The castrati - they were male singers with the power of
a man’s body but with a boy’s voice. The era of the
castrati was indeed a sad one. Who were they? The
answer has to do with a shocking practice-mutilation
in the name of religion.
Singing has played an important role in Eastern
Orthodox and Roman Catholic liturgy, the mainstay of
a church choir being boy sopranos. A boy’s voice,
though, breaks in his early teens. How could the
church overcome the constant change in personnel
and the training it entailed? True, a somewhat
colorless higher range of voice known as falsetto was
often employed, but this was not an acceptable
replacement for the boy soprano.
In 1588, Pope Sixtus V banned women from singing on
stage in any public theater or opera house. This ban
was reiterated by Pope Innocent XI about 100 yearsReference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/christianity/41565-the-castrated-choir-boys.html
later. "The disapproval of female theatrical performers
and the coupling of their name with that of prostitution
and licentiousness was an ancient tradition, going
back to the days of St Augustine and even earlier,"
observes researcher Angus Heriot. By taking this
inflexible stand, however, the church opened up the
way to another, more serious problem-castrati!
Castrati rapidly gained popularity. Pope Clement VIII
(1592-1605), for example, was greatly impressed with
the flexibility and sweetness of their voices. Even
though anyone known to have connection with the act
of castration was supposed to have been
excommunicated, a steady influx of young boys
became available as the musical needs of the church
Shops were said to advertise, "Qui si castrono ragazzi
(Boys are castrated here)." One barbershop in Rome
proudly proclaimed: "Singers castrated here for the
papal chapel choirs." It is claimed that during the 18th
century, some 4,000 Italian boys may have been
castrated for this purpose. How many died in theReference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/showthread.php?t=41565
process is not known.
Pope Benedict XIV himself referred back to the Council
of Nicaea’s decision and acknowledged that castration
was unlawful. But in 1748 he firmly rejected a
suggestion from his own bishops that castrati be
banned, for he feared that churches would become
empty if he did. Such was the appeal and importance
of church music. So castrati choristers continued to
sing in Italian church choirs, in St. Peter’s, and in the
pope’s own Sistine Chapel.