their ranks and their use openly spread throughout the first half of the century.

Papal response to the growing phenomenon was mixed and contradictory. Early on Gregory XIV (1590-1591) and Clement VIII (1592-1605) officially authorized castration “ad honorem Dei,”[6] but late into the 17th century Innocent XI (1676-1689) sent contradictory decrees: encouraging castrati dominance by outlawing women from the operatic stage in the papal states, but discouraging their legitimacy by denying them the right to marry. During that century, castration for musical purposes was never condemned by Papal decree (though it was by traditional Roman law), and its legitimacy was even argued by several theologians, claiming that the collective benefit gained by the operations outweighed the damage to the individual. Early 17th century accounts even tell of young boys requesting to be castrated in order to better serve their community or ruler.[7]

Early public sentiment in Italy towards castration was also mixed but for the most part surprisingly favorable. Rosselli observes that it is difficult for a generation of modern morals and sensibilities to understand the reasoning behind such a drastic action as castration. But, he explains, the 1600s was time of feudal government, barbaric punishments, and poor economy caused by war, plague and deindustrialization. Such a situation created a Christian ascetic movement towards celibacy, a fact he demonstrates by the great increase of men and women entering monastic orders at that time. In that era sexual fulfillment was often not considered important or even good. In castrating their son and sending him to a chapel choir, parents of humble means could assure a fairly steady living for their child, as well as prevent any additional offspring to feed. Evidence suggests that in the last half of the 14th and first half of the 15th centuries castrati were viewed much like common monks and in fact many castrati were also monks.[8]

Though many eventually traveled and lived all over Europe, the castrati were almost exclusively Italian with the large majority originating from the Papal States, Naples, Sicily, Tuscany, and Lombardy.[9] It is estimated that during the 18th century as many as 4000 boys were castrated a year.[10] Typically, a local chorus master would discover exceptional vocal talent in a young boy and convince his parents to have him castrated, usually sometime between the age of seven and puberty. The child would then be sent to one of the famous conservatories in Naples, Rome, Bologna, or elsewhere where they would receive rigorous training and performance experience. Upon graduation, young castrati most often went to sing in a church chorus, in exchange for room and board and a pension. Certain castrati went to work for noble courts rather than churches, and occasionally church-contracted castrati would be hired on to perform for a noble wedding or party. Still, even into the rise of bel canto opera castrati were trained primarily for careers as church singers and very few ever strayed far from that profession.[11]

Keep reading in the next article:  Castrati in Opera


[1] “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” Matthew 9:12, revised standard version.

[2] “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.” Timothy 2:11-12, rsv.

[3] Piotr O. Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History, trans. John A. Broadwin and Shelly L. Frisch (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1999), 272-3.

Angus Heriot, The Castrati in Opera (London: Secker and Warburg, 1956), 10.

[4] Heriot analyses the argument that the Spanish falsettists used in the Vatican chapel in the early 1500s were in fact castrati incognito (10-11). It certainly seems possible that the Orientally-influenced Spain could have nurtured such a tradition.

See also Patrick Barbier, The World of the Castrati, trans. Margaret Crosland (London: Souvenir Press, 1996), 8-9.

Rosselli also suggests that the Byzantine-connected Venice would have likely experienced castrati before this time. (John Rosselli, “The Castrati as a Professional Group and a Social Phenomenon, 1550-1850,” Acta Musicologica 60 (1988): 143-79; see 146.)

[5] Rosselli, Acta Musicologica,146.

[6] Schotlz, 276.

[7] Roselli, Acta Musicologica, 151. Roselli points out that we need not necessarily take the claims of boys pleading to be castrated at their sources’ word.

[8] Roselli, Acta Musicologica, 149-50.

[9] In a survey of forty great castrati of the 17th and 18th century, 42% came from the Papal states (Marche, Latium, Umbria, and Emilia), 22% from Naples and Sicily, 18% from Tuscany, and 18% from Lombardy. (Barbier, 22)

[10] F. Habcock, Die Kastraten und ihre Gesangkunst, (Stuttgart: Deutche Verlags-Anstalt, 1927), 238, quoted in J. S. Jenkins, “The Voice of the Castrato,” The Lancelot 351 (1998): 1877-8.

[11] Rosselli, Acta Musicologica, 161.

About Gregory Blankenbehler

With over 25 years of experience training, performing and teaching music, Gregory Blankenbehler has performed in Italy, England and France and completed a Masters of Music in Vocal Performance. From his focused studies into comparative vocal pedagogy and private teaching experience, he has become an expert on teaching effective vocal technique to singers of all ages and specializes in rehabilitating "troubled" voices and helping them to reach their full potential. Gregory maintains a large studio of voice and piano students in the Sacramento, California area where he also performs regularly and teaches community music classes for adults and children.