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Boy Choir Costumes: History--Castriati

Figure 1.--F

Singers with soaring, angelic voices were once the superstars of the operatic stage and performed an important role in religious services. HBC at this time has incomplete information on this phenomenon. It was, however, a way of preserving the beautiful voices of boy singers. At the very origin songs in the Catholic church were interpreted by the famous "castrati". The practice dates to antiquity, but was an importanrt in Baoque music which proceeded the development of music in the modern classical era. The phenomenon appears to have been introduced by the church which, however, viewed it with ambiquity. In the modern era it was practiced for about 300 years, starting in the mid-16th century until the unification of Italy and the papacy's loss of the Papal States. The role of women in the church, including song was restricted by the result of apostle Paul's epistle "Mulier taceat in ecclesia" (women silent in church). The castrati were embraced by Italian opera which during the Baroque era swept Europe. Then came the year 1498 story of Maximilien I replacing the castrati by singing boys.


The castrati were male singer castrated before puberty to allow development of a powerful voice in soprano or contralto range.Castrati is the plural form of castrato, Italian for "castrated," or "one who is castrated," and yes it is true that if a boy is castrated before puberty his voice will always remain high-pitched. For better or for worse, it's also true that the singers known as castrati played a central role in the development of opera, and by extension, in the history of Western music. The practice dates from antiquity. Such singers were employed in Italian churches in the 17th and 18th centuries and became prominent in Italian operas--Handel's for instance being written for their participation. It was a way of preserving the beautiful voices of boy singers. At the very origin songs in the Catholic church were interpreted by the famous "castrati".


The tradition of castrated male singers dates to antiquity. Our information on the practice in antiquity is very limited. It appears to have been more of an Eastern traditiion, but was not unknown in the West. There were choirs of castrated singers in aincient Assyria and Babylonia. Devotees of the goddesses Diana and Astarte and some candidates for the priesthood of Cybele emasculated themselves. The practice was also know in Rome. In Roman times special surgical instruments were employed.

Early Christian History

HBC at this tme has no information on when the castatri were first used in church or other European music. The role of women in the church, including song was restricted by the result of apostle Paul's epistle "Mulier taceat in ecclesia" (women silent in church). Two key biblical passages set the role of women in the early church. "Let your women keep silence in the churches," (I Corinthians 14:34), and "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over men, but to be in silence." (I Timothy 2:11-12). The current thinking is that St. Paul appreciated the contributions of women to the early church, but that he believed women should not take part in theological discussions or teach men. The Church's interpretation of these passages, however, was strict. Women were not allowed to speak or sing in church. The Church also forbade women to participate in theatricals.

Monestaries after the fall of the Roman Empire openened schools at an early period in its development to train choristers. Later the great cathedrals continued this tradition. They did not utilize castrated singers. In the Middle Ages, the lack of female voices in the relatively simple church music such as the Gregorian chant, was not a problem. Young boys' voices had difficulty, though, with the complex polyphony that was being written in the late 1500s as the Baroque era approached by the contrapuntalists in the Netherlands. Either their voices were not strong enough to maintain the part, or by the time they had gained the musicianship required to execute the music, their voices were changing.

Modern Origins

The practice of castration for musical purposes appears to have been peculiar to Italy, and to some extent Germany, and documents show that castrati were regularly employed as chapel singers in those two countries as early as the 1500s. The Catholic Church had for centuries banned women from singing during services, and had depended on boy sopranos or "falsettists" - men singing with falsetto voices - to sing high vocal parts.

Baroque Music

This music of the castrati was an important element of baroque music. Some music experts view baroque music as an awkward in-between stage between meieval and the classical era of western music--an when all the rules get broken, nothing ever seems to fit, and emotions fluctuate wildly. This is a good description of Baroque music. The Renaissance preceeding the Baroque era was a "re-birth" of good art and music and the Classical era was that birth coming into its maturity. The Baroque era is generally seen as beginning with the 15th century (about 1600). The Baroque Era extened until the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, the great Baroque master who died in 1750. The three pillars of Baroque music were Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel. This has inspired a debate over "authenticity". The works of these composers and others (Gluck and Mozart) included parts written for castrati. They wrote these parts because women were not allowed to perform at the time. Pope Sixtus V formally banned women from performing in public. These parts can not be performed as written by modern singers. The 1995 French/Belgium film Farinelli dealt specifically with one of the great castrato singers of Baroque Italian opera

There were several major factors in the development of Baroque music. Several factors led to the deluge of money and attention that was poured onto the musicians and artists of the day. It is important to remember that the style of Baroque music spread from the simple idea of ornamenting the vocal lines of the castriati singers to show off their dynamic range and abilities. The Catholic Church played an imprtant role in introducing the castrati to western music. As religious music became more complex and demanding, the advantage of castrati was that they could sing naturally in the range of a boy soprano with the power and stamina of a man.

Modern Castriati

Beginning in the mid-16th century and lasting for about 300 years, the musical phenomenon of the castrati took Europe by storm. This 'craze' for male soprano singers who had been castrated before puberty in order to preserve their high voices originated in Italy. It also coincided with the development and rise in popularity of opera, where the castrati were often featured performers. Composers, including Handel and Mozart, wrote music specifically for the unique voices of the castrati. Certain singers achieved international recognition for their talents, and had a popularity rivalling modern-day rock stars. Their fame was often so great that audiences were driven into frenzies of adoration at their appearance, and European monarchs and nobles fought to attract prominent singers to their courts as far away as Moscow and London. The castrati also had their detractors, however, and were sometimes ridiculed in print and in satirical cartoons. Although opinions could be either positive or negative, the phenomenon of the castrati was such that they could not be ignored.

Many of the facts surrounding the rise and development of the castrati remain a mystery. Castration itself was by no means a new practice, having been performed in many cultures and for many reasons throughout history. For example it was often used to punish rapists and other criminals, and it was thought in Europe that castration could cure certain afflictions such as leprosy, gout, and madness.

Medieval doctors had known that if boys were castrated before puberty, none of the traditional biological changes of puberty would occur. Specifically, their voices would not change. The link between castration and music, however, did not begin until the 16th century in Spain. The Papal choir in Rome officially admitted its first two castrati, Pietro Folignati and Girolamo Rosini, although the choir probably had undeclared castrati in its ranks before this date (1599). Pope Clement VIII was so enamoured of the vocal style that he eventually replaced all the traditional Spanish falsettos (male singers with naturally high voices) with castrati. When Roman audiences first heard the voices of these unique singers, they were equally enthusiastic. Society within the Papal States, and throughout Italy, was extremely hierarchical, and this ranking extended even to singers and their vocal range. The soprano voice, because it was the highest of the vocal classifications, was associated with all the benefits of youth and was, therefore, held in the highest regard by the public. This ensured that the castrati, whose artificially-created high voices and years of professional vocal training gave them greater skill as singers, had pre-eminence with Italian audiences.

Precise records do not exist. Modern scholars believe that at the peak of the popularity of the castrati that up to 4,000 boys may have been castrated annually. [Scammell] Ofcourse not all became great singers. Some died from the operation. Others did not develop exceptional musical talent. Catration of course did not create talent, but did change the register of an individual.

The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation

The 17th Century was an era of conflict between established Catholic and new protestant churches, each side vying to attract adherents. One of the areas of competition was music. Ruling houses and the church spent large sums on musicians and church-concerts. Each side sought to demonstrate that they were the best and only church to buy salvation from.

New Wealth

The wealth of new colonial empires flowed into Europe. Europeans wanted to drive in their expensive carriages and wear expensive clothes and be waited on by servants. The Opera House was the place to be seen in the 17th Century. It was a fad of sorts, the fashionable place to see and be seen and enjoy music.


The ruling houses of europe wanted to be seen as cultutred and refined. They heavily taxed the middle class and peasantry. Ruling families desired to appear cultured and refined. Music became a symbol of sophistication and taste. Rulers competed as to had the most prestigious court and music was a key element of court life. If you were a composer during the Baroque era, you had to work for a Church, the Opera, or some Royal Court.

Emperor Maximilien I

Emperor Maximilien I replaced the castrati with singing boys in the choir of the Imperial chapel (1498). This was the foundation of the Vienna Boys' Choir.

The Boys

It was not uncommon for children to find themselves forced to join religious orders, as this would ease the financial burden on a large family. Sometimes poor parents with a son who could sing well would have that child castrated to insure his fortune in life as well as a comfortable old age for themselves. The lavish lifestyles and at times excessive behaviour of the castrati were a contrast to their often poor origins. The impoverished backgrounds from which many castrati were drawn says much about why parents might have agreed to the castration of their sons before puberty to preserve their voices. The age at which the actual catration occurred varied. The surgery was often performed on boys as they were nearing puberty and not only extremely young boys. Commonly the operation was performed on boys aged between eight and 12. Almost always the boys were from poor families. Such Parents thought that castration might not only benefit them, but be a way out of cycle of poverty for the child. [Scammell]

If a boy showed an unusual degree of musical aptitude within the order, castration and further musical training was always an option, and had the potential of dramatically improving a family's economic situation if their son happened to become a successful singer. Also adding impetus to the growth of the castrati as a group was the Papal edict, issued under Innocent XI and continued by some of his successors, forbidding women to appear on the stage within the Papal States. The Church was generally ambivalent to the presence of castrati, however Clement VIII eventually authorised castration only ad gloriam Dei, 'for the Glory of God'. In spite of the fact that castrati were being welcomed to sing in religious settings, people known to castrate children were excommunicated. Still, the promise of wealth to those involved with the development of this new 'commodity' was such that parents, lured by the promise of financial security to be gained from having a son as a famous singer, would not have found it difficult to locate an individual willing to perform the surgery.

Role of the Church

Poverty and the ambiguous attitude of the Catholic Church seem to be key factors in the development of castrati. While the church condemned the practice, it availed itself of the product. The use of castrati was common in the Sistine Chapel. The church was the last institution to use such singers: recordings exist of one of the Sistine Chapel's last castrati, Alessandro Moreschi, who died in 1922.


Conservatories for the education and training of the young castrati had often begun as charitable schools or orphanages for poor children. Funding at these institutiions was often lacking. With the growing popularity of the castrati, and the increased demand for singers, young boys became very valuable commodities, and cash-strapped conservatories adapted to meet the demand from across Europe for singers. There were schools established throughout Italy, but not elsewhere in Europe. There were prominent schools in Rome and Bologna, but the centre for musical education was Naples, where no less than four schools were established for the training of young musicians. Life in the conservatories closely resembled that in a religious order, with strict rules, curfew, often-meagre food and clothing, and long hours of study and musical training for both the castrati and other boys who had been taken in. In return for room, board, and education, the schools financed the upkeep of their poor charges by treating them as a sort of 'export product', furnishing sponsors with young singers for funerals, masses, processions, private concerts, and sacred plays. Very young boys, called "cherub children" were even dressed up as angels and employed to sing at the funerals of dead children, a lucrative commission at a time of high infant mortality. In spite of intensive training by the most famous singing teachers, only about 10 percent of students ever reached the top echelons where they could hope to make a reasonable living from their voices. Only about one percent ever reached the kind of international recognition and popularity enjoyed by the likes of castrati such as Farinelli, Matteuccio, or Caffarelli. Others, who had reasonable voices but did not succeed on the stage, had to be content with singing in church choirs, a vocation for which they had been principally trained. Even theatre singers would often sing in church choirs to supplement their incomes between opera seasons. The most unfortunate, those who had been castrated but whose voices had failed to improve with training, were left either to try and sing lower parts or, failing that, to try to take up a musical instrument. The students who ran away from the conservatory (a practise which was not uncommon) were left to fend for themselves as best as they could as they would not be readmitted.


The most promising young singers began their careers at a very young age, often debuting in a church venue before trying their luck at a stage career. The success of opera, especially in its birthplace, Italy, and the popularity and financial success of castrati performing there made the stage the ultimate goal of most singers. The popular opera seria, or opera dealing with classical tragedies and other grand and dramatic themes, was created in Italy in large by and for the castrati themselves to showcase their talent, much to the delight of audiences. Opera, in its early years, relied exclusively on wealthy patrons, as operas were expensive to produce. It wasn't long, however, before the day-to-day running of the opera house was turned over to an impresario, or manager, and the doors were opened to the general public in the hopes of making the entertainment a profitable one. That profits must have been fast in coming is evident in the number of opera houses and theatres constructed during the 17th century,

The Sound

They performed in the theater at a time when women were not permitted to do so. The men could also sing better than women in many ways. These castrati (castrated singers) had the high beautiful voices of women, and the strong powerful lungs and chest muscles of men. Composers began to write music that could demonstrate these singer�s remarkable abilities. To Baroque composers, better music simply meant more difficult, with very elaborate, ornamental melody lines. The music of the high Baroque era was elaborate, tailored to the demands of the prima donnas and the castrati. The harmonies and melodies became simpler, more clear-cut, and the bass became static and iterated.

Henry Pleasants, in his book, The Great Singers, describes the physical results of castration: "The vocal consequences of castration went well beyond the mere perpetuation of a boyish treble. The child continued to grow, and so did his voice; or at least his physical powers to exploit the voice he already had. Under the rigid discipline to which he would now be exposed, his lung capacity and diaphragmatic support would be augmented to an extraordinary degree, enabling him to sustain the emission of breath in the projection of tone up to a minute or more, which is beyond the ability of most normal adult male and female singers. The mature castrato was a boy soprano or alto with all the physical resources of a grown man . . ."


Singers as young as twelve could be introduced in minor parts in these operas, and older newcomers were frequently used in female roles until their reputation had been established, when they would take the best roles of the heroes. Word of an exceptional voice would spread like wildfire, and opera houses vied with each other to offer the greatest singers the choicest roles in their productions. As demand increased, so too did the salaries that a castrato could charge for his services. Contemporaries were shocked at the rapid rise in the salaries of castrati. In 1739, for example, Cafferelli, one of the most famous of the castrati, was paid 2,263 ducats for the opera season, while the composer of the opera, Nicolas Porpora, was paid a mere 200 ducats and the copyist received only 8 ducats for the entire season. However, because the fame of the singer was vital to an opera house's success, impresarios had no choice but to meet the ever-escalating demands, often by cutting corners in other areas of the opera, such as the number of extras. The demand for money was not mere vanity, however, as opera seasons were usually short, and singers were often uncertain of revenue in the months when there were no operas being performed.

For their part, the great castrati behaved very much like the rock stars of today, complete with individual moods and quirks that could easily reduce a hassled impresario to exasperation. One of the most notorious was the castrato Marchesi who insisted that his first appearance on stage, no matter which opera he happened to be performing, had to consist of himself at the top of a hill, carrying a lance and wearing a helmet adorned with red and white feathers. He also had to open every opera with the line "Where am I?" followed by a trumpet fanfare, after which he would sing an aria which was perfectly suited to show off his voice as he marched slowly down to the footlights to meet his adoring audience. Caffarelli would often leave between two halves of an aria to converse with ladies in their boxes, but would just as frequently insult his audience, the impresarios, and other singers, sometimes refusing to sing with his partners. It was not uncommon, if two singers were appearing on the stage, for them to deride each other's techniques during their arias, talk to members of the audience, take snuff, or walk off the stage altogether. If two well-known castrati were performing in the same opera, an impresario had to ensure that they were both equally represented in terms of the number of arias each sang, the character they represented, and even their placement on the stage. Although not all castrati behaved in such a manner, and indeed fast friendships were often formed between the castrati, the archetype was well enough established that it was attacked in public satires. In spite of the popularity of exotic settings for operas, the sets and costumes often made little attempt at historical accuracy, as many castrati refused to wear garments which they felt unflattering. The audience appears not to have minded, although one contemporary recorded seeing an opera wherein an extremely fashionable Julius Caesar was stabbed "shod in elegant ox-tongue shoes with blood-red heels and paste buckles, silk stockings with flowers embroidered in colours up the sides, olive-green knee-breeches with emerald fastenings, and an incipient rain of ringlets falling all about his face."

It was the castrato's voice, however, that sent audiences into raptures and made the tantrums and strange behaviour tolerable. One of the most popular demonstrations of a singer's virtuosity was the vocal 'duel' between the castrato and a wind instrument, in which the instrument would play a long and complicated phrase to be mimicked back exactly by the singer, or embellished even further. Composers sought to demonstrate the power and range of the castrati by composing more and more challenging compositions, on top of which the singer would often invent as many ornamentations as he could dream up. Occasionally these highly-ornamented interludes were so long that the conductor of the orchestra could take a leisurely pinch of snuff before picking up the melody of the original song again. As opera developed, the use of such elaborate and complex music was moderated as the public's fancy swayed more towards a more natural style.

End of an Era

The triumph of the castrati was relatively short-lived. Just as all fashions inevitably alter, new developments in opera and in public taste signalled the gradual decline in the use of the castrati beginning in the second half of the 18th century at the ens of the Baroque era. The French, who had never been overly keen on the voices and mannerisms of the castrati, or Italian opera in general, were at the forefront of the opposition. French philosophes, among them Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, saw the practice of castration as an "offence against nature", unbecoming in a supposedly modern and enlightened society. They stressed the rights of every man and, in so doing, undermined the practise of castration. Although they often exaggerated the threat posed by castration (overstating the number of boys who underwent the operation and stating that Italy was in danger of having its entire population die out), the attacks by the French raised awareness of the moral issues involved in castration for musical purposes. From 1744 to 1790 the Neapolitan Conservatories had either been closed down or were in severe financial trouble because of administrative mismanagement and growing inadequacy of the musical instructors. By 1790 the Pope had revoked the ban on women performing on stage, and opened the doors to increased competition for the coveted soprano roles. Audiences who had once had a taste for the castrato voice now turned their favour to female singers and tenor voices. The development of comic and romantic opera around this period also dealt a serious blow to the pre-eminence of the castrati, as they did not have a place in the new genres of opera and the opera seria of which they had been a mainstay was becoming less and less of a draw to audiences.

The prastice of castrting young boys declined in the 19th century, but did not finally end until the unification of Italy (1860). When the Italian forces finally defeated thePapal forces and occupied the Papal States, the practice ended. The pope at the time retreated to the Vatican and did not emerge until the 1920s when a Concordat was signed with Fascist Italy. While castration ended, the already castrated singers continued to sing for several decadeds.

The castrati by the 19th century had virtually disappeared from the operatic scene, the musical tradition did not immediately disappear in the conservative church. Until 1878 castrated soprano singers were used instead of females in many churches (and operas) of Italy and even in the Papal choir at Rome. One author reports that emasculated men "driven long ago from the stage by public opinion remained the musical glory and the moral shame of the Papal choir till the accession of Pope Leo XIII". But even in the church, public attitudes finally were felt. The practice was completely banned in the Papal States in 1870, with the last surviving castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, having undergone the surgery around 1865. From thereafter, the practice was universally condemned and was gradually forgotten until the present day when the subject has once again inspired public interest. Even so, in the year 1900 there were still 16 castrati singing in the churches, including in the Sistine Chapel Choir. In 1903 Pope Pius X formally banned adult male sopranos from the Vatican. A recording exists of a castrato singing, Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato, made in 1902. It is the only known recording of a catrato.

Impact on Italian Coral Music

HBC notes that today in Italy, unlike most of western Europe there are know Italian boy choirs. Nor does there appear to be an historical boy choir traditiion as is the case of other western European countries like England, France, and Germany. Perhaps the powerful impact of the castrati on the Itlanian music tadition during the Baroque era is part of the reason for the absence of Ilalian boy choirs.


Scammell, Elsa.


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Created: October 28, 2000
Last updated: 2:56 AM 11/23/2012