The Castrati

Centuries ago in Europe, boys became permanent choir singers by castration

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My sixth grade teacher picked me to sing a solo of “O Danny Boy,” his favorite Irish ditty. He must have liked my voice. Maybe he figured I had the Italian genes of soloists like Frank Sinatra or Perry Como. At eleven years old, my voice had not yet “broken.”

Boys in the class mocked me as the teacher’s pet, no doubt, but his request left me no choice. I stood by my desk, cleared my throat, and sang without accompaniment. The class was no longer squirming, but silently awestruck ― eyes and mouths wide open in wonderment. After I finished, not a sound could be heard, and then: a spontaneous loud and long applause. Meanwhile, Mr. Morse had me take a bow as he furtively wiped his tears. My mother, who also sang like an angel at her domestic chores, had to dry her eyes when I described the wonder of what happened to me that day.

Mr. Morse was infatuated with my singing voice. What is it about the treble of a boy soprano that appeals so strongly? Some say it conveys virtue, though there is no easy explanation why.

Boy choirs are a Western cultural tradition that goes back to at least 1498. The Church typically barred women from public performance in a gender-mixed context, so boys contributed the treble sound to choir music. Among an extensive list, the best known boy choir is the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

Boy choirs have seen decline because of early sexual maturity. The age of puberty onset has sunk, so choirs can no longer expect to keep a majority of their singers through the age of 16 or 17. These days, boys’ voices break, on average, by the age of 13.5. This leads to a greater turnover rate that limits the complexity of a choir’s musical repertoire. Recent research indicates childhood obesity and endocrine disrupters in food supplies are causing early onset pubescence.

Centuries ago in Europe, boys had the option of becoming permanent choir singers by castration. If done before puberty, it produced angelic voices with a powerful range higher than that of uncastrated adult males. States officially prohibited castration, but, lured by fabulous fame and fortune if their sons became international celebrities, impoverished parents had their many excuses for castration, blaming an accident, a medical necessity, and so on.

The training of these boys was as rigorous as a military academy. A demanding daily schedule ensured that, if sufficiently talented, one would debut with perfect technique and a vocal range no woman or ordinary male singer could match. The last Sistine castrato to survive was Alessandro Moreschi, who died in 1922 at age 63 and left behind valuable solo recordings.

At the height of boy choirs’ popularity, upwards of 4,000 boys each year were secretly mutilated in service to the musical arts. The Church condoned the practice. The Castrati endured a great deal of scurrilous abuse, for, as their fame and fortune increased, so did hatred and envy of them. Upper society often castigated them as maleficent creatures that incited homosexuality. As early as 1748, Pope Benedict XIV tried to ban Castrati from the churches. But their popularity worked against him.

Prepubescent castration for Italian opera rapidly declined in the late 1700s and was made illegal in the Papal States, the last to prohibit them, in 1870. The official end to the Castrati came on St. Cecilia’s Day, 22 November 1903, when a new pope, Pius X, signed a papal decree. It took 400 years for the Church to renounce its part in the practice.

 

Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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